Fifty years ago Albert Ayler, Gary Peacock, and Sunny Murray recorded what became one of history’s most important jazz albums. Spiritual Unity was Ayler’s breakthrough record, and it catapulted him to the forefront of avant-garde jazz. The trio were a diverse little group—as their record label ESP put it, “Sunny Murray arrived, a large, genial walrus, moving and speaking with an easy agility that belied his appearance. Gary Peacock was next, tall, thin, ascetic looking, and soft spoken, with an introspective and kindly demeanor. Albert Ayler was last, small, wary and laconic.” But different as they were, they work together marvelously on the recording, and as many critics have previously suggested, Peacock and Murray create the perfect context for Albert Ayler’s long-controversial style to finally make sense.
Today is Trinity Sunday, and with a great sermon from this morning still ringing in my head, it’s hard for me not to hear Spiritual Unity as a kind of attempt at describing the Holy Trinity. I don’t mean to decode each member of the trio or instrument as representing a certain person of the Trinity, but I find Spiritual Unity useful for meditating on the Trinity, especially its relational nature.
It’s no secret that Ayler’s ecstatic style of play was informed by his Christian spirituality (however unorthodox it may have later become), and many critics in the ’60s compared Ayler’s style to speaking in tongues. Ayler’s style is expansive—he finds power in fiery arpeggios running across tonal boundaries, notes drawn to time-stretching length, and pushing the timbre of the saxophone into strange new territory. Similarly, Peacock and Murray explore on Spiritual Unity the limits of their instruments, and the limits of rhythm and time. It’s at these limits that they manage to suggest both eternity and a kind of time-rootedness or temporal contingency.
The most remarkable aspect of the album by far is that the trio somehow remains unified while exploring such disparate and complex elements through improvisation. As critic Ekkehard Jost writes, “Ayler’s negation of fixed pitches finds a counterpart in Peacock’s and Murray’s negation of the beat. In no group of this time is so little heard of a steady beat…The absolute rhythmic freedom frequently leads to action on three independent rhythmic planes.” That this somehow works together without descending into chaos is proof that these musicians were well suited to work together, somehow evoking mystery, otherworldliness, and a kind of ethereal ecstasy all while remaining comprehensible even to the non-jazz musician. Which leads me to the most important correlation with the Trinity: Ayler himself said of the record, “We weren’t playing, we were listening to each other.”
According to the label, the album was supposed to be captured in stereo, but was mistakenly recorded in mono. It’s no fault to the recording though, which is well mixed and gives each instrument the right amount of distinction. While it creates a kind of distance between the listener and each instrument, it serves to bring the trio itself into a closer aural space, and demands that one not experience just one of the instruments at a time. This is not the old-fashioned way of twelve-bar blues jazz with space for each member to take a solo. This is the sound of a living, unified, and otherworldly being in communion with itself, and indeed with the listener.