Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Witches and Devils

Eventually I will blog on things less Aylerific.  However, for now I am having a lot of  fun with this project, and I intend to see it through by continuing to work my way through my Ayler collection in the order that I first heard the albums.  Perhaps a more logical approach would have been to review them chronologically, but I don't relate to this body of work in that way and this blog is not meant to be an academic account of these matters, but instead a tool for me to explore my own relationships to this and other music and art.  And besides, we wouldn't want too much structure!  Although I hope that my reviews and thoughts will trigger some people to check this music out, either for the first time or to revisit it with open ears and mind, the primary goal of this blog is personal exploration.  

For each album that I have reviewed so far, I have re-listened to it at least 3 or 4 times.  I have purposely not reacquainted myself with the history of the recording or read any reviews (including re-reading the linear notes of the albums themselves) for the first couple passes through the album.  After that, I have read the readily available reviews, as well as the linear notes of the albums (if available), and then listened to the album a couple more times.  This has been a fantastic experience, forcing me to really "listen" to these recordings - truly feeling them and occupying the space within them.  In addition, writing about these albums has served as an impetus to really grapple with the context and history behind each recording, as well as the personal context and history of my initial and ongoing discovery of this music. 

Like "Bells / Prophecy" I picked up the next album somewhere on State Street in Madison, although it escapes me which particular music shop.  I really liked that town and I miss the culture and intellectual environment - and particularly the great music.  I do remember that I bought this album on a warm day in early fall 2005, and we had a good friend that I had not seen for several years visiting us for the weekend.  After lunch and a few beers on state street, we stopped at the record shop and "Witches and Devils" was on the shelf.  Later that evening, I tried to convince my friend of the virtues of this music.  I don't know if I was successful, although he did end up leaving town with a burned copy of some late-period Coltrane.  He never did tell me his thoughts on it though... of course I can only assume that words alone could not describe its transformative impact.

Albert Ayler, Witches and Devils
Freedom, 1964
Albert Ayler: Tenor saxophone
Norman Howard: Trumpet
Henry Grimes: Bass
Earle Henderson: Bass
Sunny Murray: Drums

"Witches and Devils" (versions of this album were also released as "Spirits") was recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York City on February 24, 1964 - about five months before "Spiritual Unity."  Although Sunny Murray again creates the freeform backdrop for these pieces, the rest of the band is different, with Henry Grimes playing bass on three of the four pieces and Earle Henderson playing bass on two of the pieces. The title track is the highlight of the set for me, probably because it is somewhat different stylistically from the other tracks.  It is a dark, slower paced piece full of mournful solos by Albert, featuring two basses that provide beautiful interaction with Murray's subtle and immensely imaginative drumming, and some equally mournful and heart-wrenching trumpet work by Norman Howard.  The musicians, and particularly the bassists and Murray employ plenty of space throughout, and this serves to enhance the dark feel of the piece.  The song was apparently written by Norman Howard, likely explaining its stylistic differences with the rest of the album.  His trumpet playing is the perfect compliment to Albert's playing on this piece, with his exaggerated Ayler-like vibrato enhancing the atmosphere of impending doom.  The stereo mix also adds to the enjoyment, with Sunny Murray and two bassists near center and Albert and Norman speaking from the left and right respectively. The track is truly worth the price of the album.

The rest of the album is fantastic, and it is clear that this album represents the time when things really came together for Albert, primarily because he finally found truly competent and equally visionary supporting musicians.  The final three tracks rely more on the march-like themes that Albert would continue to use as springboards for free improvisation for the next few years.  There is plenty of space and jagged upper-register reaching solos, and the solo on "Holy, Holy" (although this melody is recorded on "Spiritual Unity" as "The Wizard") ranks among the most moving that I have heard.  The album is recorded in great sound quality and is essential.  As an aside, Ayler also recorded an album of spirituals at the same session but I have yet to track this one down.  Hopefully I will pick up a copy soon.

I also really need to purchase the recently reissued "Burn Baby Burn" by Norman Howard. Listening to this album during the past few days has really turned me on to the way he attacks his solos and the deep emotion with which he plays.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your excellent comments on this beautiful music, which I am revisiting after a 16 year gap. I plan to work my way through stuff in a mixed order like yourself, as I have just gone from the Impulse stuff to Prophecy, and will go for this next. best wishes, Mark in Worcester Uk.