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The Fire That Time

Speaking in tongues, late sax avatar proves the best can be full of passionate intensity too

The last two discs of Holy Ghost, Revenant's worshipful, nine-CD Albert Ayler "spirit box," are given over to interviews, one a virtual monologue from summer 1970 during which Ayler asserts that the Beatles copied from him. I seem to recall an interview with Paul McCartney in Cavalier or some such in which he acknowledged Ayler and brother Donald's jubilation marches as a source for Sgt. Pepper, along with the music hall and hallucinogens everyone took for granted. On the other hand, this is Ayler just three months before his suicide, so deranged that he also believes Sinatra and Tom Jones are ripping him off and that the end of days is nigh.

Beginning with Ayler confronting chord changes and a doggedly steadfast Finnish rhythm section in 1962, Holy Ghost excavates much that will be new even to fetishists with home burners; to my knowledge, only a 1964 session from Denmark with Don Cherry, Gary Peacock, and Sunny Murray has been commercially issued before. In jazz from Charlie Parker on, what becomes a legend most has been a posthumous discography far in excess of his or her lifetime output. Ayler passed that threshold long ago, but Holy Ghostis immediate in a way that "historical" releases rarely are by virtue of its chronological presentation and an implied biographical narrative that restores his harmonic tremors to the context of the racial and cultural eruptions of the '60s.

Within jazz, Ayler's influence was instant (late Coltrane, Archie Shepp's tuba band, the AACM), and it's been enduring, though you have to bypass the mainstream to hear saxophonists and whole ensembles emulating his freedom of pitch. Now that the smoke of the 1960s has cleared, it's possible to hear his juxtaposition of folk-like, up-and-down themes and hair-raisingly dense improvisations as an artful synthesis of Ornette and Coltrane. For that, Ayler was finally a theme-and-variations man like Sonny Rollins, something not always readily apparent because the raw intensity of his solos often precludes close analysis. "Ghosts," Ayler's signature tune, is a calypso, and the connection to Rollins has never been clearer than on an unorthodox version ("New Ghosts") included on the Revenant box, with Bernard Purdie spreading massive drumrolls underneath Ayler's tenor and hiccup-singing. Surprisingly, this and the other demos for the New Grass album rival a 1962 date with Cecil Taylor's trio (featuring Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray) from Copenhagen television as Holy Ghost's major haul. Even though the Taylor answers a longstanding question, since Ayler's stay with him was otherwise undocumented, Ayler sounds like an interloper. I've always disliked New Grass, an attempted sellout by an outsider clueless about what the in-crowd was buying. But the demos give us similar material without the studio sugarcoating. Oh, why not just admit it?—as half-assed as this stuff is, it's irresistible.

Holy Ghost houses its share of performances that fall short of expectations, sometimes because the fidelity is subpar, sometimes because Ayler and his companions just yowl, and—as in the case of 1967 tapes from Coltrane's funeral and Newport—sometimes both. But if much of what's here is of strictly historical interest, there are also unexpected revelations. Though virtually a sideman in a Harlem encounter with Pharoah Sanders, Ayler is the one whose screams pierce the heavens. Three long sets from a Cleveland folk club and two others from Europe give us Ayler and violinist Michel Samson interacting with a freedom not evident on their official recordings together; Samson was limited to sawing as a soloist, but Ayler's crafty ensemble use of him established a role for strings in free jazz. Even if Ayler never found another drummer as swift and metrically untethered as Sunny Murray, Ronald Shannon Jackson (in Cleveland) and the unsung Alan Blairman (in France) do a good job of implying a steady beat without nailing Ayler down to one. The most miraculous performances of all—presented here with better sound than ever before—are the ones with Cherry, the only fellow horn Ayler ever worked with who was as quick-witted as he, and the only one who knew better than to try to match Ayler's fervor.

The black onyx box itself, which looks like something your granny might tuck her prayer book in, is a trove of memorabilia, with a handbill from Slug's, a condensed issue of Amiri Baraka's black-power fanzine Cricket, a Paul Haines insert from Spiritual Unity, and even a crinkled childhood photo of Ayler and a handwritten note by him on hotel stationery. A 208-page hardbound book includes a complete Ayler discography, a critical analysis by Ben Young, a biographical essay by Val Wilmer, and a reminiscence by Baraka—not as revealing as "Now and Then," a short story from 1967 in which he chastised the Ayler brothers for "trailing chicks around."

What with Vietnam surfacing as an issue in the presidential campaign, it somehow makes sense that this year's most intriguing jazz release should be from the 1960s, just as it makes sense that we're finally getting to hear Smile. But a reconsideration of Ayler seems doubly timely. I hope Ralph Reed is shocked to hear that, by wedding apocalyptic religion to a political agenda, Ayler and a handful of other black avant-gardists of the 1960s anticipated today's Christian right. The difference is that for Ayler, Jesus wasn't just Dr. Phil with stigmata, an imaginary friend with a never-ending stream of sage advice. The box tracks a hero's descent into madness. In real life, the story it tells ended with Ayler believing that the colorless birthmark that caused a patch of his goatee to grow white was the stain of Satan—and then his corpse being fished out of the East River. Holy Ghost ends with the sweetest of flashbacks: a bonus disc of Ayler soloing on stock arrangements of "Leap Frog" and "Tenderly" as a member of a U.S. Army dance band while stationed in France in 1960. He isn't himself yet. The lurching, operatic vibrato isn't there, and neither is the altissimo speaking-in-tongues. He's G.I. Joe Cool, breezy and efficient and not yet tragic.

 
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