|Saxophonist Albert Ayler’s music conjures up a variety of contrasting characterizations—spiritual, difficult, passionate, forthright, frightening, and controversial, among others. One of Ayler’s greatest strengths was the ability to balance elements like emotional depth, deep communication, demand for spontaneity, and raw energy into a realized whole. Though several musicians and groups have attempted to interpret Ayler’s compositions over the years (often focusing on energy at the expense of passion, à la the Ken Vandermark/Mars Williams project Witches and Devils), the idea of a successful repertory band is a tricky mission. Guitarist Marc Ribot’s new project Spiritual Unity—in conjunction with trumpeter Roy Campbell, bassist Henry Grimes, and drummer Chad Taylor—attempts this challenge, although over the long haul, the results come up a tad short.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the demands on the listener, the spirit of Albert Ayler and his music continues to live on, seemingly shining brighter with each year. Other than several tribute recordings, most jazz fans will be aware of last year's revelatory Holy Ghost box set compilation of unreleased Ayler recordings, as well as a slate of reissues from a variety of labels. But Ribot is no stranger to Ayler’s music, having recorded the saxophonist’s pieces on previous solo outings. With respect to this CD, there are two aspects that are particularly noteworthy. For one, the saxophone chair is vacant here; instead Ribot and Campbell fill the void, with Ribot essentially taking the lead horn role. Second, Ribot doesn’t goose up his sound with a barrage of effects; rather, his tone remains mostly clean, with judicious use of volume and distortion pedals when the situation demands.
The recording consists of four studio performances and one concluding live exhibition, recorded at New York’s Tonic club. Curiously, the program begins with the Ribot-penned “Invocation”, the group’s initial attempts to summon the Ayler’s spirit. At the outset, it is worth noting that Grimes mostly sticks to a madly scraping arco work for these performances. While providing a sense of urgency, it often suggests that he is not necessarily on the same page as the other musicians, something that leads to a reduction in effective group communication. Ayler’s “Spirits” continues with a jagged, yet buoyant swing discourse that features throbbing rhythms that inspire Campbell’s boppish solo and then Ribot’s distorted cadences. The quartet next looks to Ayler’s later, anthemic melodies with “Truth Is Marching In”, initially a majestic saunter before the group locks into a frenzied pace.
Ribot and company also take an explorative look at “Saints”, highlighted by Campbell’s work in league with Ribot’s clean-toned junkets. Throughout the piece, mysterious shades whisper, including possible tinges of Wayne Shorter’s “Masquelero”. Finally, the group concludes with a 15-plus minute rendition of “Bells”, recorded in front of a live audience. Surely, the collective’s most inspired and connected moment, Ribot commences the piece in solace, gently picking through the melodic fragments before Taylor lightly tickles, Grimes buzzes, and eventually, Campbell blows gracefully. The group locks into an agitated oom-pah march vamp where the sparks fly mightily, especially from Ribot, who is on fire. This is more like it.
While many repertory bands are hit and miss, Ribot’s Spiritual Unity should be commended for taking on the daunting music of such an original spirit like Ayler. As a whole, though, while a decent initial effort, it lacks many of the aforementioned ingredients that one might expect, with perhaps the most missed being a sense of communal engagement and spontaneous energy.