Tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer has made connections on previous albums between the music of Albert Ayler and other seemingly divergent genres. In 2015 his Brooklyn Blowhards project blurred the lines between Ayler’s spiritual free jazz and traditional sea shanties. Earlier Shakers n’ Bakers releases combined music of the Shakers religious sect and the bold saxophonist. Heart Love puts the spotlight on Ayler’s watershed album New Grass. No stranger to controversy, Ayler divided listeners even further when Impulse! released the project in 1968. Instead of the uninhibited drumming of Sunny Murray or Milford Graves, session ace Bernard “Pretty” Purdie lays down boogaloo grooves underneath the still-rugged tenor wails. Ayler’s partner, Mary Maria Parks, penned lyrics that boast the passion of a tent revival but the naiveté of a third-rate Godspell rip-off. Its successor might have been called Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe, but these ham-fisted crossovers opened more wounds than could be healed.
Lederer, however, enjoys New Grass’ “utopian vision and millennial fervor,” and he zeroes in on that passion. This group, including keyboardist Jamie Saft, bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Allison Miller, balances grooves with blasts of freedom. The once-bombastic “Oh Love of Life” finds a new energy through a reggae lilt. Traditional spirituals like “Deep River” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and the Dvorak-rooted spiritual “Goin’ Home,” recreate the solemn intensity that drove Ayler’s best work. Unfortunately, there’s little that vocalist Mary LaRose can do to elevate Parks’ flaccid lyrics in songs like “A Man Is a Tree,” and the baby talk and purring at the end of “Heart Love” is downright creepy. As LaRose’s vocal foil, Miles Griffith repeatedly chews the scenery.