Joe McPhee, the saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist, has also been suggested as a major acolyte of the Ayler school. In a 1999 Cadence Magazine interview with Robert Spencer (published 11/2000), he notes: “I know I’m associated with Albert’s music and I love it, and I’ve certainly been inspired by it, but I don’t see that my music is that close to it, in terms of sound, even. But certainly that was the direction I was aiming for when I started playing the saxophone. That’s what I wanted, was that sound. That wonderful – just filled with colors! It really excited me!” McPhee’s work in Trio X is a sparse reflection on Ayler among other things – as I wrote in a forthcoming review of their 2008 US tour boxed set (CIMPoL), “[this set] captures very well the seamlessness with which the band moves through a palette of emotions vis-à-vis theme and improvisation. McPhee can get an extraordinarily huge sound out of his tenor, and he works through lines with cascades, splashes and drizzles that explode out of folk forms, often in tandem with Dominic Duval’s pizzicato plenum and Jay Rosen’s airy, continuous crash. Obviously there’s a precedent for this music in Spiritual Unity, but Trio X does not end there – rather, this kind of improvisation is a node arrived at on their collective journey.” McPhee’s music has long been rooted in parallel actions, contrasting and unifying, and that certainly has a precedent in Spiritual Unity – Ayler’s hot tenor blur set against the independent pizzicato filigree of Gary Peacock and the disappearing-reappearing shades of Sunny Murray’s percussion. They gel into a unified field of action, but that doesn’t mean that each musician is exactly complementary – rather it’s an independent, related search for higher expression on a canvas of three.
|The back cover of Spiritual Unity|
I can’t exactly recall what I heard when I first listened to Spiritual Unity, but I can remember how shocking it was to hear Albert Ayler on record. I’d heard Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Miles and Wayne Shorter (and apparently my dad played me Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton when I was a baby), but nothing prepared me for the huge and garish sound that came out of that man’s saxophone. And I wasn’t even able to hear it live, which must have been quite a shock. My first Ayler record was Bells (ESP, 1965), a larger-group affair which I have a soft-spot for, but it didn’t take long before the trio and quartet music (with Don Cherry) entered my consciousness. My perception of it certainly has changed, as it sounds natural and swinging to my ears now, and that’s partly because it’s set in relief to – dare I say – more superficially “challenging” or “difficult” music. That’s not to say that Ayler is not still a stubbornly fascinating figure or that his music isn’t an about face from how jazz is “supposed” to sound to this day. But familiarity has brought my ears to a place with it that is comforting, finger-snapping even. After all, it’s impossible for me not to feel a kinship with a music that’s so clearly based on conversation and unification through difference, and that’s part of why Spiritual Unity remains resonant. That space is important, because it lets one either fill in with one’s own ideas and experiences, or leave it there for the sake of wonder – either/any response is correct. Maybe the “big” sound isn’t only of Albert Ayler’s saxophone, but of an immense area being granted us as listeners (and musicians) to do or feel something in accordance (or discordance) with. As with any great piece of art, it’s what you do because of it that matters most.