An unrepeatable blend of hip jazz musician and fundamentalist Christian, listening to Albert is one of the most intense experiences available to a human being. If you’ve never heard his vast tenor saxophone sound vibrating to the spirits he could feel all around him, before exploding into maximum intensity roars and screams, then I envy you that first encounter.
This was the original 1964 trio performance that announced Albert’s music to an unprepared public. Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on drums are major innovators in their own rights, who found completely new ways of playing to fit in with Albert; the fact that these three people not only existed but met and played together is nothing short of miraculous. The music is thoroughly creepy, with Murray playing occult, wispy patterns that rise and fade like ghostly apparitions, while Albert shouts the haunted nursery rhyme themes across the darkness.
Along with Spiritual Unity, this is the best example of Albert’s early-period work: disconcerting ghost music utterly unlike anything else to be heard in jazz, or in music generally. The presence of trumpeter Don Cherry somehow makes this slightly more accessible than his other recordings of the period; a little bit more like standard jazz.
This is a strange album, even for Albert. He plays well-known evergreen songs like ‘Ol’ Man River’, ‘Swing low sweet chariot’, and even ‘Oh when the saints go marching in’. He does so with such conviction and lack of restraint, however, that you can’t quite believe it: it’s like listening to an insane busker on some serious drugs. Your first reaction is that this is utterly ridiculous, but when you remember that Albert meant it, since postmodern irony was alien to him, you hear it differently. Sunny Murray’s jazz sensibilities intervene to prevent Albert from settling into a mawkish groove, and the unsteady beat that results makes everything sound even dodgier and hence more surreal.
Holy Ghost: The Spirit Box
A 9-CD set with a book and various other Albert paraphernalia, containing previously rare and unissued recordings, and designed to look like a religious relic that belongs in some dusty church treasury. I know it is cheating to include a box-set in a list of favourites, but this really is special, because Albert often sounds even better on these recordings than on the albums he released; quite a revelation for fans like myself who thought it couldn’t get any better. Disc 6 is my favourite. This contains Albert playing at John Coltrane’s funeral, an encounter with fellow tenor player Pharoah Sanders (Coltrane was the father, Pharoah was the son, and Albert was the Holy Ghost, as Albert once rightly noted), and best of all, a live recording at the time when Milford Graves was Albert’s drummer. The Pharoah meeting is fascinating: Pharoah screams and roars with such intensity that it is hard to imagine how Albert could possibly upstage him. Albert succeeds, however, with a laser-beam in the sonic stratosphere: he just goes straight up there and stays for the duration! The meeting with Milford Graves, the greatest of all free jazz drummers, is special because although he is known to have been an important member of the Ayler group, their only previously available recording together was the disappointing ‘Love Cry’; a concept album rather than the real deal you wanted to hear. But disk 6 contains the real deal, with Graves endlessly pulling the rug from under Albert’s feet to frustrate him into greater and greater intensity.
This live club recording is classic mid-period Albert, and contains the most furious, full-on Albert solos to be found outside The Spirit Box. The band really goes crazy.
In Greenwich Village
The prime example of mid-period Albert, when he played churchy marching band music accompanied by swirling dissonant strings reminiscent of some 20th century classical music; the least obvious and most distinctive combination imaginable. This is the place to start if you’ve never heard Albert. Trumpet playing brother Donald Ayler is at his insane best on this recording, as is Albert, who screams and bellows like there is no tomorrow, all in the name of the Lord. The oddly Balkan-sounding ‘Change has Come’ is the highlight.