Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Frank Wright Quartet-Blues for Albert Ayler; ESP Disc, 2012

Albert Ayler is a strange phenomena in the musical world. Disaster Amnesiac suspects that his appeal is rather limited to musicians, more so than to the casual, or even engaged, fan. I have seen many tributes made, cover projects documented , and kudos given to Cleveland's late, great master tenor sax wailer. Casual fans of Jazz seem not be bothered to dig into his body of work, let alone the Official Arbiters of Jazz (America's Classical Music Wing), who would, one can presume, rather that not only his body, but everything else about him, have been left sitting in the muck at the bottom of the East River.
Ayler's spirit must rest easier knowing that there have been groups like the one convened by saxophonist by Frank Wright on 7/17/1974 have come into being, specifically to honor his memory by playing "out" and jamming out with their own spirits.  Made up of some of the masters of Free/post-Free playing, in a conglomeration that was to become know as the Funky Free Boppers (ESP: please find more tapes and release them!), the group documented here is simply called the Frank Wright Quartet.
The proceedings start with a simple, bluesy modal melody, more akin to Coltrane's heavy "sheets of sound" feel than Ayler's reedier one, before Wright, guitarist James Blood Ulmer, bassist Benny Wilson, and drummer Rashied Ali dive into over an hour's worth of deep, interactive, free blowing. 
The disc's liner notes give a brief biographical description of Wright having begun his professional music career in the band of Jump Blues artist George Rhodes, and the Blues influence can definitely be heard in his tenor playing. It's a gritty, reedy, sound, which, after the head statement, does veer closer to that of Ayler. In keeping with the trend of post-Free sax, it's throaty and raw, with a flatted melodic sound, as much African and American, but always earthy and "voiced" in its abstraction.
It's a real treat to hear James Blood Ulmer here. Disaster Amnesiac has appreciated his groups' music for many years. Their Free Funk Rock is great and unique. On Blues for Albert Ayler, Ulmer is all over the place, stretching his harmolodics-inflected guitar approach, with twanging, chiming, nimble runs, always in the pocket and in harmony with the rest of the group. Ulmer seems like the Wes Montgomery of the post-Free Jazz years, wedding high technique with the aesthetic breakthroughs of his chosen form. His guitar sound is so impressive in that it sounds pretty much "guitar to amp", yet he coaxes such a singular sound from his six strings.
Bassist Benny Wilson lays down a fine low end in the rhythm section. His sound is thick, present in the mix and active. Wilson gets an extend bowed solo turn, thrumming low, harmonic voices from his bass. I suspect that William Parker may have paid attention to Wilson's playing at some point. There are a lot of similarities, especially in the bowing.
Lastly, Free master Rashied Ali.His playing on Ayler is a fine showcase of his 1970's heights. It is pretty amazing, the way a drummer can be so all over the place, yet so in control at the same time. Control of volume may be one key to the success of his approach. Byron Coley once described his drumming as "laying down a rhythmic carpet for the soloists", and I can't come up with a better description. As his arabesques are drawn in the air, the listener's ears are never pummeled. Ali's sticking is like strongly worded whispers. As they root and effect, they never pummel, but make statements. His Free drumming conception is one of the best, and most unique.
Blues for Albert Ayler is indeed Blues, if by Blues one means a group of musicians listening to and commenting upon one and others' licks, building up a small band sound and pushing it forward in discrete episodes. Overall, the Frank Wright Quartet sounds relaxed as they play together, in memory of a fallen trailblazer.

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