Holy Ghost – Albert Ayler

First, there’s the box – the sheer physicality of the thing. It’s slightly smaller than a vinyl album, 9 1/2 inches square and about three inches thick, made of heavy black plastic molded from a hand-carved wooden original. Taking it off the shelf requires bracing oneself, a little; its blunt heft surprises every time.

Within the box: a hardcover book, more than 200 pages long, with explanatory essays by Amiri Baraka, Valerie Wilmer and other chroniclers of the American free jazz scene, the New York scene of the 1960s in particular; reproductions of poetry and jazz magazines dealing with, or reacting to, Albert Ayler’s music; club flyers advertising his shows at legendary Greenwich Village venue Slugs Saloon; a photo of Ayler as a child; and a pressed flower in a small plastic envelope. Oh, and ten CDs of music.

Albert Ayler was a divisive figure, even within the “New Thing” of the 1960s, which itself drew stark lines between the jazz mainstream and a future of freedom. Between 1964 – when his first American album, Spiritual Unity, was released on the tiny ESP label – and his mysterious death in 1970, he explored the outermost reaches of the saxophone, often unleashing squalls of sound closer in spirit to lightning strikes than music as even adventurous listeners knew it. The fact that respected figures like John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor admired his work, and said so publicly, only served to make his iconoclasm more controversial.

Ayler’s melodies were singsong, frequently based on or inspired by pre-jazz musics and principles of collective improvisation, rather than the soloist-with-backing-ensemble idea that had taken over jazz since the bebop era. He played spirituals with a raw, skronking tone, tearing into the simple tunes like a wolf shredding meat from a bone. He used unorthodox instrumentation in his groups, incorporating harpsichord and violin when others were sticking with the tried-and-true saxophone, piano, bass and drums.

It wasn’t noise for its own sake, though. Far from it. Ayler’s command of his horn was masterful – he could make it do anything he wanted. As the essays in the book explain, he was a childhood sensation in his native Cleveland, leaving as a teenager to play in R&B groups and performing admirably with his Army unit’s band. (One of the CDs in the box contains two previously unheard recordings of Ayler as a soloist with that band.) Like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Ayler sought to expand the range of acceptable tonalities, on the saxophone and in general. He wanted to show that jazz could be much more than its fans had previously believed it to be.

The first seven discs in Holy Ghost travel chronologically through Ayler’s history and development as a musician. He’s first heard in 1962, as a guest with the Herbert Katz Quintet in Helsinki. He’s playing jazz standards, and taking some liberties with them, but not doing much that would shock a Coltrane fan of the time. The next track, though, comes from five months later, and it’s the first of many treasures this box contains – Ayler and Cecil Taylor’s trio blasting through the pianist’s “Four” for 22 minutes. (A few years ago, Revenant released Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, a 2-CD document of Taylor’s trio at the Cafe Montmartre in Copenhagen.) This Ayler-Taylor summit was recorded for Danish television; the video has been tragically lost, but the audio is impressive enough.

Holy Ghost progresses, with performances from 1964, when Ayler was first making his name in America; homecoming dates at Cleveland club La Cave; and numerous European performances including a show taped in France only weeks before his death. There are some landmark jazz events included, like Ayler’s appearance at John Coltrane’s funeral mass and the aforementioned Cleveland show, which pairs Ayler with saxophonist Frank Wright, who later became a cult figure himself.

The seventh disc, which includes the French performances, finds Ayler incorporating gospel more explicitly than before. His music has become more disciplined (he’d recently experimented with a poorly received, rock-oriented studio album, New Glass), and he’s at the top of his game. These songs, especially when heard alongside the recent Nuits De La Fondation Maeght 1970 CD, make his early demise that much sadder. He sounds on the edge of consolidating and focusing his ideas into an approach that could have blown jazz open, making freedom an option for everyone, the way he’d been trying to do all along.

Other less storied but more musically exciting highlights are a guest spot with Pharoah Sanders and one with a group led by Ayler’s brother Donald. On this latter, two-song performance, the dodgy sound quality adds a visceral impact – the horns blare like car alarms over an ensemble that’s flailing wildly, yet sometimes barely audible. The Sanders track, by contrast, was professionally recorded, and its release is both exciting and long overdue.

Nearly all of the music on discs 1-7 (and the bonus army-band disc) is live, and much of it is previously unreleased. But discs 8 and 9 take this approach to its furthest extreme, containing no music, only interviews with Ayler and a few of his contemporaries and collaborators. Even devoted fans may find this material over-the-top and unnecessary.

Many boxed sets attempt to compile an artist’s work, mixing well-known selections with rarities to justify the purchase price. Holy Ghost does no such thing – it’s a gift to the already initiated, virtually impenetrable to the newcomer. Anyone looking to discover Albert Ayler would do well to start with his studio albums, most of which are in print and readily available. The people Holy Ghost is made for knew they were going to buy it as soon as the first rumors trickled onto avant-garde jazz bulletin boards.

Indeed, the almost religious veneration of Ayler this box embodies, as exemplified by the two CDs of interviews, the pressed flower, the reproduction photograph and all the rest of the non-musical foofaraw, is somewhat problematic. The overkill of Holy Ghost’s design makes it self-selecting, the relative bargain price notwithstanding. (Had a major label put this out, rather than Revenant, it would likely have cost twice what it does). Having it on the shelf, in all its weighty, obsessive glory, implies that one is the kind of music fan who enjoys this sort of thing. Some people are comfortable with that, and others aren’t, and both types know who they are.

Phil Freeman