In describing his music, the late tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler said, “It’s not about notes; it’s about feelings.” Fellow tenor player Frank Wright was a contemporary of Ayler’s, who lived in New York City at the same time and played with many of the same musicians, and he takes Ayler’s axiom seriously on Blues for Albert Ayler. He may incorporate some of Ayler’s feeling into the music, but he doesn’t spend much time here emulating his notes, form, or compositions. Assisted by guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, bassist Benny Waters and drummer Rashied Ali, Wright puts together an album closer to gritty urban blues than the kind of “energy music” for which the dedicatee was known. The tribute is clunky, imprecise and garrulous, but it absolutely works through its passion and general hue and cry.
Wright himself is an oddly affecting player. Neither a good technician nor blessed with the kind of enormous screaming sound of some of his contemporaries (Pharoah Sanders, Peter Brotzmann and Ayler himself leap to mind), he is persuasive by dint of pure conviction; there is the strong sense of a man using the language he has to say the things he needs to say. And, because Blues for Albert Ayler puts him in the company of high-powered colleagues like Ulmer and Ali and a reliable bassist in Waters, the result is very satisfying.
There was a second-tier language during the ’60s and ’70s among musicians who weren’t fluent in conventional jazz theory. Without reference to the traditional markers, the players figured out new ways to cohabit space, churning away singly but with a sort of spiritual solidarity. Ornette Coleman’s Lifetime bands still occasionally use this approach. Blues for Albert Ayler is essentially a suite in six parts. It begins with a three note theme, vaguely reminiscent of a Coltrane motif, but approached differently by Ulmer, who uses chromatic chording and disruptively choppy phrases to give things a lot of bite. Ali thrashes around effectively underneath. A long drum solo dominates the second part, and it’s surprising to hear how Rashied Ali, so strongly identified with energy music, plays like a Max Roach-Elvin Jones hybrid. Things heat up in the third part, with Wright wailing, Ulmer moving to various effects, and Waters rumbling ominously underneath while Ali blasts away.
Benny Waters is given his space in part four. He’d been listening to Jimmy Garrison’s arco solos with Trane, but there’s a lot of Alan Silva in there too. The solo also serves to bring the pace down briefly, providing some effective breathing room. His solo continues into the more meditative part five, which features a surprisingly fluent flute solo by the leader. The section is the closest thing to conventional jazz on the album, as Ali and Waters play a simulacrum of straight ahead time with walking bass. By the midway point of the section, Wright is back on tenor, and Ulmer is cranking out a Sonny Sharrock inspired accompaniment. The final section is a recapitulation of the opener, played harder, pushing the dynamics more, upping the emotional ante. It’s period music, without question. But it’s a particularly vivid reminder of what was happening with some forwarding-thinking musicians living in New York City at that time.