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ESP-Disk Reissues : Ayler, Brown, and Simmons

It’s staggeringly ironic, given the ready access to historical documents that we now enjoy, that “free” jazz is still so misunderstood.  The music is conceived so fluidly that stylistic features and genre labels are confused and misused, causing marginalization and alienation 40 years after the fact.  These ESP reissues drive the point home with stunning clarity.  While recorded within fairly close proximity to each other, the players draw from a huge catalog of rhetorical precidents to create a beautifully non-linear narrative for those willing to accept a broader historical perspective.

Of the much-revered ESP roster, no one has garnered more vehement praise and damnation in equal measure than Albert Ayler, and no one is more worthy of a well-executed reissue campaign for purposes of affirmation or reevaluation.  The Slug’s set, recorded on May 1 1966, documents a group whose musical vision was solid even if the membership was in flux.  Violinist Michel Samson wasn’t to stay very long, while bassist Lewis Worrell and drummer Ron Jackson were fairly new members; brother Donald was the only constant, and his emotive trumpet work has become as much a hallmark of the Ayler sound as has Albert’s tenor moans, smears, and huge vibrato.

The track titles mean very little, even on this better-sounding reissue.  “Ghosts” sounds nothing like the versions from Spiritual Unity or Prophecy, and while it’s clear that Albert himself confused his own compositions on a regular basis, I continually found myself wondering why these particular titles have been applied.  Much of the material on offer here seems to be drawn primarily from “Truth Is Marching In”, and if that multifarious entity is taken to be a recurring theme, the set makes more sense.  More than on any other concurrent release, the group glides through heavily gospelized melodic counterpoint, only to erupt into march and squall, wielding an ever-turning fiery sword of “new thing” vitriol and optimism.  The results are elusive, enigmatic, and powerful.

Like much of the material on the recently released Holy Ghost box, the lack of fidelity actually gives the listener more of the in-house experience, very desirable where the music encompasses so many dynamic levels.  I almost felt as if I was in the audience, amidst the rousing shouts of encouragement and enthusiasm that give the set additional excitement.

Superficially, Marion Brown’s ESP debut covers extremely different terrain.  Recorded some six months before the Ayler Slug’s date, it opens with the beautifully languid “Capricorn Moon”, whose Caribbean gestalt has been cited to death.  More prominent seems to be the tune’s thorough-going homage to Coltrane’s “India”, recorded in November of 1961 at the Village Vanguard.  Drummer Rashied Ali, who was already on board Coltrane’s infamous and legendary Meditations sextet when Brown waxed “Capricorn”, provides loping swinging accompaniment that makes panglobal reference, similar to what Elvin Jones laid down at the Vanguard.

The bass duo of Ronnie Boykins and Reggie Johnson cement the allusion with slides, rattles, thwacks, and arco work of exotic beauty, laying the perfect groundwork for Brown and trumpeter Alan Shorter to expand on Trane’s modal, chromatic, and spatial innovations.  Ali’s low thrumming fills an acute sense of timbre that, coupled with multicolored bass attacks, gives the track a broader sonic pallet than is readily apparent on first audition.  In fact, there is a wealth of timbral and special detail that lurks just below the calm surface of this underappreciated track.

In direct contrast is “27 Cooper Square”, a tightly coiled spring of compositional prowess whose jagged edges can still catch the inattentive listener unaware.  The same is true of the bonus track, a dazzling version of Shorter’s “Mephistopheles”, somehow less sinister than the roughly contemporaneous Blue Note version recorded under his brother Wayne’s leadership but still austere in its sparser quartet presentation.

The more composed elements of the Brown date are taken to thrilling extremes on Sonny Simmons’ two ESP sessions.  Staying on the Watch and Music of the Spheres are presented in a double-disc package, each album being supplemented with interviews conducted by the Good Doctor Bop.  The music is astonishing in its focus and clarity of vision, blending the best elements from the constant ferment of ideas that was occurring in the mid-60s composition/improvisation continuum.

Ornette Coleman is certainly a meaningful point of reference, but no more so than early Sun Ra, Mingus, or Dolphy.  “Dolphy Days” demonstrates just how agile Simmons’ compositional chops could be; the sax/trumpet duo, then-wife Barbara Donald being the constant on both dates, engages in some meaty interplay with tenor man Bert Wilson, whose playing is somehow muscular and free without going outside Simmons’ professed boundaries of taste.  Wilson seems to channel Dolphy through Ayler, and the combination works convincingly.  While the compositions show marginally better detail on the second date, the rhythm section on Simmons’ debut is nothing short of miraculous.  John Hicks might be the hero of the session, elegantly thundering his way through the composed intricacies with controlled vigor.

The interviews are heartbreaking.  Between the recorded excerpts and a later conversation with jazz aficionado Clifford Allen printed in the booklet, we learn of the many hardships that have left Simmons bitter, resentful, and ultimately determined, as he says, “to kill”.  His frustrations mirror those of Ayler, Bill Dixon, or so many musicians from that time of upheaval who feel wronged, misunderstood, and neglected.  Simmons’ repeated accusations involve a lack of tradition in recent music, and these three reissues certainly bespeak intense preoccupation with tradition.  It’s not just jazz, or “classical”, or any one period of history; this music was recorded before titles and categories got in the way of innovation, and they should be cherished all the more fervently for their breadth of influence and experience.