We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Like his peer John Coltrane, tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler spent the most noteworthy chunk of his career at the forefront of the ’60s New Thing movement, playing jazz that more or less abandoned traditional harmony and song structure in favor of abstraction and free improvisation. But unlike Coltrane, whose music and mug are now used to sell everything from postage stamps to pricey coffee, Ayler has remained practically invisible to everyone except avant-jazz aficionados and the hippest of the alt-rock hipoisie. It’s no surprise, really: Down Beat may have deemed JFK-era Coltrane “anti-jazz,” but Ayler’s music has been described as “primitive,” “traumatizing,” and—by no less an authority than English poet and critic Philip Larkin—“like a cello being scraped with a wet rubber galosh.”

It hasn’t helped that Ayler, who was born in Cleveland in 1936 and found dead in New York’s East River in 1970, was also a religious visionary who urged sexual abstinence and thought God lived on Venus. The controversial saxophonist began his recording career in 1962, not long after high-school tours with bluesman Little Walter and a stint with a U.S. Army Special Services band. According to Ayler’s father, amateur musician Edward Ayler, his eldest son was always pushing musical boundaries, even during his tenure with Cleveland’s John Adams High School orchestra. Yet when the young saxophonist was admonished by his band director for improvising over the charts, he had no problem playing the repertoire as written: “He didn’t play one note wrong,” Ayler’s dad proudly recalls somewhere near the beginning of the 208 pages of liner notes that accompany the career-spanning new Revenant box set, Holy Ghost.

Indeed, Ayler never made a one-or-the-other decision between tradition and freedom. He simply played up the tension between the two. Nowhere is that more explicit than on Holy Ghost’s earliest recordings. The 10-CD set—which is named for an Ayler quote (“Trane was the father. Pharoah [Sanders] was the son. I was the holy ghost”) and packed in a faux-reliquary “spirit box”—opens with three standards recorded in Helsinki with guitarist Herbert Katz’s cool-jazz quintet: “Sonnymoon for Two,” “Summertime,” and “On Green Dolphin Street.” On all three tracks, Ayler smoothly and dutifully runs through the chords. But once he starts soloing, his playing takes on an edge that is more startling and extreme than anything from the same time period by fan and benefactor Coltrane—or even by harmolodic saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Ayler spikes phrases with high-pitched exclamations and pushes even the most melodic lines to the edge of tonality, turning these otherwise mellow and undistinguished tracks into early, exciting free-jazz explorations. “The audience was dumbfounded,” Katz writes in the liner notes, “and we were as well.”

Ayler, however, didn’t mess around with other folks’ music for long. Holy Ghost features the saxophonist on a scattering of revelatory performances with other leaders: pianist Cecil Taylor’s “Four” (from a 1962 set for Copenhagen TV), pianist Burton Greene’s “[Untitled] (Collective)” (from a 1966 show in the East Village), and saxophonist Sanders’ “Venus/Upper and Lower Egypt” (from a 1968 concert in Harlem). But these recordings are outliers. By the time Ayler finished up an eight-month stint in Europe and resettled in New York, in 1963, he was playing his own work almost exclusively, as well as leading his own band. Exactly what the saxophonist could do with his singular writing style was apparent soon enough: His first New York album, 1965’s Spiritual Unity, is also his best, thanks in no small part to its central theme, the twice-performed “Ghosts.”

“I like to play something, like the beginning of ‘Ghosts,’ that people can hum,” Ayler said in a 1966 interview in Down Beat. “And I want to play songs like I used to sing when I was real small. Folk melodies that all the people would understand.” “Ghosts,” which is featured in the box set in four live versions, is without a doubt Ayler’s big hit—his “Love Supreme,” if you will. Like most free jazz at the time, the Caribbean-tinged song features saw-toothed solos that are disconnected from any chord changes. But “Ghosts” is unusual in that it begins with a real tune—a simple whistle-in-the-shower hook that sounds borrowed from an earlier century. And Holy Ghost’s 1964 concerts are chockablock full of similarly insidious music: “Children,” “Spirits,” and “[Tune Q]” all bookend untethered solo passages with catchy Old World melodies.

As the decade progressed, Ayler’s soloing got brawnier and wilder, his supporting players’ work denser and less accessible. Yet despite the surrounding chaos, the saxophonist began weaving his “Pop Goes the Weasel”–esque themes throughout entire pieces, not just playing them as heads. This singular evolution is apparent throughout Holy Ghost’s flower-power-era concerts, but is perhaps most evident on the Ayler Quartet’s mournful, riffcentric set at Coltrane’s July 21, 1967, funeral (“Love Cry/Truth Is Marching In/Our Prayer”). The rhythm section at that track seemingly never stops soloing, with bassist Richard Davis and drummer Milford Graves turning the track’s bottom end into a beat-free wall of expressionistic sound. Ayler and his trumpeter brother, Donald Ayler, make brief improvisational excursions, but they dedicate most of their attention to the suite’s free-flowing melodies, providing its only semblance of structure. The result is epically wide-ranging, encompassing everything from gospel to “The Star-Spangled Banner” to Ayler’s own agonized screaming. Primitive and traumatizing, yes, but also shot through with a hallucinatory, distinctly American-sounding beauty.

Strangely enough, Ayler’s next move was all about structure. According to the box set’s liner notes, the saxophonist told friends that Impulse! Records producer Bob Thiele wanted him to aim for a more rockcentric sound. That request resulted in 1968’s much-reviled New Grass, a sellout attempt that even Holy Ghost contributor Val Wilmer has called “an unconvincing excursion into rhythm-and-blues territory.” But the tracks here from Ayler’s 1968 demo session for the album reveal that the saxophonist had a rawer, less mainstream, and ultimately more enjoyable version of New Grass in mind: “[Blues]” is a greasy 12-bar honkfest, “Thank God for Women” a bizarre stab at feminist soul, “[Sermon]” a millennialist spoken-word piece. “Fear ye not, the great sacrifice is yet to come,” Ayler rants on the last, eventually breaking off to ask if he’s too close to the mike. It’s a quaint, slightly sad vocal performance—wholly unlike the outsized exuberance Ayler shares with guest vocalist Mary Parks on “Women”: “The time is coming!/ You must answer for yourself!”

Unfortunately for Ayler, that New Grass was never released. And neither the remade version nor Ayler’s subsequent crossover attempt, 1969’s Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe, caught on with new listeners. Understandably, the saxophonist reverted to what the old fans liked best: The music of Holy Ghost’s final concert, a July 28, 1970, appearance in the south of France, explodes just like the Ayler of old. For concertgoers at the time, it must’ve seemed as if the saxophonist had been reborn: The nearly nine-minute “Mothers/ Children,” for example, opens with a spare, sunset-tinged theme that turns dense and difficult a mere three minutes in. By November of that year, however, Ayler was found floating dead amid the flotsam of Brooklyn’s Congress Street Pier—perhaps a suicide, perhaps the victim of foul play.

Either way, when Ayler left this life, he also left behind plenty of loose ends. Many of his best albums are available only as imports—that is, when they’re available at all—and the saxophonist’s estate is reportedly a legal morass. For that, if for no other reason, Revenant’s obsessively assembled “monument in sound” is a massive achievement. No other Ayler release gives more of a sense of the pioneer’s full context: his journey from tight trad jazz to near-total free improv, his tragically short career, his music’s sometimes heartbreaking vacillation between uncommon genius and plain ol’ hooey. In fact, Ayler seems such an appropriate recipient of the lavish-box-set treatment—those 208 pages include not only essential information about the player’s life and recordings, but also five essays and a compilation of tributary reminiscences by the likes of Harold Budd, Cecil Taylor, and Robert Frank, as well as a partial reproduction of a 1969 fanzine co-edited by Amiri Baraka—that if he hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary for the label to invent him.

Of course, Holy Ghost’s more than 10 hours of recordings are likely to be too monumental for the uninitiated. Suffice it to say that Ayler’s glee-filled skronk won’t be making the play list at your local Starbucks. That postage stamp probably isn’t going to happen, either. But the saxophonist’s ready-to-be-reforgotten history nonetheless sounds out with startling directness, and the set’s unwieldiness seems appropriate to the spirit of its music. Difficult and rewarding, Holy Ghost is a chance to do right by a man who, in his contribution to Baraka’s ’zine and his entire output, asked one thing above all: “Brothers and Sisters, Listen.”CP