Thursday, January 29, 2009

Spirits Rejoice

My wife and I each had "change jars" before we met, a jar to collect random change and a place to go when you need a couple of quarters for the laundry.  I imagine that most folks have something similar.  After we started shacking up together, we of course merged our jars.  At that point both of our jars represented years and years of collected pennies, nickels, and dimes.  Quarters were notably absent; in fact, the only quarters to be found were Canadian quarters, which often do work for routine American transactions, but of course won't work at the laundromat where the machines are more observant than the average American.  

Anyway, for my birthday in fall 2005 we decided to take the jar to the bank, have them run it through their sorting machine, and spend the money on something fun for my birthday.  Of course "something fun" was "music" to my ears!   To my surprise, all that change actually tallied up to more than $100.  I'd been salivating over the newly released Albert Ayler box set, "Holy Ghost," forcing the folks at Borders to take it from behind their locked glass cabinet on multiple occasions (like most things in Madison, the Borders was much better than they are in other areas, and actually carried a pretty diverse selection of music).  With my 100 dollars from my "piggy bank" I marched in there and asked them to open up that glass cabinet for the last time.  I went home with 10-discs, a book, and the rest of that beautifully packaged box set.

The "Holy Ghost" box set gave me enough Ayler to digest for many months, carrying me through the fall of 2005 and into the late spring of 2006. My five-disc CD player was full of these discs during this time period.  However, I'm not going to review the box set right now.  Since it spans Albert's entire career, and a lot of it is inferior in sound quality to the other releases, it makes the most sense to review it after I have gone through everything else in my collection.

After a cross-country move for a new job, which included the purchase of a house, the "money was not strong enough" (to quote Albert) to continue my Ayler exploration in the same manner as I had in Madison. Although I am not a fan of purchasing MP3 files, because I like the packaging and extra information you get with a CD or vinyl record and I certainly would prefer to have my music in the best fidelity possible, at about this time I saw that emusic carried several Ayler albums, including three that I had not yet heard. At that time emusic was offering 50 free downloads just to join (I think they have now reduced it to 25), and amazingly they allowed you to quit after your free downloads without ever paying anything. Although this seemed really strange and I still feel a little guilty for doing it, it was a way for me listen to these albums that I certainly could not afford at this point in my life.  As the money becomes "stronger" I hope to replace these digital files with the CD release (or track down the vinyl, but most Ayler on vinyl is incredibly pricey).  The first download I listened to was "Spirits Rejoice."

Albert Ayler, Spirits Rejoice
ESP, 1965 (Remastered CD 2006)
Albert Ayler:  tenor saxophone
Don Ayler: trumpet 
Charles Tyler: alto saxophone
Henry Grimes:  bass
Gary Peacock:  bass
Sunny Murray:  drums
Call Cobbs:  harpsichord

"Spirits rejoice" was recorded on September 23, 1965 at Judson Hall in New York. However, it was not a concert recording; instead Judson Hall was rented for this session because of the apparently good or at least interesting acoustics (as discussed by Bernard Stollman in the audio file embedded at the end of this post).  I have to admit, I am not that impressed with the sound quality on the album, although as noted by Bernard it was apparently recorded at twice the usual speed to obtain very high fidelty.  I don't know whether my slight disappointment  with the sound quality is due to the MP3 format, the quality of the particular release that I have, or my own ears.  The album was apparently remastered for the 2006 ESP release, and I have read that the sound quality is quite good on this.  Although the album is relatively similar to "Bells" in feel, not surprising given it was recorded 4 months later and with a very similar group, including Charles Tyler on alto saxophone. However, here Henry Grimes is playing wonderfully free bass and Call Cobbs is featured on harpsicord on the majestic "Angels."  The contributions of these musicians clearly provide a developmental linkage between "Bells" to Albert's 1966 and 1967 work.

The album starts off with the aptly titled title track, which includes some really high-energy and ecstatic free improvisation.  The second track is Holy Family, a short piece with a fast and catchy melody, and this is a pretty straight performance.  In fact, you could play this track for your less Aylery friends and they probably would only raise one eyebrow.  D.C. is a rather chaotic number that jumps pretty quickly into some earth-shattering improvisation; however, late in the piece there is also an imaginative interchange between Murray and Grimes that lasts for about a minute and a half, which serves to dissipate some of the energy before the theme is restated and the piece comes to an end.  This latter segment, with Murray and Grimes engaged in some unconventional talking to each other, has become a real highlight for me on repeated listens.  "Angels" is beautiful, as it is on "Live in Greenwich Village" although the harpsichord is pretty far back in the mix on this album so I find myself cranking the volume way up to really appreciate the track (I'd be interested to hear more about the new ESP remastering of this and whether the harpsichord is brought forward).  The album concludes with a vibrant and screeching rendition of "Prophet."  All in all, this is stuff that will really piss off the neighbors - but for those of us with the acquired ears this is as joyous as music gets.

Below, listen to Bernard Stollman talk about the session.  This clip is from a longer segment focused on Albert Ayler and his music that can be listened to at ESP's web site.

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