The first edition’s silkscreen cover looked sharp, but by all other indications, the Albert Ayler Trio’s Spiritual Unity seemed like an offhand effort. It’s not quite half an hour long, has only three tunes (one of them played twice), and was made in a couple of hours at a cheap studio with an engineer so inattentive he recorded it in mono. The first edition had to be recalled, because a wrong tune was accidentally issued in place of one selection. Weirder yet, on at least some versions, an unexplained reference tone sounds for five seconds behind “Ghosts (Second Variation)” at around the 3:20 mark. (ESP’s 2014 edition corrects that — and adds that wayward wrong tune.)
And yet, 50 years after it was recorded, Spiritual Unity is still the album to play for people curious about what free jazz sounds like. They can’t miss the “free” part; it’s in the rowdy interplay of the leader’s saxophone, Gary Peacock’s ka-boing string bass and Sunny Murray’s tear-up-the-rulebook drums. Ayler’s dyspeptic tenor starts the album on a tear across the middle register before heading skyward; he twists thin strands of melody any which way. His signature is an unearthly, exaggerated, almost Theremin-like combination of extreme vibrato and extreme tremolo: broad, pulsating variations in pitch and volume.
Yet for all the glorious moment-to-moment freedom, the trio never loses sight of the tunes. Saxophonist Jackie McLean, who had a long flirtation with free jazz in the ’60s, said later he gave it up when it all wound up sounding the same — as if every night they entered the same room through a different door. Ayler’s solution to that dilemma was to write tunes so catchy they’d influence the improvising on an unconscious level; and so echoes of “Ghosts”‘s anthemic, upward-yearning melody keep peeking through the collective mayhem, on either the five- or the 10-minute version. (Comparing them makes it plain that the trio is playing what amounts to an unwritten arrangement — they know the general arc of a performance, even as they improvise the details.)
Pianist Misha Mengelberg once said free jazz would make good singles music — a few minutes of it is plenty. You might look at the lead-off “Ghosts (First Variation)” as the great free jazz single. It’s a very hummable tune — later versions make plain Ayler heard it as a calypso — and the performance only sounds more cohesive with repetition. On first listen you hear the spiritual; over time you hear the unity.
“The Wizard,” the second song, is little more than a raucous, braying phrase derived from Ayler’s arsenal of guttural saxophone gestures. It shows you don’t need a fixed form to focus the improvising; it can be enough, and less restrictive, to have the melody establish a strong mood or rhythm. So it goes also with “Spirits,” one of Ayler’s pleading, slow-motion dirges, where his vibrato is even more exaggerated; the writhing conjures sacred snake-handling more than a jazz ballad.
One musician immediately inspired by Ayler’s spiritual overtones was John Coltrane, whose big vibrato’ed, loosely timed mid ’60s prayers like “Ogunde” are straight out of Ayler’s playbook. Not for nothing did Ayler play at Coltrane’s funeral in 1967, less than four years before his own premature death.
That spiritual strain was in Ayler’s music from the beginning: As a kid in Cleveland, he played saxophone duets in church with his father. (They also listened to jazz together — to Lionel Hampton’s band with its honking tenor saxophones.) You can connect Ayler’s sound to big-vibrato gospel saxophonists like Vernard Johnson; earlier in 1964, Ayler even recorded some spirituals alongside his own tunes.
In 1959, Ayler shipped off to France as a member of the U.S. Army, and during the next several years, even after his discharge, he spent a lot of his time sitting in (or attempting to) with bands all over Western Europe and Scandinavia. He was too weird for most — musicians would leave the bandstand when he came up. How poorly he meshed with straight-ahead players is documented on the fascinating train wreck My Name Is Albert Ayler, recorded in Copenhagen early in 1963. He and his Danish rhythm section sound like they’re on different planets; Ayler scribbles all over their by-the-book sound.
The road to Spiritual Unity began three months before that, though, on October 27, 1962, at the Golden Circle in Stockholm, where Ayler met and first played with Sunny Murray.
Reached at home in Paris recently, Murray begged off an interview: “I’m tired of talking about all that history!” Fair enough: He’s talked about it before. Murray had been a straight-ahead jazz drummer in New York when, one night in 1959, he sat in at a club alongside another rebel who inspired walk-offs whenever he stepped on the bandstand: pianist Cecil Taylor. They clicked, and Murray joined Taylor’s band. Taylor was exploring different ways of fragmenting lines and jazz time. In response, Murray began to develop his own shimmering, meter-free pulsations.
In the fall of ’62, Taylor’s trio was on a European tour. At the club in Stockholm, an unknown American saxophonist wanted to sit in; Taylor was skeptical, but Murray and alto player Jimmy Lyons told him to go get his horn. Taylor was converted as soon as he heard Ayler play. Ayler followed them to Copenhagen and sat in there, too. He kept doing it once they were all back in New York, and played Lincoln Center as a formal member of Taylor’s band. Ayler also started using Murray on his own infrequent dates, like that spirituals session with Henry Grimes on bass.
“Albert was dealing with bass players, and he’d heard Peacock somewhere and said he wanted to bring him to rehearsal,” Murray said during our short talk. “I said that was OK with me! Gary was playing with Miles at the time, but I guess Miles didn’t want him playing with us.”
The path that brought Gary Peacock to them is a longer story, and one worth telling. Two years earlier, he’d been living in Los Angeles and playing light post-cool music with Cali-jazz kingpins Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank.
He got knocked off that path by New York pianist Paul Bley. The first time they played together, as a duo, Bley had them perform a standard in two incompatible keys simultaneously. “That was kind of rough for me,” Peacock recalls. “I’d never been exposed to anything quite that discordant.”
In 1962, he and Bley appeared on trumpeter Don Ellis’s album Essence. “That was my early introduction to free playing, which was…scary,” Peacock says. “I couldn’t rely on that tradition I’d trained myself in. I started to move in a different direction for awhile.”
The bassist relocated to New York at the end of 1962 and began working in Bley’s trio. Within a year, Peacock had his pick of gigs, subbing for Steve Swallow in Jimmy Giuffre’s trio, and for Ron Carter in Miles Davis’s quintet. Drummer Paul Motian asked Peacock to fill in on a Rochester gig with pianist Bill Evans, whose harmonic refinement is about as far from Albert Ayler’s aesthetic as you can get. But it was another step closer to Spiritual Unity.
“After the first set, we all three realized that there might really be something here,” Peacock remembers. “At the break Bill asked me if I might be willing to join the trio.”
You can hear why Evans pounced from the one album they made together, Trio ’64 (actually recorded at the end of ’63). Bassist Michael Formanek points out it makes an instructive comparison with Spiritual Unity. The context is completely different, but Peacock displays the same kind of physicality he does with Ayler: rapid flurries and leaps, and a thundering presence.
“Creed Taylor, who directed that date, just wanted me to play regular time. We had a bit of a tiff, but eventually I just ignored him. I was already into broken time, and wasn’t about to play his idea of what a bass solo should be. But when I heard my solos played back, part of me went, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ Although I’m hearing the melody at all times, what I’m improvising can sound disconnected, even though it’s absolutely right on target. That was heavily influenced by all my free playing, and by Paul Bley’s solo on ‘All the Things You Are’ with Sonny Rollins [and Coleman Hawkins], one of the greatest solos I heard in my life. If you analyzed it, you might just come up with a bunch of wrong notes, but he was so grounded in the music he was free to play anything.”
(One factor that contributed to Peacock’s hyperkinetic approach: He was going through an 8-ounce jar of instant coffee a day; strong java heaping with sugar was his homemade cure for an amphetamine habit. “And I did it; I haven’t had any drugs since 1964.”)
Sometime around New Year’s ’64, Bley dragged him up to Harlem to meet new avant-garde sax sensation Albert Ayler. Peacock says, “I loved him right away, loved his energy, his straightforwardness, his unassuming attitude — just a great guy. We invited him down to play with us at the…where was it?” Probably the Take 3 Coffee House, in mid-January. “The minute I heard him I thought, ‘Oooh yes!’ Sunny Murray also sat in. And then Albert said, ‘Hey man, I’m gonna do a record for ESP and I want you to do it. And I’m setting up a tour to go to Europe, blah blah blah.’ ‘Oh, great, sure.’”
Ayler and Murray went to Peacock’s apartment to rehearse. Ayler didn’t bring any music. “He just started playing, ‘Ghosts’ or whatever, and I just relied on my ear to play whatever I thought was appropriate. Afterward I said, ‘Is that what you had in mind for me to do?’ ‘It’s cool man, it’s fine, no problem.’ That gave me a reference point: listen to the melody, and play what I hear, and not at all what I think.”
Around the same time Peacock and Bley had sought out Ayler, an entertainment lawyer named Bernard Stollman also got a tip to check the saxophonist out. Stollman had issued an LP promoting the synthetic language Esperanto on his ESP-Disk’ label. Hearing Ayler sitting in one night in Harlem — the band walked off — Stollman resolved to go into the free jazz business. He told Ayler, “Call me when you’re ready to record.” Which he did, six months later.
Stollman had done some work for Folkways Records, and knew a small cheap studio that label used, on a side street off Times Square: Variety Arts Studio where a lot of Latin records got cut. Peacock says, “It was a very, very small studio, and it was hot. We went in, we were there for two hours or something, and it was a really wonderful experience.”
That’s pretty much how Stollman remembers it, in Jason Weiss’s ESP oral history Always in Trouble: no small talk. The trio came in and got right down to business. Only when the musicians were finished did Stollman discover the engineer who’d miked them so well had for some reason recorded them in mono. Stollman also realized, given the explosive music, no one would care.
In the early ’60s, jazz idealists talked about liberating drummers and bassists from the utilitarianism of marking time and defining a tune’s form, a subservience that kept them from being full partners in an improvised conversation. But even in bands like Ornette Coleman’s, where everyone had plenty of leeway, the rhythm players didn’t abandon the convenience and clarity their traditional functions brought to an ensemble sound.
On Spiritual Unity, Peacock and Murray subvert those customary roles in ingenious but divergent ways. The bassist takes the showy route, and Peacock’s playing, more than anything, makes the album a perennial jaw-dropper. His attack can rattle windows; his bass yelps when plucked. You can tell within five seconds of his entrance on “Ghosts (First Variation)” that Peacock has smashed the old paradigm. Unpredictable lines leap all over the fingerboard, the antithesis of supportive, connect-the-dots walking bass. He hits open strings so hard they clack against the neck.
The drummer’s subversion is stealthier, eroding the system from within. He doesn’t set up a beat for the band to ride as much as follow Ayler’s lead, guided by his breathing and the ebb of his line. Murray used to say he wanted the drums to sound like a force of nature — or, in a much-quoted comment, like “the continuous cracking of glass.”
Cracking glass is violent, but not necessarily loud, and neither is Murray. Faced with all the roiling from tenor and bass, he’s often surprisingly delicate and poetic, quieter than on a live recording from the month before, when the trio was honing their material. He barely employs his own signature lick, a wave of rapid full-kit flutters that starts softly and quickly gets louder — the drums as an approaching freight train. (Nor does he moan along with his drums as he often did.) Spiritual Unity was recorded in a small room, and Murray adjusted his playing accordingly. But he also liked to listen, the better to comment on the action; he’d use light beaters on the drums, including metal tubes and knitting needles.
Even odder, the drummer who threw over traditional timekeeping deploys a gamut of orthodox techniques. Like any postwar drummer, he pays steady attention to his cymbals, on which he gets a light, clattery sound; he makes chattering comments on snare, and uses the lower tubs for punctuation. When the spotlight shifts to Peacock, Murray dips the volume, giving the bassist room to vary his own dynamics. But even as Murray erects that superstructure, he takes away the foundation — doesn’t signal or define where ‘one’ is. His playing has a lively pulse, but it doesn’t dictate, doesn’t hem anyone in.
The album didn’t come out till September 1965, part of the first batch of ESP jazz. By then, Ayler, Peacock and Murray had several more recordings to their credit. A week after Spiritual Unity, they recorded New York Eye and Ear Control with three extra horns including ex-Ornette and ex-Rollins cornetist Don Cherry. In September ’64, Ayler took the trio plus Cherry to Europe, where they stayed three months and made several live and studio albums, including Vibrations — Peacock’s pick of the albums they made that year — where Cherry shows off his uncanny ability to get on a saxophonist’s wavelength.
Murray stuck with Ayler through 1965. After the European tour, Peacock recorded with them only once more, in an expanded lineup with Henry Grimes also on bass, for Spirits Rejoice in September ’65. The music was no longer quite as wild, as Ayler focused more on his earworm melodies.
Why did Peacock stop playing with Ayler? “In ’64, my physical and mental health were deteriorating, and I realized if I stayed in New York I wouldn’t live more than two years. I moved to Boston and became active in the macrobiotic community there, got interested in Oriental medicine and philosophy and all that, and made the decision to move to Japan for awhile.”
Spiritual Unity was a hell of a calling card for Ayler and his new label, and it got around. Saxophonist Steve Lacy told Ben Young in 2003 there was a time when he listened to it every day. “A lot of musicians were really checking that out,” Lacy said. “What Ayler was doing was irresistible to musicians of a certain ilk. It was the whole jazz tradition right there, but pushed into the stratosphere, really.”
Multi-instrumentalist and veteran free-jazzer Joe McPhee was a cornet player when he heard Ayler on record in ’65. It inspired him to pick up the tenor as well. (He first heard Ayler in person at Coltrane’s funeral.) McPhee points to the album’s direct influence on one of the bands he plays in, the co-op Trio X, with bass and drums. “Spiritual Unity was like a three-stage rocket taking off. At first I didn’t know what to think. It wasn’t a case of horn plus rhythm section; all of them were working together. It had what I wanted — music connected to the heart and body, and not to a metronome. I loved that. Spiritual Unity is so essential to what came later. It showed what was possible.”
The appeal hasn’t faded. Downtown guitar hero Marc Ribot named one of his bands after the record, and has played all three of its tunes in various contexts.
Bassist Eric Revis’s inside/outside career mirrors Peacock’s in 1964. He’s a charter member of Branford Marsalis’s primo mainstream quartet, but his own recent albums feature post-Ayler tenor shredders Peter Brotzmann and Ken Vandermark. Revis recently named Spiritual Unity as one of his favorite ’60s albums.
“I first heard it at a midpoint in my development, in the late ’80s or early ’90s. It shocked me, but something kept me going back to it, and then I started looking for as much Ayler from that period as possible. You listen to early Ornette Coleman now, it sounds almost…prosaic. All the fundamental elements of jazz are there, even though he’s bending and stretching the rules. But Spiritual Unity kicked down the fucking door.”
For all that, Revis notes, it’s deeply rooted. “In Albert’s playing you can hear the Texas tenor and R&B tenor thing, that line going back to Herschel Evans and before that to Coleman Hawkins. But Ayler took it to a whole other level — the visceral thing times 10. That Albert cry — there’s something so human about it. No matter how seemingly out the music is, there’s something very inviting about it too. His melodies are so strong. The first time you hear ‘Ghosts,’ you know it — like you’ve already heard it before.”
Understandably, the bassist zeroes in on Gary Peacock’s “unprecedented” role. “Between Spiritual Unity and Bley’s Turning Point, he revolutionized bass in a sense,” says Revis. “The utter fearlessness! Nobody was approaching the instrument like that. What did he weigh then, like 85 pounds? But the authority with which he plays is so…poignant. It reflected his independent thinking. He really digs into the bass, and that whole idea of playing two parts: holding a bass note, and letting that long, beautiful tone ring; and then playing those fantastic high flurries. He’s the grandfather of that kind of playing. Sunny Murray’s playing is another line of independent thought, and a palette the other guys can dance on. That type of frenetic percussive swirl didn’t become popular till Coltrane’s Interstellar Space.” That duo with drummer Rashied Ali dates from 1967, but wasn’t released till the mid ’70s, like Bley’s 1964 recording Turning Point.
Gary Peacock never listens to Spiritual Unity anymore. “I don’t spend a whole lot of time listening to music, primarily because I have a hard time listening to digital. I came up in an analog world. But even on vinyl, what Albert was about musically is more than what’s on the records. To really know about Albert Ayler, you’d have to have heard him in person. But there’s enough there that it does present what he was doing.”