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Albert Ayler - Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondations Maeght Recordings Music Album Reviews

Albert Ayler - Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondations Maeght Recordings Music Album Reviews
In 1970, just four months before his death, the avant-jazz saxophonist played two concerts to a rapturous crowd in France. A new 5xLP set collects the complete recordings for the first time.

As the summer of 1970 approached, things weren’t going great for Albert Ayler. His brother and musical partner Donald suffered from mental health issues, and family members were pressuring Albert to help him more. Musically, encouraged in part by his label Impulse!, Ayler had moved from groundbreaking avant-jazz to a more conventional R&B sound. The resulting albums (1968’s New Grass and 1969’s Music is the Healing Force of the Universe) featured lyrics and vocals by Ayler’s wife and manager Mary Parks (aka Mary Maria), a guiding force in his later years, but they were not well received. Reflecting the tone of the criticism, jazz critic John Litweiler later wrote that Ayler “forsook his musical vision” and “mock(ed) his magnificence.” Impulse! ended up dropping him.

But Ayler had at least one reason for optimism. In July, he was invited to France to perform at the fine-art museum Fondation Maeght. Situated on a hilltop near Nice, it featured a newly built geodesic dome in which Ayler’s group could play. His previous concerts in that country had gone well, and he felt better understood in Europe than America. Ayler quickly put together a group including musicians he’d never played with before, providing them no sheet music or rehearsal time. Pianist Call Cobbs missed his plane from New York, meaning the first night would be a quartet concert with Ayler, Maria, bassist Steve Tintweiss, and drummer Alan Blairman, followed by a performance by the full quintet two days later.

Evidence that these shows were a success came later that year, via two volumes of LPs called Nuits de la Fondation Maeght. They were released by the French label Shandar, run by the man who had invited Ayler to play there, Daniel Caux. The performances—including versions of Ayler classics such as “Spirits” and “The Truth Is Marching In”—sounded triumphant, especially when followed by boisterous applause. But according to notes from a subsequent CD version, Caux had intentionally chosen the “wildest” material from the two nights, specifically avoiding pieces that included Maria’s vocals. Though a few more songs showed up on a 2005 ESP-Disk’ album Live on the Riviera, a full picture of these concerts remained hidden.

Over 50 years later, Revelations presents both nights in their entirety, with two hours of material never released before. While it turns out that Caux’s initial selections were indeed highlights, every moment on this four-hour box set (released in 5xLP and 4xCD versions) is worth hearing. Alongside fresh takes of pieces from across Ayler’s catalog, there are looser versions of songs that sounded stiff in the studio, spirited tunes that never made it onto albums, and a wealth of high-energy improvisations. Most compellingly, each night offers the twists and turns of a narrative, with lots of sonic variety and shifts in momentum—especially during the second evening, in which the wildly enthusiastic crowd became practically another member of Ayler’s group.

The first night opens with Ayler alone, playing “Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe” to set a fiery, inspired tone for the evening. Maria’s spoken poetry soon follows, and while her verse verges on platitude, what matters most throughout Revelations is the way she delivers it, with a dramatic authority more stirring than her contributions to Ayler’s studio albums. It helps that Tintweiss and Blairman add electricity to her exhortations, making them nearly a match for Ayler’s earlier rhythm sections. (That feat is all the more impressive given that, as Tintweiss writes in the liner notes, Ayler’s only directions were, “You start off with the bass and I’ll come in and we’ll take it from there.”)

Soon after that opening tune, one of Revelations’ biggest revelations emerges: Maria could play soprano saxophone, and quite well at that. She injects it briefly into a version of “Masonic Inborn” (a sweeter take on Healing Force’s bagpipe-heavy original), but it’s on the first improvisation that her playing really takes off, circling in and out of Ayler’s like a snake. From there, the group deftly steers through many curves, including Ayler’s fluttery lead vocal on “Oh! Love of Life,” Maria’s catchy singing on “Heart Love,” a reverent version of the Ayler classic “Ghosts,” and three improvised pieces that showcase Ayler’s dizzying runs, inhuman noises, and frequent references to traditional melodies. As the audience literally stomps for more, Ayler and Maria end with a stretch of wordless vocalizing that’s as captivating as their horn duets.

Ayler’s first night at Fondation Maeght got mentioned on local TV news, which Tintweiss claims resulted in a much larger crowd for the second show. “The place was packed,” he writes. “The audience was ecstatic, just built up.” Revelations bears him out, as escalating cheers give this second set a stair-climbing arc. This is despite the fact that the music is a bit tamer than two days before, owing mostly to the arrival of Cobbs, whose more conventional piano playing centers on melody and chord changes. Still, Ayler remains forceful and adventurous, cresting during a kaleidoscopic 20-minute improvisation.

The straighter parts of night two work pretty well, too. Cobbs’ bop stylings on “Holy Family,” from 1965’s Spirits Rejoice, partner perfectly with Ayler’s fluid horn, while Maria’s spoken-word piece “Again Comes the Rising of the Sun” is a moving melange of folklore-inspired verse. Most surprising is “Thank God for Women,” a hooky tune that Ayler had hoped would someday be a pop hit, but was never able to include on a studio album. Hearing him chant the song’s title while the band vamps behind him is thrilling. After over two hours of ever-heightening music and applause, Maria effusively thanks the audience while Ayler adds, “I would say something, but I can’t talk—I’ve been blowing so hard!”

That’s the last known recording of Albert Ayler’s voice. He was found floating in New York’s East River four months after these concerts, though the circumstances of his death were never determined. An LP of studio recordings called The Last Album, which included many songs played during this concert, came out posthumously in 1971. The energy and breadth of these French shows make Ayler’s tragic death even more poignant. As Litweiler observed, “There’s a renewed sense of purpose in this final concert… Possibly some major changes in his art were on the verge of occurring.” Revelations helps us imagine what might have come next.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Albert Ayler - Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondations Maeght Recordings Music Album Reviews Albert Ayler - Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondations Maeght Recordings Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Saturday, April 30, 2022 Rating: 5

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