“Trane was the father,” said Albert Ayler, “Pharoah was the Son. I am the Holy Ghost.” He’s referring to the “Holy Trinity” of Tenor Saxophonists: John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and himself, players who in the 60’s bent their saxophones over backwards and did some quite nasty things to them. A saxophone, an instrument of flair and finesse, of power and beauty, became a thing of ugliness. Not content with the current developments (or perhaps limitations) of tenor playing, these three one day decided to put their lips to the mouthpiece and to do the saxophone what Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer did to cinema. I mean it was brutal. However, from this savage deflowering came not catastrophe and tragedy on a musical level, but a terrifyingly brilliant lovechild, something to fear and behold mightily, quivering in cold sweat, your heart mercilessly palpitating, your brain whizzing through its programming system, trying to make sense of this new cacophony. Nearly fifty years later, it still makes little sense, but of course if we are talking about the Holy Trinity of Saxophonists this becomes more understandable. What spiritual matters are revealed to anyone directly? To those who profess understanding, does this understanding come easily? For those who don’t, how difficult is it to comprehend? Like matters of divinity, Spiritual Unity is a difficult beast to wrestle with, its chains hard to untangle. It can be – scratch that – IS a monstrous challenge, one whose rewards are incomprehensible at first, difficult to even see and almost impossible to unlock. Furthermore, this isn’t an album to sit down and listen to with the missus or over a casual dinner party. In fact, there probably is no adequate situation or scenario to which this music is best suited.
What’s immediately striking about the music is the extent to which Ayler and his bandmates completely disregard all sense of harmony. Melody is established and then thrown out the window, forsaken for the snaking, screeching improvisations conjured from Ayler’s horn. Ghosts: First Version kicks the album off. It’s got a sort of catchy, bouncy melody, a little whimsical, nothing too fierce. Then Ayler loses it, freakishly taking his saxophone on a journey Hunter S. Thompson style, totally ‘effed up and going down some crazy roads and not giving an ‘eff. As in the name, Ghosts possesses a spectral quality, not of this earth but from some indeterminate dimension, beyond our understanding… Ghosts appears in a silvery haze, blowing our minds, terrifying us and swiftly departing in a vapor trail. Ayler’s bandmates (Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on percussion) have clearly been indoctrinated in Ayler’s mentality, utilizing every echelon of their respective instruments, skittering along the cymbals frantically, pounding the bass in the same feverish, searching style that Ayler carries on in. Ghosts: First Version is shockingly different and downright confusing to the untrained ear.
The Wizard, if names are anything to go by, suggests a track of trickery, showmanship, and a little humour. The only Wizard comparable to the music here within is Saruman. Scheming, conniving and deadly, past the point of redemption. It is fierce and unrelenting, terrifying and yet supremely confident. Ayler ushers in this new style of music with blazing self-assurance despite its hostile nature. Spirits begins with a ghostly cry of Ayler’s sax, less frantic than before and deeply saddened, crying like a wounded animal, pierced in the foot, crying out in pain. Here is jazz at its most naked: wails, screeches, searching for redemption, searching for answers, howling like a wolf, barking like a dog… Ayler conjures unbelievable sounds and an incomprehensible web of emotions from his playing. Also, with his trio’s disregard for general harmony and structure only sharpen the jagged edge of his musical ideal. John Coltrane (“the Father” of the Trinity) used his music as a passionate search for spiritual peace, adventurous but refined and almost holy, borrowing from the expressivism but deep reverence of gospel music. His music often had a dirge-like quality. Sanders (“the Son”) took what Trane had done and endued it with a New Age mentality, often adding sacred chanting and mystic garble to his music, quite typical of the era, actually, and I’m less fond of it. Ayler, on the other hand, was quite apt to describe himself as the Holy Ghost… his music, and indeed his own persona, was steeped in mystery: penetrating and shockingly primal, touching our base instincts, releasing inner fury, driven by an intense personal longing and altogether radical. The second version of Ghosts is Ayler doing that to perfection, with his solos at their most frantic and desperate. But a mere 30 minutes of an album, Spiritual Unity nevertheless contains more than enough sheer savagery and assaults on one’s ears to last a career’s worth. But this savagery comes offering gifts, gifts into the insights of three remarkable and troubled musicians, using their instruments in the most noble of ways: baring their souls and expressing themselves freely and wildly.
I once stumbled across a discussion on an online forum, discussing the inherent nature of art forms. On one side we had someone who argued that for art to have true value, it must have beauty, and that even some things that appear ugly perhaps have a deeper meaning that makes them beautiful. On the other hand, a man argued that art’s value lies in its inherent expression, and whether that expression was ugly or beautiful it mattered not, as long as intent and expression was noble. This latter pointed out the example of Francisco Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son, and pointed out its acclaim as one of the finest paintings of the early Modern era, despite its ruthless and horrifying depiction. Nobody argues or calls into question Goya’s accomplishment, and nobody denies that it’s a truly shocking painting, so where does its value come from? Certainly not from its beauty, the man said, because it is devoid of beauty. It exists in a world where beauty is not just absent, it’s unheard of. I would have to agree with the latter, and I would point out that Ayler’s achievement is something similar. Spiritual Unity is raw and positively terrifying, existing in a world where ugliness is prized but remains no less valuable than beauty. It’s mad, bad and dangerous to know, but its inherent value cannot be called into question.
Words – Adam.