jazz, free-jazz and improvised music

tony moffeit | spirits


calling the ghosts

calling the ghost dance

calling the ghost tongue

speaking in tongues
speaking in ghost tongues
speaking in ghost language

the rain tonight so ecstatic that it turns to snow
the snow tonight so ecstatic that it turns to rain
rain turning to snow, snow turning to rain
even the windshield wipers are confused

john coltrane return and play a love supreme
chet baker return and play my funny valentine
a wild gypsy night of mad love
miles davis return and play sketches of spain

albert ayler return and play spirits

vision vision i can hear voices
spirits my hands my eyes my hands
my eyes float from me
my fingers reach up through water
albert ayler plays his solo
and my eyes open
for that which is called spirit
for that which is hungered for
my eyes my hands hungry
my spirit hungry for
spirits which are hungered for
albert ayler play your solo
the ghosts are dancing tonight

poetry and death and love and poetry and death
a wild gypsy night of mad love
where nothing matters but the body of the soul
and the soul of the body
a wild gypsy night of mad love
poetry and death and love and poetry and death
the poet is born in the ghost of a dance
the poet is born into the mirror of his own breath
the poet is born and the clock
has left its hands in the sand

albert ayler plays for the spirits of the dead
albert ayler plays for the ghosts of the dead
albert ayler’s solo is a ghost ride
albert ayler’s solo dances with
the ghosts of the dead
albert ayler plays and we must slide
into the saddle of the phantom horse
let’s take a ghost ride
albert ayler plays and in playing
talks with the ghosts of the dead

the rule, then what is the rule?
there is no rule

the tongue wrung

mad love understands the chaos
mad love invented the chaos
and the only way to be calm
in the middle of the chaos
is to be madly in love

albert ayler playing at the funeral of john coltrane
little bird they call him
playing on the streets with little walter
albert ayler playing spirits

my eyes float in dreamwater
i want to wear your skin
his solo lives on the edge of everything
i want to taste your blood
it lives on the edge of everything

still locked in the embrace of that moment
can’t seem to get out of the embrace
of that moment

in dream the blood the spirit
his solo soaring
the soul the spirit tongue
his solo diving
the roots the roots
the burning
a place of feeling
a state of being
all dissolving
all returning

albert ayler plays and calls the ghosts
albert ayler plays and calls the ghost dance
albert ayler plays and dances with the ghosts
the mist is in the air from the rain turning to snow
and the snow turning to rain

soaring and diving
soaring and diving
deep into
the roots
spirits spirits spirits


Albert Ayler (July 13, 1936 – November 1970) was an American avant-garde jazz saxophonist, singer and composer. Albert Ayler was the most primal of the free jazz musicians of the 1960s; John Litweiler wrote that “never before or since has there been such naked aggression in jazz” He possessed a deep blistering tone—achieved by using the stiffest plastic reeds he could find on his tenor saxophone—and a broad, pathos-filled vibrato that came right out of church music.

His trio and quartet records of 1964, like Spiritual Unity and The Hilversum Session, show him advancing the improvisational notions of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman into abstract realms where timbre, not harmony and melody, are the music’s backbone. His ecstatic music of 1965 and 1966, like “Spirits Rejoice” and “Truth is Marching In” has been compared by critics to the sound of a Salvation Army brass band, and involved simple, march-like themes which alternated with wild group improvisations and took jazz back to its pre-Louis Armstrong roots.

Born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Ayler was first taught alto saxophone by his father Edward with whom he played duets in church. He attended John Adams High School on Cleveland’s East Side, graduating in 1954 at the age of 18. He later studied at the Academy of Music in Cleveland with jazz saxophonist Benny Miller. He also played the oboe in high school. As a teen Ayler played with such skill that he was known around Cleveland as “Little Bird,” after virtuoso saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was nicknamed “Bird.”

In 1952, at the age of 16, Ayler began playing bar-walking, honking, R&B-style tenor with blues singer and harmonica player Little Walter, spending two summer vacations with Walter’s band. After graduating from high school, Ayler joined the United States Army, where he jammed with other enlisted musicians, including tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. He also played in the regiment band. In 1959 he was stationed in France, where he was further exposed to the martial music that would be a core influence on his later work. After his discharge from the army, Ayler kicked around Los Angeles and Cleveland trying to find work, but his increasingly iconoclastic playing, which had moved away from traditional harmony, was not welcomed by traditionalists.

He relocated to Sweden in 1962 where his recording career began, leading Swedish and Danish groups on radio sessions, and jamming as an unpaid member of Cecil Taylor’s band in the winter of 1962-1963. (Long-rumored tapes of Ayler performing with Taylor’s group have finally surfaced as part of a ten-CD set released in late 2004 by Revenant Records.The album My Name is Albert Ayler is a session of standards recorded for a Copenhagen radio station with local musicians including Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and drummer Ronnie Gardiner, with Ayler playing tenor and soprano on tracks like “Summertime”.


Ayler returned to the US and settled in New York assembling an influential trio with double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, recording his breakthrough album Spiritual Unity, for ESP-Disk Records, 30 minutes of intense free improvisation. Embraced by New York jazz leaders like Eric Dolphy, who reportedly called him the best player he’d ever seen, Ayler found respect and an audience. He influenced the gestating new generation of jazz players, as well as veterans like John Coltrane. In 1964 he toured Europe, with the trio augmented with trumpeter Don Cherry, recorded and released as The Hilversum Session.

Ayler’s trio created a definitive free jazz sound. Murray rarely if ever laid down a steady, rhythmic pulse, and Ayler’s solos were downright pentecostal. But the trio was still recognizably in the jazz tradition. Ayler’s next series of groups, with trumpeter brother Donald, were a radical departure. Beginning with the album Bells, a live concert at New York Town Hall with Donald Ayler, Charles Tyler, Lewis Worrell and Sunny Murray, Ayler turned to performances that were chains of marching band- or mariachi-style themes alternating with overblowing and multiphonic freely improvised group solos, a wild and unique sound that took jazz back to its pre-Louis Armstrong roots of collective improvisation. The new sound was consolidated in the studio album Spirits Rejoice recorded by the same group at Judson Hall in New York. Ayler, in a 1970 interview, calls his later styles “energy music,” contrasting with the “space bebop” played by Coltrane and initially by Ayler himself. This approach continued with The Village Concerts and with Ayler on the books ESP had established itself as a leading label for free jazz.

In 1966 Ayler was signed to Impulse Records at the urging of John Coltrane, the label’s star attraction at that time. But even on Impulse Ayler’s radically different music never found a sizable audience. In 1967, Coltrane died. Ayler was one of several musicians to perform at Coltrane’s funeral. An amateur recording of this performance exists, but is of very low quality. Later in 1967, Albert’s brother Donald Ayler had what he termed a nervous breakdown. In a letter to The Cricket, a Newark, New Jersey music magazine edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, Albert reported that he had seen a strange object in the sky and come to believe that he and his brother “had the right seal of God almighty in our forehead.” Although it is reasonable to assume the Aylers had explored or were exploring psychedelic drugs like LSD, there is no evidence this significantly influenced their mental stability.

For the next two and half years Ayler turned to recording music not too far removed from rock and roll, often with utopian, hippie lyrics provided by his live-in girlfriend Mary Maria Parks. Ayler drew on his very early career, incorporating doses of R&B, with funky, electric rhythm sections and extra horns (including Scottish highland bagpipe) on some songs. 1967’s Love Cry was a step in this direction, studio recordings of Ayler concert staples such as “Ghosts” and “Bells” with less free-improv and more time spent on the themes.

Next came the R&B album New Grass, which was generally reviled by his fans, who considered it to be the worst of his work. Following its commercial failure, Ayler unsuccessfully attempted to bridge his earlier “space bebop” recordings and the sound of New Grass on his last studio album Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe, featuring rock musicians such as Henry Vestine of Canned Heat alongside jazz-men like pianist Bobby Few.

In July 1970 Ayler returned to the free jazz idiom for a group of shows in France but the band he was able to assemble (Cal Cobb, bassist Steve Tintweiss and drummer Alan Blairman), was amateurish and, apart from Cobb, not nearly of the caliber of his earlier groups.


Ayler disappeared on November 5, 1970, and he was found dead in New York City’s East River on November 25, a presumed suicide. For some time afterwards, rumors circulated that Ayler had been murdered, possibly due to his involvement in the black power movement. Later, however, Parks would say that Albert had been depressed and feeling guilty, blaming himself for his brother’s problems. She stated that, just before his death, he had several times threatened to kill himself, smashed one of his saxophones over their television set after she tried to dissuade him, then took the Statue of Liberty ferry and jumped off as it neared Liberty Island. He is buried in Cleveland, Ohio.

Ayler remains something of a cult artist. “Ghosts”—with its bouncy, sing-song melody (rather reminiscent of a nursery rhyme)—is probably his best known tune, and is something of a free jazz standard, having been covered by Lester Bowie, Gary Windo, Eugene Chadbourne, Joe McPhee, John Tchicai and Ken Vandermark, among others. The saxophonist Mars Williams led a group called Witches and Devils, which was not only named after an Ayler song, but which covered several of his songs. Peter Brötzmann’s “Die Like A Dog Quartet” is a group loosely dedicated to Ayler. A record called Little Birds Have Fast Hearts references Ayler’s youthful nickname.

In 2005, guitarist Marc Ribot (who has occasionally performed Ayler’s songs for some years) released an album dedicated to the ethic of collective improvisation, entitled Spiritual Unity in honor of Ayler’s 1964 album of the same name. On his 1969 album Folkjokeopus, English guitarist/singer-songwriter Roy Harper, dedicated the song “One for All” (“One for Al“) to Albert Ayler “who I knew and loved during my time in Copenhagen”. Harper considered Ayler to be “one of the leading jazzmen of the age”. In the Folkejokeopus liner notes Harper states, “In many ways he (Ayler) was the king”. The bassist Jair-Rohm Parker Wells produced “Meditations on Albert Ayler” with Tony Bianco on drums and Luther Thomas on alto sax. This live trio improvisation was produced for and released by Ayler Records on Ayler’s 71st birthday.

In 2005, the Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin released a documentary film about Ayler’s life called My Name Is Albert Ayler.The film includes detailed interviews with Ayler’s father Edward and brother Donald, as well as the only live concert footage of Ayler known to exist (of concerts in Sweden and France).


  • * 1962: Something Different!!!!! (aka The First Recordings Vol. 1) (Bird Notes) (Sweden)
  • * 1962: The First Recordings, Vol. 2 (Bird Notes) (Sweden)
  • * 1963: My name is Albert Ayler (Debut) (Denmark)
  • * 1964: Spirits (aka Witches & Devils) (Debut) (Denmark)
  • * 1964: Swing low sweet spiritual (Osmosis) (Holland) (p) (CD release: Goin’ Home (Black Lion))
  • * 1964: Prophecy [live] (ESP/Base) (Italy) (p)
  • * 1964: Albert Smiles With Sunny [live] (In Respect] (Germany) (p) (CD 1: Prophecy, CD 2: extra material from same concert, subsequently included on Holy Ghost)
  • * 1964: Spiritual Unity (ESP Disk) (US)
  • * 1964: New York Eye And Ear Control (ESP) (US)
  • * 1964: Albert Ayler [live] (Philology) (Italy) (p) (CD release: Live In Europe 1964-1966 (Landscape) (France). 1964 tracks included on The Copenhagen Tapes, 1966 tracks included on Holy Ghost)
  • * 1964: The Copenhagen tapes [live] (Ayler Records) (Sweden) (p)
  • * 1964: Ghosts (aka Vibrations) (Debut) (Denmark)
  • * 1964: The Hilversum Session (Osmosis Records/Coppens Records) (Holland) (p) –
  • * 1965: Bells (ESP) (US) Live at New York Town Hall
  • * 1965: Spirits rejoice (ESP) (US)
  • * 1965: Sonny’s Time Now (Jihad) (US)
  • * 1966: At Slug’s saloon, vol. 1 & 2 [live] (ESP/Base) (Italy) (p)
  • * 1966: Lörrach / Paris 1966 [live] (hat HUT) (Switzerland) (p)
  • * 1966: In Greenwich Village [live] (Impulse! Records) (US)
  • * 1966: The Village Concerts [live] (Impulse! Records) (US) (p) (CD release of In Greenwich Village and The Village Concerts as Live In Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings (Impulse! Records))
  • * 1967: Love Cry (Impulse! Records) (US)
  • * 1968: New Grass (Impulse! Records) (US)
  • * 1969: Music is the Healing Force of the Universe (Impulse! Records) (US)
  • * 1969: The Last Album (Impulse! Records) (US) (p)
  • * 1970: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Vol. 1 & 2 [live] (Shandar) (France) (p)
  • * 1970: Albert Ayler Quintet 1970 [live] (Blu Jazz) (Italy) (p) (re-released as Live On The Riviera (ESP) (US))
  • * 2004: Holy Ghost (Revenant Records) (US) (p) (9 disc box set featuring Ayler’s first and last recordings, plus other previously unreleased material.)
  • * 2006: The Complete ESP-Disk Recordings


1 Comment

  1. tony moffeit

    absolutely haunting! “spirits” hungers to be heard! the ghosts are released! it’s like the ghost of billy the kid meets the ghost of little walter meets the ghost of john coltrane! “ayler was one of several musicians to play at coltrane’s funeral!” that is purely poetry supreme! as is “spirits.” to listen to “spirits” is to be immediately mesmerized!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© 2024 metropolis

Theme by Anders Noren adapted for M.etropolis by RavanHUp ↑