Albert Ayler

Live at the Riviera
ESP-Disk 4801

By Ken Waxman

With a recording history almost as chaotic as his life, hitherto unknown sessions by free jazz avatar Albert Ayler (1936-1970) keep appearing. Ayler’s career was so brief (eight years) and so ground-breaking, that every track – standards-reinterpretation, rock music flirtation or unprecedented free-form expression – has value. Recorded four months before his suicide, Live at the Riviera is doubly important since most previous issues of the saxophonist’s welcome return to free jazz during these French Foundation Maeght concerts have been limited to quintet performances from July 27. Recorded two days earlier, the CD is Ayler accompanied only by bassist Steve Tintweiss, drummer Allen Blairman and the vocals and soprano saxophone of Mary Maria.

While Ayler’s performances are usually as subtle as blunt force trauma and as harmless as a car accident, he genuinely seems to be enjoying himself here, vocalizing with Maria, showcasing new arrangements of his then-recent Impulse LPs and injecting his pet phrases into most of the tunes. The re-mastering allows his and Maria’s naïve peace-and-love sentiments to be heard more clearly, along with the intricacies of his improvisations. Surprisingly, tunes such as Maria’s lilting “Island Harvest”, backed with spare accompaniment from Ayler, could actually be calypso or Caribbean play-party songs. Elsewhere, moving from mimicking a church congregation’s affirmation of Maria’s preaching on “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe” to his semi-lyrical, though flutter-tongued staccato variants on “Birth of Mirth”, Ayler’s expected multiphonics reinforce the performances. When playing musette on “Masonic Inborn” his screaming reed bites divide still further, with one line dog whistle-like and the other pressurized altissimo. Escaping studio confines, his timbre-exploration goes on for more than 10 minutes on some tracks, as the drummer and bassist scramble to keep up.

Ayler’s concluding, nearly 11-minute “Ghosts”, confirms that he could still find nuances in his anthem. Mirthfully exaggerated as well as well as nephritically powerful, he stops the tune with an applause-milking melody upturn, and after that arrives recasts the familiar line as a sailor’s hornpipe. Who knows what Ayler would have created had his metal state allowed him to survive?

Tracks: Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe; Birth of Mirth; Masonic Inborn; Oh! Love of Life; Island Harvest; Heart Love; Ghosts

Personnel: Albert Ayler: tenor and soprano saxophones, musette and vocal; Steve Tintweiss: bass; Allen Blairman: drums; Mary Maria: vocal and soprano saxophone

—For The New York City Jazz Record November 2013