My first exposure to Albert Ayler's music left me supremely spooked. At around 13 I had naively purchased a used copy of "Witches And Devils" because I was looking for jazz records and there was a photo of a sax player on the cover. I didn't make it through a whole piece that first time, so frightening was the mind-set on display. Something kept me returning though, and now that record is among my favorites. It's hard to imagine anyone being as upset by Ayler's playing today, and there is a long lineage of like-minded musicians pulled along in his wake. If you've heard the contemporary players (Brotzmann, Gayle, etc) but not their genesis point, this is a great place to start.
This recording of a live concert from the Club Montmarte is a re-release of a long out-of-print disc, with new liner notes and clean sound. The quartet here is arguably Ayler's best, with Don Cherry on cornet, Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray drumming. Cherry's playing is a good foil for Ayler's sandpaper lullabies; at times he mimics the sax perfectly to great effect. His playing is more humorous and supple than that of Ayler's brother Don, who filled the brass chair later on. The unison playing is sometimes ragged, but always emotionally pertinent. There really isn't any other way to say what they're saying.
The tunes themselves are built on simple melodies ranging from joyous ("Spirits", "Children") to nagging ("Vibrations"), to preachy ("Mothers"), and the improvisations that follow each are carefully constructed. Cherry's solo on "Mothers" is a perfect example, beginning with a declaration of beauty and slowly becoming more smeared and loose. All of the instruments can be heard clearly, including Peacock's attentive and perfect bass playing, which sometimes gets buried on live documents. Murray's drumming adds counterpoint and propulsion without ever resorting to conventional jazz rhythms, and his occasional moaning/singing adds a bit of weird spookiness to the proceedings. Listen closely and you can even hear the players vocally prodding each other during solos. The set doesn't include Ayler's best-known composition "Ghosts", but it really doesn't suffer for it.
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