It was a nice day, the sun has been shining and I've been listening to Albert Ayler who always lifts my spirits. So – fire musics again. Two tracks from the treasure trove of Ayler recordings that is the Revenant set. First – a long shootout with Cecil Taylor's quartet: 'Four,' followed by another quartet – Gary Peacock, Sunny Murray and Don Cherry – and a shorter piece, 'Spirits Rejoice.'
The first is a rarity – it was known that Ayler had played with Cecil in Denmark when he was there at the same time in the early sixties – but as far as I know this is the only recording that exists -and it didn't surface until this box set was collated. So it is interesting to hear Ayler's apocalyptic pentacostal squark alongside Cecil's pianistic storm waves. It starts out quietly enough with piano and drums (somewhat muffled). By now, Murray was deep into the process of assimilating the new rhythms that Cecil's music demanded – there's a fascinating interview with the drummer here where he discusses this and many other issues that help to put this session in a historical perspective. The first section builds and builds until they are joined by Jimmy Lyons – fleet avant-bebop from the days when this long-time collaborator of Taylor's was still finding his way through the complex alternatives being thrown out. The balance seems to change – or Murray gets louder as the drums become more emphatic – a fascinating three way going on here. One thing that Taylor always did was lead from the keyboard – he never seemed to fall back into anything that remotely resembles the more orthodox accompanying roles of the jazz piano. Always prodding and firing off barrages of notes that scamper up and down the registers. You have to stand your ground. Ayler finally enters – blatting and blearing smears and short phrases punctuated with sudden abrupt low honks. I don't think they played together very often – but compare Ayler to Archie Shepp's almost diffident and confused flurries a few years before – when the music was anchored by more conventional rhythms from Dennis Charles. He seems in the pocket. A short solo – return of the piano (not that it ever really goes away – you do have to like Cecil I guess – some find him too overwhelming). His left hand chording is almost conventional in places – while the right hand flails out swift treble runs – bits of his solo seem to have odd little traces of older styles- fascinating in the way that he demonstrates an awareness of history – boogie woogie-ish in places (filtered through a Conlon Noncarrow matrix maybe...). Ayler returns, sounding vocalised saxophone textures and riffing up into the upper and lower registers in turn – sometimes see-sawing quickly between the two. What is interesting here is that the pulse is three way (at least) – drummer and piano playing fast rhythms and the saxophone in his own slower time, apart from some swift flurries – and there is plenty of space for all: one of the fascinating areas that the new jazz's rhythmic strategies evolved. Cecil takes it out with Murray his faithful cohort in tow, ending on a slow collection of keyboard ripples and a valedictory blast from Ayler – as if saying goodnight to the folks.
'Spirits Rejoice' is another live date with Gary Peacock in the bass chair, Sunny Murray drums and Don Cherry and Michel Sampson the violinist added. The theme is one of those generic Ayler march/folk tunes that reminds me in places of the 'Marseillaise.' Aux armes, citoyens... After the theme, a dying away briefly until Ayler takes it up on tenor with Sampson shrilly sawing away beside him – more textural than lyrical, reminding me a little of Ornette. Then le tout ensemble belting through the various strains – a short piece but with a freshness still that sounds across the years. Bright-eyed music. Marchons, marchons...
Cue the drums – a speedy, accurate intro from Ali and then Gayle and bass come in – everyone out of the traps fast on this – a homage to John Coltrane with his last drummer in tow for historic resonance. The bass is solid fast walking, the drums commenting, hustling and throwing out a generosity of different figures, cymbals a dense hissing rustle. Main emphasis on snare with occasional roll on the toms. Ali has fast hands. Gayle's tenor is coming out of 'Trane, but doesn't really sound like him. He's fast as well, ten minutes in starting to vary the timbres – more granular, more vocalised. More sorties into the upper register, but sounding effortless – the man has technique a-plenty. Gayle drops out to let the bass in – a strong-fingered speedy section that shows Parker to good advantage – strummed chords and double stops thrown in for good measure. Ali reins back to give him air – throwing in the odd off beat on cymbals. Into his solo – a drum conversation, skittering across the cymbals and answered by the bass drums and snare and toms. A bass and snare interlude answered again by cymbals. Building into cross-kit work – fascinating. A call and response between different elements of his kit. Gayle returns briefly and they wind down. A skilful performance all round, investigating some areas that are still valid, despite Gayle's many knockers. Odd how the Jazz Conservatives will diss this music – yet be even more rigid in their harkings back. Apparently it's fashionable to rubbish fire music these days – and the pool of musicians loosely grouped round the Vision Festival in New York, say, who take their inspirations from the sixties avant-garde. I think this is marvellous – a joyous offering to Saint John. Interestingly – considering it was recorded only a few years ago – the Cecil Taylor and Ayler material from the Sixties still sound more radical. (As did late Coltrane...). The rhythm here is not so ambiguous – it's almost conventional, but brilliantly underpinned by Ali – yet: not a boring bebop retread. Rather, a mature performance which has assimilated much of what has gone before – to produce a different contemporary mainstream, as it were...
I saw Bill Dixon on the Cecil Taylor bill about eighteen months ago at the London Jazz Festival. He confused many - amid the firestorms of Cecil and drummer Tony Oxley he seemed to be playing off some totally different aesthetic. His solo section used two mikes and two horns to produce exercises in echo and space and sonority. And silence – an almost Zen-like approach. But from where I was sitting, when the trio played, Oxley's drums and Cecil's mercurial piano seemed to overwhelm him at times (although this may have been misleading, given my proximity to the drums) – apart from a few spaces that he managed to negotiate his way into. Yet what he was doing solo I found fascinating – as I'm coming from another area of experimental sound, maybe, that is aware of but intrinsically apart from jazz, it made a lot of sense – but I wondered if this particular concert stage was the right place for his playing when he joined the others. The crowd were here to see Cecil (and earlier Anthony Braxton), although they accorded him respect. Yet what other response is a trumpeter like Dixon going to utilise in a situation like that?. Apart from considerations of age and embouchure (the trumpet is a merciless instrument for its practitioners), his is essentially a spatial conception. I would love to hear a clear recording of this set - it might sound totally different - more evenly balanced.
On his own recording here – with Oxley again and two bass players, William Parker and Barry Guy, recorded in 1993, he is in charge of his surroundings – and masterful. Dixon is not a flagwaving horn player: here, he exudes a mysterious poetry, hinting at themes, dropping fragments of melody as the basses churn and circle and Oxley's clattering, chiming drumming offers obliquely powerful punctuations – sometimes sounding like a load of pans falling downstairs. He has a unique sound on his custom kit, based as much on sonority as rhythm – a free European jazz concept, perhaps. The contrast between the basses is fascinating as well – Parker more the straight man to Guy's use of extended techniques. A fascinating four-way conversation that bridges several eras and aesthetics of improvisation. As on the London concert, Oxley rises in places in a clattering sentence that threatens to shout Dixon down – but he always pulls through – towards the end getting quite enervated and using brass rips and smears resituated from the old florid trumpet vocabulary before returning to the more lyrical runs that float across the unsteady surface of the music.
Dixon is a treasure to be valued, probably not as well known as he should be but whose credentials and integrity are impeccable – an organiser (The October Revolution in Jazz, New York 1964) and teacher he has shunned the lime light (or refused to compromise in the face of the ongoing absurdities and neglect that many practitioners of this music have been subjected to - but produced a steady body of work as composer and improviser. His link with Taylor goes way back to the 'Conquistador' sessions as well – a long-established musical friendship. There is a fascinating interview with him here... that goes a long way towards explaining his role in jazz/experimental musics and his ongoing commitment to artistic exploration... He's on the Vision Festival in New York next month, I've just noticed (info here...) which I was hoping to attend... looking increasingly unlikely due to logistics of house-hunting even though my health has had a slight improvement. Never mind, I'll just have to get the cd and dvd – like I did the other year...good stuff... and a necessary antidote to the sterilities of the Lincoln Centre crowd... Just discovered that Charles Gayle's trio is playing as well – damn...! Alors, mes enfants...
Cecil Taylor/Albert Ayler
(Cecil Taylor: piano; Albert Ayler: tenor saxophone; Jimmy Lyons: alto saxophone; Sunny Murray: drums).
(Albert Ayler: tenor saxophone; Don Cherry: cornet; Gary Peacock: bass; Sonny Murray: drums).
(Charles Gayle: tenor saxophone; William Parker: bass; Rashied Ali: drums).
(Bill Dixon: trumpet; Barry Guy, William Parker: basses; Tony Oxley: drums).
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