Photo by Charles Stewart

Albert Ayler was a good golfer. He was an aficionado of marches. He was a God nut who believed that the patch of non-pigmented skin on his chin indicated the touch of the Holy. He was found drowned, circumstances unknown, in New York’s East River in 1970 at the age of 34.

And he shattered the improvisational music of the 1960s. Using the thickest reeds, the loudest mouthpieces, and a voluminous knowledge of jazz saxophone’s history and techniques, Ayler birthed an enormous, all-enveloping free-jazz sound that embodied the aspirations and frustrations of his chaotic generation. His simple riffs derived from old-time church traditions; his textural flights strained for a future we may never reach. Though many thought him a fake, he was instantly recognized and emulated by far more established players such as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.

Holy Ghost, a landmark new Albert Ayler box set from Revenant, scores major pluses and minor minuses. On the one hand, you get a wonderful Ayler biography from its 200-plus-page hardbound book (by Val Wilmer, Amiri Baraka, Ben Young et al.), which stands as the best work on its subject. On the other, what you don’t get from the box overall, despite its seven CDs of music and two of interviews, is the best experience of Ayler’s essence.

Which is fine. Holy Ghost is a collection of rough rarities, valuable mainly for historical insight; it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. The few who already worship at Ayler’s altar will absolutely require it, and at only about $100, it’s a steal. Just don’t start here if you haven’t heard him, because you might wonder why Revenant threw such a big party.

Here’s the thing about Ayler: The way he was recorded was so important, and he was rarely recorded right. Again and again, the book recounts testimonials from witnesses shocked and changed firsthand as his omnidirectional torrent, shivering their guts and sometimes even cracking their ceilings, poured over them. So it’s appropriate that most Ayler recordings were live, including the peaks, such as the 1964 Copenhagen concert currently issued as Vibrations (where you can hear the engineer frantically re-skewing his levels as the dynamic music dips and crests). Less appropriate were the sketchy miking resources available under such conditions. While surround-sound would have been a godsend, in those days you were lucky if you got stereo — though fate dealt aces in the case of the ESP disc Prophecy, on which Ayler’s playful pingponging between two microphones makes for the truest document of his tenor sound that’s come down to us.


One of Holy Ghost’s big bonuses is 44 additional minutes recovered from that same 1964 night at New York’s Cellar Café, heretofore circulated only in sonically inferior editions. Another great find is a set from earlier in the Copenhagen stand. Both, in addition to their fresh aural impact, feature Ayler’s most tuned-in partners: the humming, thrashing, subterranean drummer Sunny Murray and the penetrating, challenging bassist Gary Peacock. And in Copenhagen, cornetist Don Cherry, the new music’s farthest-traveling ambassador, provides the same kind of foilwork that had helped spread the legend of Ornette Coleman.

To say that the less holistic remainder of the music (strings dominate the mix in some places, drums in others; much is muffled) is only history would be to undervalue it. 1962 Finnish cuts show Ayler could play pretty damn straight when the occasion demanded. The same year, he virtually meets his maker in the person of pianist Cecil Taylor. He bounces off some sympathetic bumpers, including Beaver Harris, Milford Graves and Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums); Bill Folwell, Richard Davis and Sirone (bass); Frank Wright and Pharoah Sanders (sax); and of course his mentally unstable brother, trumpeter Don Ayler, whose 1969 Town Hall turn as a leader established a thrilling apotheosis of free noise. The box doesn’t shrink from Albert’s unhinged R&B mistakes of 1970, which hint that the end is near. And the interviews establish that if he was a huckster, he was a huckster for the Truth, always sincere.

As you claw through the gorgeous packaging and fetishistic inserts of this sturdy but non-utilitarian plastic “spirit box,” you may feel like a miner on a mission. Just remember that you will find gold.

ALBERT AYLER | Holy Ghost | (Revenant)

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