Frank Wright

Blues for Albert Ayler
ESP-Disk ESP-4068

By Ken Waxman

A saxophonist who invalidated the shibboleth that avant gardists had no jazz roots every time he put his horn to his mouth was Frank Wright (1935-1990). Born in Mississippi, and initially an R&B bassist, Wright settled in Cleveland, where under Albert Ayler’s tutelage he began playing tenor saxophone. Nicknamed “The Reverend” for his soulful style mixing the blues with tonal experiments, Wright moved to Europe in the late ‘60s, residing there until his death.

This date, recorded during one of Wright’s stateside visits, is stimulating because it couples his raucous playing with the kinetic guitar lines of another Mississippian with a foot in both funk and free jazz: James Blood Ulmer. Taped in 1974 at Ali’s Alley, other players are Rashied Ali (1933-2009), smashing his drums throughout the six-part improvisation, and little-known bassist Benny Wilson. While Wilson’s thick stopping is necessary, his solo drops the energy level several notches, with the performance only getting back on track when Wight and Ulmer take charge. Meanwhile Ali is the model of a committed drummer, inexhaustible in adding ruffs, rattles and paradiddles.

Ulmer is a marvel. Fresh from his affiliation with Ornette Coleman and before his style became mannered, his guitar lines are as blues-based as Son House’s while referencing contemporary sound dislocation. Moving from chicken-scratching rhythm fills to crunching echoes, staccato feints and string snapping, he encapsulates the history of blues-jazz guitar, with excursions into rock and C&W. Constantly hammering, frailing and string loosening he demonstrates Harmolodic theory. Despite reed bites, altissimo runs and stratospheric cries, Wright too never loses sight of the original blues theme.

“Blues For Albert Ayler Pt. 5” is the narrative’s peak, with crescendos encompassing invention, speed and volume. Accompanied by Ali’s metronomic thumps and Wilson walking, Wright abandons a roughened flute lines for tenor saxophone multiphonics, melding his dyspeptic tone with the guitarist’s kinetic twangs. The two intersect first with sequences, than lines and finally single tones. If Wright’s strategies range from puppy yelps to siren screeches, Ulmer’s bent-note funk creates lead and rhythm guitar parts, rotating tremolo, volume and tone knobs.

Initially conceived as an Ayler birthday tribute, the CD can now be heard as a salute to departed musicians like Ali and Wright; and most meaningfully as a prime instance of top-flight (free) jazz that wasn’t properly appreciated in its own time.

Tracks: Blues For Albert Ayler Pt. 1; Blues For Albert Ayler Pt. 2; Blues For Albert Ayler Pt. 3; Blues For Albert Ayler Pt. 4; Blues For Albert Ayler Pt. 5; Blues For Albert Ayler Pt. 6

Personnel: Frank Wright: tenor saxophone, flute, vocals; James Blood Ulmer: guitar; Benny Wilson: bass; Rashied Ali: drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2013