Each week, Sunday School takes a second look at a classic album worth revisiting years after its release. EMMIE staff handpick releases that shaped a genre, defined a generation or deserve recognition despite being left in the distance. Keep up with Sunday School for your weekly dose of dusted-off classics and throwbacks that merit a second spin.
Release Date: 1965
Good For: Existential contemplation, terrifying your neighbors
Best Tracks: All of them
It starts with a squawk — although it really began long before. Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity is a confluence of divergent paths stretching back as far as our species can trace, as far as man’s first experiments with giving force a form in the manner of sound. Force, indeed, is the madness to the method here. I am not presumptuous enough to provide a definition for the ephemeral, slippery genre that is jazz but I can state that “free” jazz is the complete rejection of those definitions, those confines unto which we shackle creative expression, and that the music that Ayler plays here, in all its beauty and cacophony, is as free and subversive as it gets.
Gustav Mahler has been quoted as saying that “tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” Ayler, with his fat, throaty tone laden with shards of the past — of his youth trading hymns with his father in the church, bar hopping and street walking with Little Walter, the call-and-response martial music he played as a young man in the U.S. Army Band — would likely agree. His saxophone is musical madeleine. No sooner does his wavering vibrato touch the listener’s ears than a shudder runs through them and they fall into a new, but familiar, history. It is not the mere representation of the thing that Ayler achieves here, but the recontextualization, the liberation of the American musical tradition. The result is otherworldly.
Spiritual Unity was recorded on a hot afternoon in July of 1964. In it Ayler displays his technique at its peak. The power and pathos of his tenor has not been seen before or since. Ayler desired to dispense with the constraints of musical notes and conventional composition. In its place, he sought the sound in between notes and the expression of his instrument as a primal force, an extension of himself in which to explore a unique timbre, improvising in both high and low registers with squeaks, honks, blasts: bursts of passion them all. Yet Spiritual Unity is not an album composed entirely of chaos. There are moments of great beauty here. Notable is the amount of “space” this album is given. Rather than a full band, Ayler strips down to a trio on this album. The lack of accompaniment can at times give off a vibe of loneliness, but what is used is used extremely effectively. Despite this review’s focus on Ayler himself, Spiritual Unity would be a shell of itself without the contributions of bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. Formed only weeks prior, the amount of understanding this group has for each other’s tendencies and creative pursuits is staggering, nigh telepathic. This is not twelve-bar jazz with a steady groove and ample opportunity for each member to solo. Rather, the entire album is three separate “solos,” each one building off of the other. The group feels less like three different musicians and more like a unified, spiritual organism in communion with itself.
Upon hearing Spiritual Unity John Coltrane urged his label, Impulse, to sign Ayler, and Ayler’s influence is clearly palpable on Coltrane’s later works. Coltrane’s 1966 album Meditations opens with a suite featuring Pharoah Sanders titled “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” on which Ayler famously said, “‘Trane was the Father, Pharaoh was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost.” His incorporeal form hovers above this song and all jazz since. Albert Ayler drew on the disparate musics of the American tradition and boldly forged his own path through the flames, inspiring some of the most inspirational figures in jazz and shaping the future of avant-garde music to come. He will not be forgotten, or forgiven, for that.