In the late '60s, just when "The New Thing" heralded by avant-garde players like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman had forced its way into begrudged acceptance by the jazz intelligentsia, the tables were turned again. Some of the musicians -- Ayler, Archie Shepp (whose stunning "Attica Blues" was also just reissued), Pharoah Sanders -- decided to push it even further. They brought it back home a little bit, reconciling the freedom cries that defined their music as "jazz" with a more populist strain of soul shouts and poetic power. When Ayler released albums like "New Grass" and "Healing Force" shortly before his 1970 death, the combination of his guttural tenor squonk, the reined-in percussion of Muhammad Ali (no, not that one) and the voluminous vocals of poet Mary Maria was shocking and sent jazz critics into spitting paroxysms of culture shock. "Sell out" was often hurled as an invective, as the music was straightforwardly soulful and far removed from their just-readjusted perceptions about jazz propriety. "Healing Force" was Ayler's last studio endeavor before his suicide, and the demons that ultimately felled him are in full power: His playing is fevered and, despite the quasirock underpinnings, it's as visceral an album as "Love Cry." Long castigated by critics (and part of the reason why Ayler's reputation has been equivocal), time has been kind to this out-of-print gem, and more than 30 years after it was accused of being retrograde, it sounds fresher than ever.
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