Volume 8, January 2017
Revolution in Action: A Motivic Analysis of "Ghosts: First Variation" As Performed by Gary Peacock

by Robert Sabin, Ph.D.

1. Background

By early 1964, Gary Peacock had established himself in New York City as one of the most innovative and virtuosic bassists playing progressive1 jazz. His performing credits included work with Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Tony Williams, and Sonny Rollins amongst numerous others. It was however his affinity for the collaborations with saxophonist Albert Ayler (and eventually with trumpeter Don Cherry) that was to have the most profound affect on the aesthetic and professional directions he was to pursue that year, leading him to resign his position as the regular bassist in the highly visible, lucrative, and comparatively structured Bill Evans trio.2

A prolonged collaboration between Peacock and Ayler in the second half of 1964 would result in some of the most influential jazz recordings of the decade, and would epitomize Ayler's mature approach as well as much of the emerging free jazz aesthetic. The initial trio, consisting of Ayler, Peacock, and drummer Sunny Murray, represents the logical extreme of the avant-garde from this era: unequaled dynamic range, an intensely developed vocabulary of extended techniques, the seeming abandonment of a traditional swing feel, exclusive reliance on open ended solo forms, and peripheral relationships to thematic material that maintained implicit connections to overarching dynamic characters rather than the development of pre-composed melodic or harmonic material. These extremes can be seen as a natural extension of the broken time rhythmic freedom being employed by earlier groups led by Evans, Coleman, Taylor, Bley, Giuffre, and Peacock himself, as well as the evolving chromatic and motivic nature of improvisation amongst the early 1960s jazz avant-garde.3

Recorded July 10th 1964,4 the album Spiritual Unity would become the group's most acknowledged document, praised as a milestone within the free jazz movement.5 As Wilmer states:

Spiritual Unity . . . revolutionized the direction for anyone playing those three instruments . . . Ayler, Murray, and Peacock had created the perfect group music. With it, Ayler felt that the ultimate stage in interaction had been reached. "Most people would have thought this impossible but it actually happened." . . . On Spiritual Unity, he said, "We weren't playing, we were listening to each other." (105)

While often categorized as free playing, redefined elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, and tempo are present albeit in a highly re-organized and improvised form. Peacock summarizes this group's approach:6

Quersin: If you eliminate the harmony, and then the beat, what do you have left to let you play together?
Peacock: Firstly there is an absence, with regard to improvisation, of notes - specific notes you have to play. This characterizes the whole approach: there is nothing that you have to play. To reduce jazz to its elements, there is no more melody in the improvisation. The melody is replaced by "shapes," which are produced by distances on the instrument, from one note to another, but with the note ceasing to be an integral factor.