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March 2008

Albert Ayler
The Hilversum Session
Various Artists
Healing Force: The Songs of Albert Ayler
Cuneiform Records

Recorded in 1964 in the Dutch city of Hilversum, this album presents Albert Ayler in all his blowzy, testifying glory, fronting a quartet that includes trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. The repertoire includes five Ayler originals, notably his signature tunes “Angels,” “Ghosts” and “Spirits.” It’s easy to forget how starkly original Ayler was, given the untold number of contemporary free saxophonists who’ve built entire concepts around his sax style. This album is a welcome reminder. Imitators adopt surface characteristics of Ayler’s music—manifested mostly in the use of certain “extended” techniques—but very few capture the subtlety of which he was capable: the contrasts of dynamics, articulation, vibrato, register and phrasing; the sense of drama as a solo unfolds. Obviously, he’s in collegial company here. However misused his example has been by lesser musicians, this music retains an everlasting power.

For his tribute to Ayler, guitarist/producer Henry Kaiser convenes a septet consisting of saxophonist Vinny Golia, vocalist Aurora Josephson, bassist Damon Smith, drummer Weasel Walter, bassist/guitarist Joe Morris and guitarist/pianist Mike Keneally. It’s a strong group. Golia and Walter especially impress—both possess a feral intensity and bring strong personalities to the table. The point of the project is to shine light on the music Ayler recorded for Impulse! in the years just prior to his death. That work—informed by Ayler’s experience with blues, R&B, gospel and other vernacular musics—has taken a critical beating over the years, but in retrospect it’s on par with some of his best stuff. Indeed, some 40 years after the fact, it seems that the main things separating it from the rest of Ayler’s oeuvre are the hippie-dippy lyrics and vocals, which have a certain nostalgic charm. Here the recitations/vocals are, if anything, hippier and dippier … and in the case of “Message From Albert,” unintentionally, comically robotic. The charm of the originals does not translate. There’s some fine playing by Kaiser’s crew, but the uncomfortable air of contrivance typical of such tribute projects makes this album hard to recommend without offering reservations.

Originally published in March 2008
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