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28 August 2009

Albert Ayler - 'Nuits de la Fondation Maeght vol. 1' (Shandar)

This is one of the prides of my collection, if I have to look at it as a collection (a habit I all-too-often slip into) -- a mint condition copy of the first ever release on the Shandar label, truly one of the greatest labels of all-time. And the discography page online claims that this recording is Albert Ayler's last ever concert. I don't know if that's true - if so, I'm a bit surprised that the music stays so close to the jazz idiom and away from the fusion rock of his last studio work -- but it's a lovely sounding document, with a very different band from what we heard last (which was four years prior). Cal Cobbs (here listed as Call Cobbs) plays piano and his presence is quite strong. His style of long, elliptical runs suggests that he is definitely the pianist heard on 'Angels', a track from the Live in Greenwich Village discs. Allen Blairman is a bit more rigid than either Sunny Murray or Beaver Harris but he infuses the longer tracks with a momentum that can almost be seen as nervousness. Who knows what was going through Albert's head at this point? He certainly has energy. 'Spirits' has him zigzagging all over the map, switching to soprano at points (I think). Cobbs pretty much sticks to a chordal progression underneath most of the quarter-hour we hear it, and those chords sound like they come from another piece. But by this point, Ayler's compositions have all blended into one another and since the titles are all so similar and repetitive it suggests that he's left us one giant body of work instead of a bunch of individual compositions. I think Ayler peaked around 66/67 with the band we heard on the last two releases - I'm a bit biased towards the violin but also it had a more unique character to it. The Blairman/Steve Tintweiss rhythm section here is more rooted in Sonny Rollins and post-bop styles, and while this gives Ayler a grounding it lacks the utter mindfuckery of the marching-band/Negro spritual style he was doing a few years earlier. I guess that's what is the most disappointing about Ayler's last recordings - not that he tapered in ability or vision, but the folk elements were gone (or at least buried, most likely digested and reassimilated into something else). That's not to say that Nuits de la Fondation Maeght isn't great - it's definitely a great great jazz record, but it's only an average Albert Ayler record. But even though Ayler left us so many documents of his work, it still wasn't enough. 'Holy Family' on side 2 sounds exuberant and joyful, but very much a jazz piece. I guess I miss a trumpet to bounce off Ayler's explorations, and the rhythm section really does hold things down a bit. 'Spirits Rejoice' at the end is a familiar theme made beautiful by Cobbs' twinkling, and it's played fairly straight here, a ballad that continually picks up and breathes life into itself just when it's at the point of expiration. And expiration for Albert's life was to come just a few months after this, so it's nearly impossible to listen to this without some profound feelings, looking to hear symptoms of his troubled life in this version of 'Spirits Rejoice'. I'm not sure that I can actually hear that on this record; in fact, it's the lack of pain on this record that is telltale, if anything.

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