Music News

Albert Ayler

Holy Ghost is an extraordinary career-spanning box set of rarely heard material by revolutionary saxophonist Albert Ayler. But it isn't a must-have for even the most serious jazz collector. While the archival aspect of the package is noteworthy -- eight CDs of live performances, an assortment of historical ephemera (including two discs of interviews), and a 200-page book filled with biography, criticism, and anecdotes -- nearly half of the performances are literally unlistenable. Here's why: Though Ayler drew his melodies from tuneful African-American spirituals, old-time folk music, and New Orleans marches and dirges, his concept was largely about channeling freedom and life energy -- "not about the notes," as he often said. Thus, on trademark tracks like "Spirits Rejoice" and "Truth Is Marching In," Ayler directs his quintet toward a kind of speaking-in-tongues fervor, the strength of which is both astonishing and hair-raising. But combined with the bootleg quality of many of the recordings, it's too often nearly impossible to hear. Sure, the listener can feel an unbridled power brewing beneath the noise -- and there are huge moments when Ayler's singular presence soars front and center -- but noise is the dominant trait here, and the gut response: Turn it off.
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Sam Prestianni