Friday, April 08, 2016

CD Review: Albert Ayler - Bells/Prophecy

Albert Ayler

My favorite Albert Ayler record is Vibrations. During high school, I heard in an Ayler album in a used record shop and it got under my skin. My brother told me that if I ever wanted to appreciate and understand the wild tenor saxophonist, I should buy an album, read the liner notes and listen with an open mind. Vibrations proved to be the perfect entry way. It turned my head around and I never looked back. Ayler recorded the session in Copenhagen in 1964, adding trumpeter Don Cherry to his trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. The second horn was a fortuitous addition. Reissued by Arista-Freedom in 1975, my copy featured excellent liner notes by future Mosaic Records founder Michael Cuscuna. On top of all that, Vibrations was recorded in a decent studio.

The last observation is the important one in the case of this reissue. Many of Albert Ayler's most important albums were recorded under less than stellar conditions. Spirits Rejoice was recorded in New York's Judson Hall. A high-ceiling echoey former church, the setting buried the bass and made Call Cobbs' harpsichord sound like it was played in another room. New York Eye and Ear Control sounded as raw as the shambolic performance. An album of traditional spirituals also lost something due to poor sound.

Bells, originally issued on one side of clear vinyl, was recorded at Town Hall with similar results (though there's no harpsichord). The results were pretty lo-fi, though this edition cleans it up a bit. Ayler, his brother Donald (trumpet) and Charles Tyler (alto saxophone) come through loud and clear, while drummer Murray is heard somewhat and bassist Lewis Worrell cuts through during the quieter passages. Part of the appeal of the initial Bells release was likely due to the packaging, but if you're going for music, this set is a good bet. As Steve Holtje points out, this 1965 performance came at a time when Ayler was moving away from the compositions of the early trio towards a bigger sound based on vamps akin to a frenetic marching band.

ESP first released Prophecy in the 1970s, ironic since the 1964 performances at the Cellar Cafe predated the Ayler trio's debut for the label by a year. It's a valuable document, for one thing because it includes two discs of material, restored to its original order and correct song titles. Ayler classics like the oft-recorded "Ghosts" and the throaty, vibrato heavy "Wizard" (a fave on the Vibrations session) are here, unleashed on what was probably an unsuspecting public, who clap politely and at least seem positively intrigued by the performance.

If you're listening to get a good handle on Ayler's approach to the tenor, Prophecy delivers. Recorded by poet Paul Haines, it clearly reveals how much power Ayler unleashed every time he blew into his horn. His bottom-end growls are spectacular. His vibrato was wide, though light years away from the overstated piddly vibrato used by commercial swing bands.

But even though Peacock and Murray can be heard, it's hard to get a feel for the way the trio interacted. Peacock, who had been playing West Coast cool jazz just a few years earlier, plays some obtuse lines, but the recording leaves them floating amorphously, rather than interacting with Ayler. Murray avoids his massive crashing sounds in favor of more subtle work, which thanks to the record sounds like his spends more time on the cymbals.

That being said, Bells/Prophecy is still required listening for Ayler fanatics. These two have been paired together before in previous issues. (The second disc of Prophecy was previously released under the name Albert Smiles with Sunny. But with quality and availability of them always in question, this version is the ideal copy.

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