Spiritual Unity
Pi Recordings PI15

Taking any part of Albert Ayler’s oeuvre as a starting point for improvisation demands courage and nerve, since most of the saxophonist’s lines are as inextricably linked with his treatment of them as Thelonious Monk’s compositions were with his playing. Performing Ayler heads without a saxophonist is even more of a challenge, since the late Clevelander wrote lines that sit most comfortably under a reedist’s fingers. But the four members of the Spiritual Unity aggregation do this and more.

Most instructively, by necessity as well as design, they don’t try to replicate the Ayler sonics. Although if they did they’d be further ahead than most, since bassist Henry Grimes, who actually played with Ayler, is in the band. Grimes, whose 30 year plus sabbatical from the music has frequently been chronicled, doesn’t try to play the way he did in 1964. His work is muzzy and more deliberate, often with a furry pizzicato drone and with sul tasto and arco spiccato extensions.

Trumpeter Roy Campbell is no Don Ayler either. An expansive soloist with a thorough command of the grace notes and chromatic styling which usually escaped Albert Ayler’s trumpet-playing brother, Campbell often works with bassist William Parker among others. Chicago transplant Chad Taylor is no Milford Graves or Sunny Murray either – to cite two of Ayler’s trapsmen. More consistent and often using cross handed accompaniment, he brings the dynamics from his work with the electro-oriented Chicago Underground Trio to these tunes.

Finally there’s the band’s titular leader, Marc Ribot, who plays guitar and also wrote the introductory tune. Considering the only dates under the saxophonist Ayler’s name recorded with a guitar were those that featured Canned Heat’s Henry Vestine’s psychedelic-blues licks, Ribot, whose past gigs have included stints with the Lounge Lizards and Los Cubanos Positzos, has almost limitless latitude.

You note this on the almost-13-minute run through of “Truth Is Marching In”, as well as the 15½-plus minutes of “Bells”. Beginning in triple counterpoint on the first, Grimes bows, Ribot picks, and a muted Campbell sounds the theme. Varying the exposition, the four almost transform the tune from a march to a dump, which is a slow, melancholy old English dance. Polyphonic variations are introduced, as Ribot breaks the line for slurred fingering that ends in an explosion of snapping single strings. Meanwhile, Campbell blows brassy counterpoint, Taylor cross patterns and Grimes supplies a bagpipe-type drone. Turning to disconnected bounces and ruffs, the drumming presages bugle-like accents from the trumpeter that once again recapitulate the theme, then turns moderato as sonorous bowed bass and glancing guitar-string bites turn the final section into a harmonic interchange.

More innovative, “Bells” finds Ribot processing wide, Folk Revival-like strums that bring a new interface to the Ayler tune; the saxman’s background was spirituals not folk ballads. As the fretman’s chording become wider and more complex, Grimes adds cello-like pizzicato fills, until the familiar melody kicks in, followed by plucked single string by Ribot and given grace note coloration from the trumpeter. These languid brass notes soon turn to beeps and peeps as Taylor uses his rock music experiences to emphasize the backbeat, propelling the tune forward with polyrhythmic verve plus cymbal slashes and press rolls.

With the tempo doubled and the nursery rhyme aspects of the theme stressed, Ribot’s lines get longer and Campbell unleashes a triplet-laden solo. All this climaxes in another theme variation complemented and commented on with distorted reverb from the guitarist. Burying his solo in half-valve effects, Campbell eventually spills out a primitive-sounding blues line that reasserts itself as a further echo of the original theme. Fortissimo screaming rock guitar licks, sliding spiccato bass lines, thumping drums and trembling trumpet blows conspire to goose the theme until it finally revisits the folkie string patterns and plunger slurs of the top.

Stuttering bass lines, crunching guitar chords and slurred rubato trumpeting also make their appearance on the other compositions, one of which is surprisingly punctuated with a solemn nocturne. As real, re-imagined improvisation – not neo-con recreations – these recreations often refer only to Ayler’s performances in the heads. Structured in their own ways, the pieces on SPIRITUAL UNITY prove that you can honor the essence of music without copying it.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Invocation 2. Spirits 3. Truth Is Marching In 4. Saints 5. Bells

Personnel: Marc Ribot (guitar); Roy Campbell (trumpet and pocket trumpet); Henry Grimes (bass); Chad Taylor (drums)