August 4, 2000
WITCHES & DEVILS
At The Empty Bottle
Knitting Factory KFW-282
Thirty years after insurgent tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler jumped headfirst into New York's East River, admiring jazzers are still celebrating his achievements.
That's because Ayler's important work reinterpreted the music. The most "out" of "out" jazzers, his playing and composing was made up in equal parts of unbridled energy and recurrent, quasi-childlike ditties. Ayler's performances didn't "swing" — as the neo-cons understand it — but lurched along like an out-of-control crowd at a carnival, then abruptly stopped to dance around in juvenile joy. Concurrently Ayler music was the sound of uncharted space travel and of the most primitive marching band, communicated through pure emotion.
What sets apart well-thought out Ayler tributes like this one from those who merely use the melody of "Ghosts" — his best-known composition — as an excuse for ribaldry, is an understanding of the saxophonist's methods.
Like the six Chicagoans recorded on this live set, Ayler wasn't the know-nothing wild man his detractors made him out to be. He understood all music — very definitely including standard jazz changes — backwards and forwards. But like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor he also heard something different that he had to play.
Similarly, saxophonist Mars Williams, leader of this session, has been through the music business mill. A charter member of Hal Russell's avant garde jazz NRG Ensemble in the 1980s, he also played with rockers The Waitresses and the Psychedelic Furs around that time. Today, he not only collaborates with Ken Vandermark in Windy City ensembles, but is also the guiding force behind acidjazzers Liquid Soul. Similar varied résumés characterize the other Witches (or is it Devils?)
Except for the alto saxophone and piano interlude, all the music here is Ayler's, so trying to pinpoint individual contributions to praise is like trying to pick out the third euphonium player in a marching band. Ayler music is preeminently group music.
There are imperfections here all right, with the piano at this club gig sounding a bit distant, if not a bit out of tune. Overall, though, the ferocious intensity and commitment the late saxophonist brought to his compositions is fittingly communicated by these six disciples.
If you like Ayler's work you'll probably be interested in hearing how these top-flight Midwesterners treat it. If you abhor Ayler, however, this won't bring you into the saxophonist's camp. But if you've never heard Ayler, this is as good place as any to start.
Liking what you hear, though, should create a thirst for the saxophonist's work that can only be quenched by the hard stuff of his own playing.
Track Listing: 1. Truth Is Marching In 2. Sax Duet/Piano Interlude 3. Angels 4. Bells
Personnel: Mars Williams (reeds); Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone); Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello); Jim Baker (keyboards); Kent Kessler (bass); Steve Hunt (drums)