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Albert Ayler - Live on the Riviera

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Artist: Albert Ayler

Album: Live on the Riviera

Label: ESP-Disk

Review date: Apr. 12, 2005

Akin to a celebratory champagne bottle shattered across the bow of a boat, Live on the Riviera marks one of the inaugural releases of a revamped ESP-Disk. The label was one of Ayler’s earliest adherents. Consequently it seems appropriate that they resume operations under the aegis of his music. Taped at the Maeght Foundation on July 25, 1970, this set is also the saxophonist’s penultimate recording with personal and musical companion Mary Maria. It finds him stretching the commercial preoccupations of his final Impulse! recordings and reconciling these ill found pop aspirations with an earlier absence of artistic compromise.

The sound engineer takes about a minute to calibrate the band correctly on the opening reading of “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe.” Once the levels lock fidelity is surprisingly clear and true throughout the remainder of the program. “Reading” seems an appropriate descriptor for this track thanks to Maria’s accompanying recitation. Her string of clichéd metaphysical sentiments serves as disappointing oratory counterpoint to the leader’s ecstatic, soul-suffused tenor blowing. Maria’s palaverous soprano playing and other spates of warbly vocals on “Oh! Love of Life,” and in duet with Ayler’s own amateurish pipes on “Heart Love,” are similarly taxing to the patience, though she’s not wanting for passion behind her contributions. The French audience eats it up just the same.

Ayler begins “Birth of Mirth” a capella, segueing sweetly into one of his rondo motifs as bassist Steve Tintweiss and drummer Allen Blairman create a liquid pulse around him. Maria’s ensuing sung-in-tongues ululations are more of a distraction than an attraction. The piece meanders in its middle section, but recoups for a rippling finale. Uncapping soprano for “Masonic Inborn,” Ayler engages in an extended bout of palpitating multiphonics as bass and drums again shape a responsive tidal backdrop to push the music forward rhythmically and harmonically. “Island Harvest” builds from a calypso vamp to encompass Maria’s Jamaican-inflected vocals, syncopated cymbals and dour bass bowing. Ayler’s tenor soars above it all, threading joyous melody to an otherwise ungainly chassis. The real boon comes with the closing rundown of “Ghosts.” Unfettered from any hampering vocals and ripe with romping effervescence, it also includes a surprise second coda that gets the French crowd whooping and hollering.

Two days later the band would record again, this time with pianist Call Cobbs back in the fold. The results are currently available as Nuits de la Fondation Maeght 1970 on the Water label and make for edifying points of comparison. Details are still pending, but word has it that ESP-Disk has another Ayler box set in the works; one to rival last year’s Revenant offering with multiple discs of music and even a DVD concert performance. Though ultimately an uneven experience, Riviera represents an apropos appetizer to this upcoming main course.

By Derek Taylor

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