This time round: two sax players. Albert Ayler is one of the sixties firebrands who probably is still one of the last to be understood comprehensively and whose legacy is yet to be satisfactorily defined – aided by the fact he died young in tragic circumstances, with so many disparate musical threads left dangling. Oliver Nelson went on to become a well-respected composer/arranger, but his initial recordings were made with Eric Dolphy whose explorations splintered the walls of jazz harmony without bursting through totally into free-form freakout – but who also died tragically young – again, prompting speculation of what might have been... Dolphy is also present on the, undisputed I would say, masterpiece that Nelson recorded in 1961: 'The Blues and the Abstract Truth.' A stellar lineup – Roy Haynes on drums, Bill Evans on piano, bass chair taken by Paul Chambers, George Barrow as sideman on baritone – Dolphy on flute and alto. And Nelson on tenor and alto. Every track on this album has something special about it: the one I have selected is one of the most beautiful compositions in jazz: 'Stolen Moments.' An extension of the 12 bar blues in C minor, this is a 16 bar theme with solos over 12 bar choruses. Nelson says in the sleeve notes to the original album that he wanted to 'let the musical ideas determine the form and shape of a musical composition.' This is a young composer and player who is looking to extend the range and scope of jazz right on the cusp of the upheavals that occurred in the sixties. Working from within the tradition but looking outwards, he had already made a couple of albums with Dolphy in tandem. Who was technically far ahead of Nelson. But Nelson had his own game and here he plays a rather mournful/wistful solo based on a fairly slow, simple idea which he drapes across the tight rhythm and cleverly builds as he contrasts the lower register and the higher and almost steals the show from the more accomplished musicians: Evans – at his rippling, meditative best - and the usual double-timed flamboyance of Hubbard and Dolphy on flute (who, to my ear,sounds almost Coltrane/sheets of sound-like in his solo, rather than the more angular cubist intervallic line he usually develops. Or maybe the timbre of the flute smooths out the usual Dolphey-esque kinks and jags?) Nelson also has a distinctive tone on his two horns – a wide vibrato that neatly reminds me of Albert Ayler, who had a vibrato on tenor that Joshua could have used to good and destructive effect in front of the walls of Jericho. (And the more obscure Ernie Henry who played with Monk on a couple of sessions). Solos aside, the magnificent melody is understrapped by a great arrangement – note the way the insistent trumpet phrase towards the end of the chorus is punctuated by the ensemble horns building and subsiding and the repeated phrase finally switching to sax. This is composer's jazz of the highest order and, I would suggest, a neglected masterpiece.
Ayler weighs in with the heavyweight free jazz rhythm crew of Henry Grimes and Sunny Murray, accompanied by Norman Howard on trumpet. 'Spirits' is one of those simple Ayler tunes that seem to have an almost calypso-ish flavour to them. One almost perfunctory chorus – then straight into the blowing. Ayler was a master of the higher range of the sax and I feel that this is what got in the way of a lot of original listeners who just could not hear what he was doing – that, and his taking the music back at times to some kind of Ur-jazz that hints at New Orleans polyphony and street marches, an emphasis on folkier roots that was far away from the slickness of bebop. Murray is super-speed rat-tat-tatting on snare (that abstracted march ambiance?) crossing this with rapid, zipping cymbal work. His conception of the new rhythms necessary to the performance of the music is fully in place by now and gives the track a jittering, speedy propulsion. Grimes is steady as you go and also contributes a nifty solo which demonstrates that he had his own take on how the bass fitted into the new music. The form is: scrabbled theme statement, some tenor/trumpet polyphony that quickly leads into an assured Ayler solo, using the full range of the horn from blatting low to squalling high – almost a fast historical synthesis/recapitulation of the way the tenor had been used in black music – the fleet runs carrying on the bebop heritage but now extended and smeared into a new expression, r and b squarks, and that big individualised tone, the individualisation of instrumental timbres being a folk technique (inherent in both european and african traditions) that was brought into twentieth century music via jazz in strict contrast to the formalised 'straight' tones of the classical tradition as known. Ayler, on his second record date, already has his trademarks in place, had obviously worked out where he wanted to go. And had just come back from Europe not long before where he had played with Cecil Taylor, interestingly enough. That vibrato of his, though not so pronounced here as it could be at times, has just reminded me of a violin and it has been suggested that he had some influence on Ornette Coleman's development of the trumpet and violin – areas of his playing that still cause controversy. (Although when I saw Ornette a while back, his violin playing was great, I thought, and fitted perfectly into his musical conception, especially playing off the two bass players in the group). Howard solos in turn, fast flurries, admittedly a bit rough round the edges and he has his critical detractors - but I like his playing here: this has the feel of a club date transposed into the studio (maybe done fast due to economics) and captures, for me, the 'new thing' still in transition where ideas are being worked out tune by tune. Gorgeously scruffy – and an interesting contrast as a piano-less quartet to Ornette's first arrival and incarnation a couple of years before. This sounds wilder and woolier...
Oliver Nelson – Stolen Momentsmp3
Albert Ayler – Spiritsmp3