In 1966 the great tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler toured Europe with a quintet that included his brother Donald on trumpet, blazing through a series of concerts that caught the Ayler brothers at the height of their powers. The Swiss record label Hatology has been doing a tremendous service by releasing digital remasters of some of these concerts, including Stockholm, Berlin 1966. Albert Ayler was with us a very short time — he was only 34 when he died in 1970 — and therefore any music that remains is a precious offering from one of the foremost artists of the twentieth century. As trumpeter Don Cherry once said about Ayler, "He carried the gift, the voice, a reflection of God."
According to jazz journalist John Litweiler's liner notes to Stockholm, Berlin 1966, Ayler's Berlin concert has been released previously in various forms, but the Stockholm concert (which occurred seven days later) is virtually unknown. Each concert is a complete suite, an entire musical statement and journey unto itself. The set lists include the classic Ayler compositions "Ghosts," "Bells," "Truth Is Marching In," "Omega (Is The Alpha)," and "Infinite Spirit," plus the Donald Ayler tune "Our Prayer" and Pharoah Sanders's "Japan." Some songs appear in both concerts, giving a fascinating view into how Ayler and his group (the Ayler brothers, Michel Samson on violin, William Folwell on double bass, and Beaver Harris on drums) cast each tune afresh. The two concerts form an hour of music altogether, allowing a full-bodied experience of the quintet as they explode jazz into the outer galaxies.
From the initial spine-tingling notes on the first tune, "Truth Is Marching In," the potent blast of Ayler's horn has a visceral force that enters the listener's marrow. It's clear why Ayler termed his playing "energy music": this is transcendent music, brilliant and urgent and vital. Ayler's blistering honesty is not for the faint of heart, but it's a truthfulness that's capable of transformation and cleansing, sounds that will change your DNA and drop any blinders you might be laboring under. Ayler's music is that powerful, that scalding and majestic, and it's still a stunning achievement almost fifty years later.
Ayler had a challenging life in many ways, and he died in a mystery — his body turned up in New York City's East River, and to this day no one knows if the cause of death was murder or suicide. Yet it's no surprise that Ayler's life was difficult: a person who shifts paradigms is not like the rest of us, and although some musicians and music lovers understood Ayler, the rest of the world was not quite ready for him. But times have changed, and that's partly due to Ayler himself: by fearlessly reconfiguring sound, he taught us to hear differently. Bravo to Hatology for making these concerts available in such a crisp, clear format and in such thoughtful packaging. This is crucial music, important to enter into heart and soul, even molecule by molecule. Don't miss it.
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