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Frank Wright Quartet: Blues For Albert Ayler

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ESP-Disk’ performed an honorable service by documenting many of the musicians associated with 1960s New Thing, but not everything in the underground label’s back catalog has the force of something like Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity. Two newly discovered recordings from the ESP stable, along with one reissue, posit that some musicians didn’t always know what to do once they found a new freedom in their music.

Frank Lowe never came across as a very technically proficient tenor saxophonist, but he eventually found a way to become a convincing performer by combining his rugged skills with a passionate voice. The Loweski comes from the same 1973 performance that yielded Black Beings, a searing yet intriguing set of shrieks and wails that ESP released at the time. The new album features a 37-minute performance (banded into five tracks) that feels just as severe as the previous set. Joseph Jarman sets the mood by emitting six minutes of alto squeals and growls before the rest of the band joins the fray. The stereo separation makes it even more disorienting: Bassist William Parker, drummer Rashid Sinan and violinist Raymond Lee Cheng reside in one channel, while Jarman and Lowe are in the other. The leader doesn’t get a proper “solo” space for nearly 14 minutes, and when he does he continues at the same level as his partner, with a series of raspy, reed-biting screeches. The more interesting moments come with breaks in the melee. Cheng, originally credited only as The Wizard, attacks his electric instrument feverishly, at one point sounding like Derek Bailey at work on guitar. In the final minutes, the rhythm section tones things down as Parker bows a short melody over some rolls and crashes from Sinan. It might have led to something different, but the recording fades out abruptly.

Blues for Albert Ayler might not maintain focus from beginning to end, but it doesn’t spare on energy, which almost carries through. Recorded in 1974 at Rashied Ali’s loft, Ali’s Alley, the continuous performance is neither blues-based nor directly in the style of Ayler. Tenor saxophonist Frank Wright leads a quartet of himself on tenor and flute, with drummer Ali, bassist Benny Wilson and guitarist James Blood Ulmer. Right as he was coming under the tutelage of Ornette Coleman, Ulmer plays with a manic freedom that still has a blues undercurrent. Ali sounds propulsive as ever. Wright is a capable player, building simple lines almost like John Coltrane, blowing some gutbucket wails at either end of his instrument’s range. But at 74 minutes, the performance has several sections that ramble on without focus.

In 1966, visual artist/recording engineer Marzette Watts assembled what might now be considered a supergroup of free players for a session: Byard Lancaster (alto, flute, bass clarinet), Clifford Thornton (trombone, cornet), Sonny Sharrock (guitar), Karl Berger (vibes), Henry Grimes and Juni Booth (bass) and J.C. Moses (drums). Watts played tenor and soprano sax and bass clarinet. In retrospect, he might have been following the influence of albums like Free Jazz and Ascension, where the ensemble played simple themes together before individuals took off into solos, with accents added by their bandmates. But even while those infamous albums seem to teeter on the brink of chaos, the music holds together thanks to the open ears and minds of the participants. Marzette Watts & Company sounds more like a case of every man for himself. Rather than punctuating what one soloist is playing, the rest of the group takes it as a challenge to make a different point. This gets particularly excessive in “Backdrop for Urban Revolution.” After frantically strumming nothing more than single notes through the first half of the album, Sharrock finally gets a chance to peel off some exciting chicken scratch, only to have everyone pile on top of him. There are plenty more incidents like this during the sidelong track.

The cliché about this music is that anyone could do it. Not only is that not true, but doing it well, where everyone plays together rather than just playing at the same time, can offer as much challenge as playing over changes. Each of these albums has moments during which the band catches fire, but the whole performances will be of interest only to musical history buffs or fans of extreme free jazz.

Originally Published