Frank Wright Quartet – Blues for Albert Ayler – ESP-Disk

by | Jun 11, 2012 | Jazz CD Reviews

Frank Wright Quartet – Blues for Albert Ayler – ESP-Disk ESP-4068, 74:32 [4/24/12] ***1/2:
(Frank Wright – tenor saxophone, flute, vocals; James “Blood” Ulmer – guitar; Benny Wilson – double bass; Rashied Ali – drums)
Tenor saxophonist Frank Wright (who passed away in 1990) was not well known except by a small group of likeminded musicians and free jazz aficionados. Unlike peers such as John Coltrane (with whom Wright briefly performed), Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, Wright never recorded for a major label. His biggest fan base was in Europe, where audiences gave him support, where he got more respect and was paid better than stateside. Essentially, Wright was under-appreciated, and his music has remained predominantly unfamiliar to most. But thanks to ESP owner Bernard Stollman and ESP-Disk producer Michael Anderson, free jazz fans finally can hear more from Wright on the live, previously unreleased, improvised tribute, Blues for Albert Ayler. The 74-minutes of music was recorded on July 17th, 1974 at drummer Rashied Ali’s loft space/jazz spot, Ali’s Alley, after Wright had flown in from Paris, where he resided. Wright turned his homecoming celebration into a performance to honor Wright’s friend and mentor, Albert Ayler, who had passed away in 1970. The music went unheard until Ali pulled out the tapes for Anderson in 2007, two years before Ali passed away.
Ali (whose brother Muhammad played drums in Wright’s band) joined Wright along with guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer (a fellow free jazz artist who also had a stronger standing in Europe: he had been in Ali’s quartet and was a recent recruit to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time) and little known bassist Benny Wilson (who was in Ali’s group at the time). This was one of the few instances when Wright shared a stage with a guitarist and the combination is a spirited and spiritual mixture. Together, the one-off quartet create one continuous jam, split into six parts, which is not blues in any traditional sense (there are no 12-bar changes), but contains an emotive characteristic and a feeling of memorial for those who are gone, and implies the melancholia, sadness, anguish and angst related to loss.
Wright is in peak form, forceful and uninhibited, but in control, a man who lived in the moment and let the music flow forth in great washes of squeals and wails, incorporating the potent squawking, bleating and enthusiastic liberation of early influence Big Jay McNeely as well as Ayler’s scorching, unpredictable expressionism. The album begins seemingly right in the midst of an audible whirlwind, with Wright modifying a short Coltrane-esque blues motif as Ali supplies rolling polyrhythms and Ulmer spools out intensive chords. Wilson is the only one who does not insistently pulse; his rhythms are perceptible but not dominant. Wright uses his sax to screech out lower-register blasts, shrieks, moans, and delivers fragmented runs. The third part is equally engrossing, where Wright launches a tempest of hollering sax and Ulmer showcases his unorthodox guitar approach (developed from Coleman’s harmolodic music system). While Wright and Ulmer’s twinned crescendos reach ever higher, Ali keeps a rooted foundation which is conceptual and abstract but never disjointed. The material only flags during the fourth section, where Wilson takes a lengthy solo which includes a digressive arco interlude which drifts and wanders. If only Henry Grimes (who had worked with Wright in the 1960s) had been available for this tribute session. Wright switches to flute at the beginning of the extensive fifth part. He starts out utilizing a melodic theme but eventually the quartet slides into an unconventional zone and the flute is drowned out by Ulmer’s amped-up, pealing and swift guitar lines. The 24-minute epic fuses solo and collective improvisation in a tour de force of music which sweeps across like a rogue wave. The sixth and final segment is a harmonically-inclined continuation of the fifth portion, with a nearly offhand concert closure which features fewer and fewer instruments and notes until spattered applause brings the evening to an end.
Fortunately, Blues for Albert Ayler is not some muted recording with inept sound quality. While there is no doubt this was a modest endeavor (there is hum in the quietest moments), there is a superior degree of sonic precision than found on some items released on bigger labels. Although Wilson is sometimes low in the mix, he is distinct, although sometimes dimly heard. For those who want to preview some of this music, there is a 19-minute, audio-only promotional video with a good serving of this live set. The video also has an interview with Stollman, who explains why and how he signed Wright to his label and how he convinced Wright Europe was the place to be for a forward-thinking sax musician.
TrackList: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6.
—Doug Simpson

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