Saturday, October 25, 2008

Albert Ayler vs. Kenny Burrell

I have been listening to a lot of avant garde jazz lately, and maybe it's a sign of spiritual progress and maybe it's a sign of brain damage, but I am getting to like it. There are moments when a coherent tune starts to bore me, and I long for a spooky, twisting, what the Hell was that? line to keep life interesting. I confess that I even picked up an Albert Ayler disc from eMusic.

I first encountered Ayler after reading a short piece in Rolling Stone (I think!) by Patti Smith. I bought an Ayler LP and couldn't make heads or tails of it, even when I was stoned. That may have been thirty years ago. So it was with some trepidation that I downloaded Spiritual Unity, by the Albert Ayler Trio. Apparently my ear is getting to the level of consciousness that Patti Smith reached when I was a very young man. The recording is very well made, with every tone and echo evident. But it is pure Page Four jazz: no listener could hum the tune, for there is no tune, and I doubt that the most seasoned player could accurately reproduce it after a single hearing. When you are alone with Albert Ayler, you are really alone.

I have loaded Ghosts, from Spiritual Unity, to Give it a listen, to see what Avant Garde is all about. Gary Peacock is on bass, and Sunny Murray on drums. Ayler carves out a cavenerous space, and fills it with bits of traditional melody, and then smears them across the board.

But then compare it with Kenny Burrell's Chitlins Con Carne, from Midnight Blue. The latter was one of the first jazz CDs I purchased, from Rhino Records in Claremont California. It was a remainder, if I remember right, so I got it cheap. Midnight Blue is one of the best recorded jazz discs I have ever heard. Every buzz and thump and exhale is on the tracks. Stanley Turrentine plays tenor, Ray Baretto plays congo (a great idea!), Major Holley plays bass, and Bill English is on drums. This is so damn good it makes your toes curl. It's pure Page Three Jazz: a theme stated, and then milked for all its worth. Burrell and Turrentine engage in a platonic dialogue. The congo is the wheels the cart runs on, while Burrell and Turrentine dance on the flatbed. The bluesy heart beats across the action.

NPR has a short piece on the recording, with a couple of tunes available (including, unfortunately, the one I have on See NPR Jazz Library.

It's okay to have angels hovering about the top of the picture. That's the space for avant garde. But the manger scene has to have a baby, straw, and goats. That, and all the smells and colors of real life. Ayler's job is to decorate the upper arches, Burrell is the center piece. You can sample both at by link. If you like what you hear, buy the discs.

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