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27 August 2009

Albert Ayler - 'Witches and Devils' (Arista)

The date shows that this was actually recorded before Spiritual Unity but I've always thought of it as later. 'Witches and Devils' begins with a very dark, slowly unfolding dirge with Norman Howard's brutally shrill trumpet fluttering around Ayler's painful tones. Its a phenomenal track, showing not just a great depth of spirit and character but also an incredible level of musical interplay. Earle Henderson and Henry Grimes are both playing bass on it though they keep clear of each other, and let Sunny Murray switch his focus at his own will. But like all of Ayler's greatest tunes, there's something to connect to - a very emotional, soulful piece that is still exploratory in an unflinching manner. 'Spirits' bears no resemblance to the track on Spiritual Unity, instead being a somewhat jaunty, upbeat number with Ayler busting into the higher register. Side 2's 'Holy Holy' continues this high/low dichotomy. At times Ayler drops into familiar melodies ('Ghosts') and Howard takes a pretty squawky, flutter solo that sounds like an eagle caught in a cement mixer. The rhythm is upbeat throughout the whole piece and the liner notes claim this is the same tune as 'The Wizard' though the presence of the trumpet and a different bass player make it unrecognizable to me. The solos are long but the musicians all feel when to occasionally slow it down and start a new movement, based around a strong, melodic gutpunch. 'Saints' is the closer, and it's a beauty - another sad, open, slow, reflective number but whereas 'Witches and Devils' had something focused about it, this is on the verge of falling apart. Ayler's melody is truly beautiful here, and Howard squawks around it over Henry Grimes' slow, walking bass. It's a bit too haphazard to really touch you but that's what I love about it. If I have one complaint about this record it's the recording quality, which puts the bass(es) quite low in the mix and takes away the power of Murray's drumming, which I imagine (if you were actually there) was always a pretty forceful, explosive thing to witness. But now that I think about it, Murray's drumming is underwheming (on a fidelity level) on most of these classic 60's free records. You can hear Al's vibrato expanding and contracting haphazardly, even within the same note; I've always loved that because it just throttles you - but I wonder if the saxerati at the time just saw it as sloppy playing.

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