Albert Ayler compositions have been in Marc Ribot's book for many years, so it shouldn't really be a surprise that he put together a band to play Ayler tunes. However, when Ribot started playing Ayler songs he couldn't have dreamed that he'd be playing them with Henry Grimes, the original bass player on a number of Ayler's seminal mid-'60s recordings (Grimes walked away from music in 1967 and remained out of sight until 2002). Rounding out the group are Roy Campbell on trumpet and Chad Taylor on drums and percussion.
The album is called Spiritual Unity, but it's not a direct cover of Ayler's Spiritual Unity album. In fact, Ribot's band only tackles one song from that particular album, "Spirits." Actually, although they do play Ayler's music, the band's mission statement says it's not about performing the tunes by rote, it's about seeking "a ritual process, through improvisation." To that end, although it sounds remarkably like an Ayler tune, "Invocation" is actually a group improvisation offered before the Ayler material. When they do get to that material, they work much like Ayler's quartets did, moving quickly from the head into fiery collective improvisation. This is free jazz to be sure, but Ayler's free jazz was grounded in marches and gospel music and those elements can come to the surface even during the roiling improvisations. Henry Grimes is remarkable. His ideas never seem to slow down and it's nearly incomprehensible that he didn't touch a bass for three decades. Chad Taylor has long been known as a supportive drummer and Ribot and Campbell's work probably needs no introduction. They operate here as a unit, not a collection of soloists, and they honor Ayler's musical process as much as the man or his compositions. Ayler's time on earth was far too short, but Ribot and company show that this music still lives on in the present moment, not simply as a relic of the past. Spiritual Unity isn't for the timid, but Ayler fans will find a lot to enjoy.