Tuesday, October 15, 2013

CD Reviews: Albert Ayler, Paul Bley & Burton Greene Trio on ESP

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous ESP label. They've been rereleasing more of their historical catalog, two of which are here, along with a new release. Find more info on all of them at www.espdisk.com.
Albert Ayler 
Live on the Riviera

Less than five months after this performance at the Maeght Foundation, tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler was found dead in the East River. A year earlier, he recorded Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe, arguably the most misguided of all of his attempts at more accessible music. (More tracks from the same session came out later on The Last Album.) 

This performance, from July of that year, included some pieces from both albums, though Ayler was working with a trio format similar to his earliest 1960s days.  Allen Blairman (drums) and Steve Tintweiss (bass) might not exactly be Sunny Murray and Gary Peacock, but they support the saxophonist with great understanding and empathy. After umpteen live Ayler recordings where Michel Sampson's out of tune violin saws away at the music and spoils it (see the Revenant Holy Ghost box set for many details), it's refreshing to hear Ayler in an uncluttered setting. 

His girlfriend Mary Maria (Parks) is a steady presence here too, singing on a few tracks and blowing soprano sax with the group. Her performances are an acquired taste, especially in the pieces where she sounds like she's off-mike. The spoken word passages in "Music Is the Healing Force" recall the sincere but somewhat awkward messages of the era. Ayler's duet with her on "Heart Love" sounds like something out of an experimental musical and works for that reason. But her faux-calypso delivery on "Island Harvest," complete with the ad nauseum repetition of the chorus, can be avoided. Her rabid soprano blowing on "Oh! Love of Life" sounds closer to Captain Beefheart than her man.

Ayler's performance finds him at an interesting crossroads. Tracks like "Birth of Mirth," which included overdubbed bagpipes in the studio, captures him in his wailing glory on the tenor. But the later tracks, including his famous "Ghosts" which gets applause when the theme kicks in, sound much more grounded, as if he's trying to draw on his gutbucket blues side for solo ideas. 

Tintweiss provides some enthusiastic and vivid liner notes that recall the concert and the one that followed. Apparently keyboardist Call Cobbs was supposed to be with the band and didn't make it until the next show. The bassist also seems to make reference to the infamous hidden track on Holy Ghost where Parks tried to get the band's flight bumped up, claiming an Ed Sullivan Show appearance. 

Paul Bley

It doesn't seem like Closer has been out of print since ESP revamped itself in the '00s. So this copy is not much of a surprise, but it should be mandatory listening. Accompanied by Steve Swallow (bass) and Barry Altschul (drums), Bley - a unique pianist if there ever was one - explores the equally idiosyncratic works of his then-wife Carla Bley, along with one tune each by Ornette Coleman ("Crossroads"), future wife Annette Peacock ("Cartoon") and the pianist himself ("Figfoot"). In an unusual nod to brevity (or maybe it was hope for radio airplay; who knows) all of the 10 tracks clock in under three-and-a-half minutes. No time is wasted on these strong performances. A mandatory piece of the ESP canon.

Burton Greene Trio
On Tour

Pianist Greene's second album from ESP is the type that should be heard on disc instead of on a scratchy used copy you might find online somewhere. These live performances weren't recorded very loudly and there are a lot of sections where the music could get lost in sea of surface noise. The opening "Bloom in the Commune" includes three minutes that almost digress into John Cage silence. What's actually happening is the pianist is working the inside of his instrument, which isn't clear unless the volume is cranked up. (Greene is credited with "piano harp" in addition to plain old "piano.") Steve Tintweiss is the bassist here who's strong solo in "Ascent" also requires some volume tweaks. 

These four tracks come from the New York State College Tour from April 1966, which featured Sun Ra's Arkestra (yielding ESP's Nothing Is album, and a more recent two-disc set of an entire evening), Giuseppi Logan, Patty Waters (her College Tour album) and Ran Blake. While Greene's self-titled ESP debut benefited from the addition of Marion Brown's tart alto, this trio produced an impressible and rather varied set. After the rollicking freedom of the first two songs mentioned above, "Tree Theme" maintains a steady pulse as Greene and Tintweiss solo simultaneously.  Eventually the piece moves into a free section that reveals how these players can be delicate when they desired. "Transcendence" runs from pensive to thunderous with some more soft harp plinks from the leader.

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