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Personnel: Bells: Albert Ayler - Tenor Saxophone / Donald Ayler - Trumpet / Charles Tyler - Alto Sax / Lewis Worrell - Bass / Sunny Murray - Percussion Prophecy: Albert Ayler - Tenor Saxophone / Gary Peacock - Bass / Sunny Murray - Percussion Tracks: Spirits / Wizard / Ghosts: First Variation / Prophecy / Ghosts: Second Variation / Bells
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"Prophecy" was recorded on June 14th, 1964 at the Cellar Cafe in New York with the "Spiritual Unity" trio of Ayler, Murray, and Peacock. This was less than a month before they would enter the tiny ESP studio and record their groundbreaking album. The music on this date is very similar in feel to "Spiritual Unity," although the trio stretches things out a bit more. I've heard some folks describe it as less a less focused performance than what was captured on "Spiritual Unity," or even downright meandering, but I don't agree with either characterization. The trio is certainly exploring more territory here, whereas "Spiritual Unity" seems to represent more of a distillation of these live experiments, but the results here are just as exciting, although the trio is perhaps not as startlingly telepathic as they are on the studio album. However, they seem to more thoroughly explore some musical territory in this live setting. The biggest drawback is the somewhat marginal sound quality (this was a tape recording of the show), and audience chatter and general background noise (clinking of glasses, etc) is a slight distraction from the music, although the album is not at all unlistenable. The sound quality is the primary reason for the 4 instead of 5 star rating. For fans of "Spiritual Unity" this required reading.
"Bells" finds Albert moving closer to the sound that is so magnificently captured on "Live in Greenwich Village," although without the defining violin foundation. This live show was one of the early live vettings of Albert's new direction and his brother Don's trumpet playing. Recorded on May 1st 1965 at New York's Town Hall, there are only 19 minutes of music here (hence the pairing with Prophecy), and this was originally released as a one-sided LP. The music is continuous for the 19 minutes, and this raucous medley of repetitive marches represents at least three songs: Holy Ghost, No Name, and Bells. The first five minutes are comprised mostly of very intense free improvisation and on my first listen I was admittedly a bit nervous that I would be able to make it through the entire piece, given the level of shronking chaos. Don's skittery trumpet leads the way intitially, and adds tremendously to the feel of this music thoughout. "Skittery" is the simplest and most accurate description of Don's playing that I have heard, and I borrow the term here from Val Wilmer, who recently used it in Don's obituary. The piece mellows a bit after the first five minutes and branches out to explore the more structured musical territory of repetitive, march-like themes - although spontaneous, free improvisation occurs throughout. If you need to clear a crowded room, the first thirty seconds of this album ought to do it.
The "Prophecy" show is an exciting one-- Ayler had worked with Murray with Cecil Taylor and on his previous studio record (released as either "Spirits" or "Ghosts"), and Peacock was part of his working band, and it's really a testament to these two men, neither of whom had played with Ayler for more than several months, that they both "get" his music and integrate themselves in it-- Murray presents a framework of sorts on which the other two perform-- implying rhythms, beats, but never actually stating them, whereas Peacock mostly plays counter to Ayler (by their studio session a month later, Peacock would find a way to inhabit a rhythmic function in addition to this counterpoint role). "Ghosts, First Variation" is probably the best example of this, Ayler states his memorable theme explosively and Peacock hangs back, playing a countermelody and letting Murray fill as much space as possible. The performance as a whole remains in this sort of light, and while "Prophecy" seems to meander a bit aimlessly, it comes reeling in on "Ghosts, Second Variation" (which is really a piece called "Spirits" blended with elements of the "Ghosts" theme) in its explosive and exciting playing.
"Bells" is a bit less exciting as a piece than it is revelatory for establishing direction for Ayler-- his bands for the next several years would include his brother Don on trumpet and other musicians in addition to his rhythm section -- most interesting though is the change in style the piece manifests during its time-- the first two parts of the track are Ayler's compositions "Holy Ghost" and "No Name" (the latter features some positively dreary-- in a good way-- soloing from Ayler with Murray in total sympathy) before moving into "Bells" proper. The piece involves a number of march-like themes that are almost always played, even when someone is soloing its not uncommon to hear a theme in the foreground or background by one or more horns. This is by and large the direction Ayler would start pursuing for the next several years, with horns providing the rhythmic foundation his drummers so often leave behind. The result is intriguing, although Ayler would get better at it on future recordings.
This reissue, from ESP-Disk in New York again for the first time in a long time, features superb remastered sound comparable if not better to any of the issues that have come out of Europe. Regardless of sound though, the performances have their moments but Ayler has done better, both in his early and his middle period.
As for the five star music of "Prophecy", there are some interesting divergences from the forthcoming studio set, as well as a brief look back at Ayler's first studio album, Witches & Devils,which is represented by the track "Spirits" (which is an alternate name for that album). That track opens things with Ayler's trademark wheezing, haunted sound (this is a good thing, if you're wondering) while the band builds energy behind it, only to keep the track suspended, waiting for release that never comes. It's hard not to be struck by this, and to feel that the crowd (which sounds small, but which is supportive) is witnessing something new. Little in the jazz world, even this far into Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman's influence, was this radical. Ayler had worked with Taylor not far back, and that is the closest influence, yet that mystical element of the music, that séance-sounding Dixieland channeling, that isn't like anything else before it. This opening salvo leads to a trio of tracks from the album Ayler clearly was planning, and "Wizards" continues the spooky sound of the opening track, while sounding not unlike the finished version. Still, it has its own feel, and the improvisation keeps the two versions of "Ghosts" different from the eventual studio tracks. Here, the FIRST is the longer, and there's a feeling of elegy throughout it, with Murray and Peacock locking into a flexible groove that can move with the leader. That flexibility makes the second variation even more unique than the original, with the melody of the piece stretched and massaged into new things and perhaps the strongest track of the night. Before that track, the title track of this album is played, and all of it comes together into a satisfying, fascinating show that makes one want for more. And therein lies the problem: there is more, just not here.
This is exactly the LP released in 1973 that first put this Cellar Café show on the map, but there was another half of the show. That was briefly released on the double album bootleg "Albert Smiles at Sunny", and it includes a THIRD rendition of "Ghosts" and a few improvised songs that showed a bit how this band built music. These tracks are not as consequential as the original issue simply because they haven't been hewn into shape yet, but they show a critical side to the band and are in no way lesser recordings. Added to the original five songs, these other five (which also include a stellar "Truth is Marching On") paint the full picture, and its a shame that they aren't here. The problem appears to lie in ownership: Revenant records purchased the bootleg tracks for inclusion on the mighty Holy Ghost set, which was new at the time of this re-issue. Owners of both can simply sew them together to make the full show, but its a shame not to have them all here. Perhaps in the future, now that I understand that ESP owns the complete concert again, this will be fixed.
Then there's the second show that IS here, the unrelated Bells, which was a twenty minute improvisation by a different Ayler band about a year later that included his brother, the trumpet player Don. This is a far more chaotic recording, with only a brief melody line before the band begins tearing things apart. As a closing track, it represents the path Ayler took after the original band disbanded before Impulse picked him up and he shifted his sound to a slightly less dissonant one. "Bells" as a release has some real fire, though the original is exactly how Ayler wanted it released: twenty minutes on a single side of an LP, meaning that the separate release is closer to his intention. Here, it adds to the time of the disc, if not to the quality of the show. There's also the issue of the sound, which still isn't that great, but it works well enough on both recordings. If in doubt of Ayler's power, though, skip "Bells" and wander back to the start of "Spirits" or the first variation of "Ghosts" and bask in the haunted sounds the man could create, backed by his best ever band. That alone makes this a prophetic vision of a free jazz ruling future that Ayler truly believed was always just around the corner. Even if that prophecy never came true, the vision is worth visiting.
Thanks to Revenant Records for issuing the massive Albert Ayler box set a few years back, Mr. Ayler is now back on the jazz radar, after so many years of being lost in mythology. His ESP works are a good place to start because they capture his work at his creative peak.
I remember when I first purchased the vinyl copy of Bells because one side of the LP was blank. This may not have been the artist's decision but ESP records did make a statement by doing so, even if it was for marketing reasons (or perhaps financial ones). The other galvanizing factor about my introduction to the artist, was the massive tone that emanated from his tenor saxophone. The other artist with a sound of this beauty and magnificence who comes to my mind, is David Murray.
Now that the clouds have cleared on Ayler's career and his music, this man is going to get the artistic due that he deserves. Obviously his ideas were far ahead of their time. This is borne out by the direction that John Coltrane's music was taking in the last period of his career.
One infuriating fact that seems to fog the truth about this noble man's legacy (Ayler's) is the music press' perpetuation of the distorted circumstances that surrounded his untimely death. The truth is less than compelling but for anyone who wants to know the real story, it can be found in a past issue of Coda magazine.
No doubt that Albert Ayler was a troubled person and in this respect, he bore the scars of life much as those of other famous artists. On the other hand, this can never diminish his music; only enhance it because here was the artist expressing life in the way that made sense to him.
If you are new to Albert Ayler's music, I think you will find few, if any, listening experiences that will affect you in such a strong way.