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A new box-set captures the fierce energy of saxophonist Albert Ayler

The ghostly, vibrato-laden sustains, shrieks and honking low-note groans that Albert Ayler conjured from his tenor saxophone sounded outrageous when they surfaced in the early 1960s. And, as this compelling four-CD box-set audibly demonstrates, they still sound outrageous today.

The collection presents two complete concerts from the Fondation Maeght art museum in the South of France. Recorded in July 1970, the auguries for the gig were not good. Ayler had been dropped by Impulse!, gigs were sparse and his brother Donald was recovering from a nervous breakdown. To make matters worse, pianist Call Cobbs missed the first concert having been delayed by French customs and Ayler’s bagpipes had been ripped in transit.

Nevertheless, the recordings find the American saxophonist triumphantly negotiating the fine line between hokum and high art. White-hot solos spiral with a logic of iron, gentle ruminations ripple with warmth and simple tunes are so precisely nuanced that they require virtuosic control to render them intact. Sharing the front line, Ayler’s wife Mary Parks delivers gospel-drenched vocals, poetic declamations and blasts of untutored soprano sax; the detailed accompanying booklet outlines her pivotal role in Ayler’s life.

The first concert, spread over discs one and two, begins with “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe” and ends with the vocal surrealism of “Speaking in Tongues”. Bassist Steve Tintweiss and drummer Allen Blairman negotiate gospel, R&B and free jazz and sensitively underpin Ayler’s explorations on tenor saxophone.

Pianist Cobbs, reunited for the second concert on the last two discs, fleshes out the Ayler aesthetic with perfectly pitched voicings and transcendental ripples to complete a remarkably simpatico band; some of this concert has been previously released, but the superior quality of this first complete set reveals the subtlety of Cobbs’ support.

Ayler delivers the fierce energy of rhythm and blues and has the audience pounding the stage for more. The concert should have marked an upward turn, but four months later Ayler’s body was found in New York’s East River. He was just 34.

★★★★☆

Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondation Maeght Recordings’ is released by Elemental Music

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