Fifty years ago on July 10, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray, and Gary Peacock recorded the sessions that would be released as the Spiritual Unity LP, the fledgling ESP-Disk‘ label’s first musical offering, and one of many Ayler releases that would serve as the muscle and backbone of ESP’s (for short) eclectic yet focused catalog. I have a hard time not thinking of the digital download-only (the equivalent in length of four CDs) commemorative release, “The Albert Ayler Story,” as “The ESP Story.” Forty-nine of the compilation’s sixty-eight tracks are recorded interviews with Ayler and other relevant players on the topics of Ayler’s music and the label’s output, leaving little room for the music itself.
What there is of the music is mostly available on other in-print ESP Ayler albums, making this release somewhat of a label sampler. It is an incomplete “Albert Ayler story,” since, as ESP label-head Bernard Stollman would be among the first to mention, Ayler’s music changed radically (and Ayler changed music radically) when he left ESP in 1966 and signed to the much larger and more well-known (if not quite as exciting for the adventurous jazz-fan) Impulse! label.
Ayler didn’t record very many albums, and of his discography, virtually all the ESP discs are essential listening and readers of this review will most likely be familiar with them. The interviews are crucial to this collection’s uniqueness — it’s fascinating to hear Ayler talk with equal parts glibness and never-lost innocence about his childhood, and to hear characterizations of Ayler from some of his musical colleagues like Don Cherry and Sunny Murray. While some of it starts to get a little gossipy and puerile, most of the interview material is rooted in matters of culturally historic importance: the passing of Coltrane; the view of “free improvisation” as a solely “Black” movement; reminiscences of Ayler himself are all topics that have multiple voices chiming in. Perhaps the most detached, self-assured of these voices is Stollman’s, and he certainly racks up the most interviews in this compilation, providing a thread that takes the listener through every contact point between Ayler and the label. None of what Stollman says is really news, though it’s fun to listen to the occasional new anecdote; it’s all been put down in Jason Weiss’s exhaustive study of the ESP-Disk’ label, Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America (Wesleyan, 2012).
While important, the interviews don’t reward repeated listenings for anyone except perhaps scholars in cultural studies or musicology, but Stollman – still at the ESP helm – has a few new things to offer. The compilation is fleshed out with commercially unreleased (to the best of my knowledge) live performances by various iterations of Ayler’s bands from 1964, 1967 (a date just prior to the infamous live recording released by Impulse!), and 1970. The second of two completely different songs titled “Vibrations,” both performed on the same date in Copenhagen in September, 1964, is why this collection needs to have shelf space on your hard drive: the simultaneous interplay of Don Cherry on cornet with Ayler on tenor sax, and Gary Peacock’s bass with Sunny Murray’s drumming, is ferocious in an exploratory rather than abrasive way, and the mixture of bravado and fragility is what will make your hair stand on end. It’s what I’ll be returning to. But make no mistake: it’s worth restating that this is only the Albert Ayler story insofar as it concerns ESP-Disk’. An important chapter, but not nearly the whole saga.