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Albert Ayler - The Copenhagen Tapes

Jay Collins, One Final Note

Albert Ayler has seemingly struck many as a furious, combative tenor saxophonist whose gritty R&B leanings further emphasized his fire and perhaps, anger. As Dan Warburton's cogent liner notes to this archival release proffer, Ayler's art is about passion, yes, but the kind of passion that suggests joy, celebration and even love. Indeed, this aspect of Ayler's music seems easily glossed over by writers, fans and others, but that happenstance is unfortunate. As demonstrated on these live and radio performances from September 1964, Ayler's group vision and his own playing favor intense, fiery gestalts, but to say that the focus was solely on fury is simply missing the boat.

What is immediately apparent on these two dates—one an excitable live performance at Copenhagen's venerable Club Montmartre and the other, an in-studio date for Danish Radio—is that the addition of a foil with a contrasting approach, trumpeter Don Cherry, ignites Ayler's now-legendary trio. Cherry adds a fascinating and contrasting dimension in that while he certainly can hang with Ayler in terms of exhilarating energy, he also adds a sensitive, "jazzy" approach. Also of note is that Sunny Murray provides ample evidence of why he remains the godfather of free jazz drumming, with his constant flow of energy and color that either steers or ornaments the group's direction. Ditto bassist Gary Peacock, who is arguably the key to it all, with his biting pizzicato lines and tension-building arco musings.

As for the tracks, there are nine in all that touch on the "classic" Ayler road map: a brief thematic passage, involved improvised interplay and then a theme restatement (not unlike the boppers). The live session is sequenced first, a set that fully captures the raw essence of the group. Beginning and ending with his theme song "Spirits", with its call and response between the horns working against the rumbling bass and freestyle drumming, Ayler is able to summon emotion from deep within, particularly during the explosive final sections. "Vibrations" is Peacock's track, a looser foundation with a vibe perhaps suggesting the title's metaphor for the vibrations of the earth, capturing a mutable and shifting terrain. The bassist astounds with his technique and his ability to be right in front with these gregarious types. Another highlight is "Mothers", an emotional ode that shows Ayler coming right from the church, testifying to the congregation with a mammoth sound that can be heard through the rafters.

The studio session covers similar ground and even includes a brief interview. The sound is a tad clearer and the group seems paradoxically less restrained than on the live session. Of particular note is the incredibly moving version of "Saints" that typifies this group in action, worthy for Cherry's silvery interjections that wrap around Ayler's husky hues, as Peacock's bow hums and quivers, all to the ebb and flow of Murray's dancing cymbals.

Released officially for the first time after almost forty years in the vaults, this is the sort of mission-fulfilling document that hopefully will be the sign of more archival Ayler Records releases to come. Certainly, while listeners unfamiliar with Ayler's music should probably seek out his ESP-Disk dates first, The Copenhagen Tapes is a momentous offering.