Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, Vol.1 and 2
Shandar 10 004 and 83 503
Albert Ayler / tenor saxophone, Call Cobbs / piano, Steve Tintweiss / bass, Alan Blairman / drums, Mary Maria / vocal (on “Music Is…” only).
Volume 1: “In Heart Only,” “Spirits,” “Holy Family,” “Spirits Rejoice.”
Volume 2: “Truth Is Marching In,” “Universal Message,” “Spiritual Reunion,” “Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe.”
Recorded: July 25 & 27, 1970, St. Paul de Vence, France.
Albert Ayler’s music was a complex phenomenon; at its best as pure and profound as any music could be, as high an art form as any, in jazz or out. But yet, like Parker’ s art, it seems not to have convinced its creator, and after the burst of activity that defined his music on record (it ended with Spirits Rejoice, ESP 1020) he let himself be led, by his own ideas or those of others, into unsatisfactory compromises or, finally, total misapplication of his talents.
One of the important factors in seeing Ayler’s music whole lies in being able to grasp the basic paradox involved. In his greatest work totally new techniques were being developed to say totally new things. An improvisational method was developed that created logic from these new techniques, that welded seemingly disparate, sometimes brief and completely disassociated bursts of sound into a coherent whole over a wide and flexible time-scale.
These constructions were erected over what were apparently simple bases, but were not: short theme lines of great melodic attractiveness, exactly calculated to imply folk-memories and an ingenuous, unsophisticated approach to music. The whole idea of this music, compositionally, instrumentally, in ensemble, rests on the use of sophisticated techniques to produce primitivistic effects. And the attempt to simplify it, popularise it, that happened on Impulse was an attempt to re-work or transplant this primitivistic surface without regard for the sophisticated substructure that lay beneath it.
Up to the point of Albert Ayler In Greenwich Village (Impulse 9155) it’s reasonable to assume that Ayler’s records represented fairly exactly what was happening in his personal appearances. Certainly on the only occasion I ever saw him, late in 1966, it sounded very much like this: already beginning to break up a bit but tremendously exciting to be up close to nevertheless. But what these Fondation Maeght recordings imply is that after Love Cry (Impulse 9165) the gulf between records and concert appearances becomes quite significant as Impulse and Ayler pursued that disastrous novelty-ridden program.
These tracks retain some sort of sanity most of the time. There’s nothing anywhere as dense, as monumental as, say, second “Ghosts” (on ESP 1002) nor is there the ensemble power that the group could raise on things like “Spirits Rejoice” on ESP. Yet Tintweiss and Blairman are compatible, Blairman particularly seeming able to maintain something of the loose yet consistent forward momentum that Sunny Murray used to provide and which Ayler appeared to miss so much after parting company with him. It’s not entirely back to old times, however, for Cobbs gives a final convincing demonstration that after an on-off association lasting around five years he still hadn’t the faintest idea of what Ayler’ s music was about. In parts it doesn’t matter: “Holy Family” or “Music Is…” have to cope with greater problems than him, and the schmaltzy rhapsodising on “Universal Message” and others is simply comical, but when it comes to a running foolishness like that perpetrated throughout “Spirits” – an accompaniment more suited to a tap dancer or a juggler than an improviser of Ayler’s stature – then it’s a more serious matter. And of course raises the question of how Ayler could let all this happen, unless he himself wasn’t completely aware of, able to define or fully realize, the nature and implications of his own ideas.
The single-horn format has provided Ayler with plenty of space here, and though once in a while it sounds a bit thin-textured – Cobbs’ piano rippling adds hardly any density – there is at least opportunity for the tenorist. He gives a pretty convincing display overall, and shows that if by that time he’d largely abandoned the ferocity of his earlier days for a more lavish, legato method of expression, the old fire could at least glimmer through fairly regularly.
And certainly he could still play his horn. The charging improvisation on “Truth Is Marching In” is entirely admirable, while the long expressive theme of “Spiritual Reunion”. with its powerful sudden upward spirals into falsetto, is equally good in its way. And at the point where his playing does falter, on “Spirits Rejoice” particularly, it underlines for us what a colossal technique we always simply expected him to have. “Spirits,” too, in spite of Cobbs, has moments of real glory: this could have been the climactic track of the collection and even flawed, probably still is; while the weird calypso-type “Holy Family,” though it doesn’t encourage Ayler to raise his game, at least allows him to revert back to and confirm the evidence of Rollins’ music that can be found in his early playing.
Mary Maria appears only on the final track, “Music Is…,” singing lyrics of quite frightening naivety: again another example of trying to make simple what is not. But she’s not in a position here to distort the situation to the extent that she did on the last Impulses. In the end then it has to be admitted that these tracks are not as good as Ayler’s finest music. Yet they are by no means negligible, certainly preferable to anything in the studio-recording line from New Grass (Impulse 9175) onwards. So stay with the ‘63, 64? 65? records, by all means, but hear these. For something like the truth of Ayler’s music goes marching in here for the last time.
Jack Cooke, 1974
Albert Ayler biography:
Albert Ayler (July 13, 1936 – November 1970) was an American jazz saxophonist, singer and composer.
Albert Ayler was the most primal of the free jazz musicians of the 1960s. He possessed a deep blistering tone—achieved by using the stiffest plastic reeds he could find on his tenor saxophone—and a broad, pathos-filled vibrato that came right out of church music. His trio and quartet records of 1964, like Spiritual Unity and The Hilversum Sessions, show him advancing the improvisational notions of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman into abstract realms where timbre, not harmony and melody, are the music’s backbone. His ecstatic music of 1965 and 1966, like “Spirits Rejoice” and “Truth is Marching In” has been compared by critics to the sound of a Salvation Army brass band, and involved simple, march-like themes which alternated with wild group improvisations and took jazz back to its pre-Louis Armstrong roots.
Born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Ayler was first taught alto saxophone by his father Edward with whom he played duets in church. He later studied at the Academy of Music in Cleveland with jazz saxophonist Benny Miller. As a teen Ayler played with such skill that he was known around Cleveland as “Little Bird,” after virtuoso saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was nicknamed “Bird.”
In 1952, at the age of 16, Ayler began playing bar-walking, honking, R&B-style tenor with blues singer and harmonica player Little Walter, spending two summer vacations with Walter’s band. After graduating from high school, Ayler joined the United States Army, where he jammed with other enlisted musicians, including tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. He also played in the regiment band. In 1959 he was stationed in France, where he was further exposed to the martial music that would be a core influence on his later work.
After his discharge from the army, Ayler kicked around Los Angeles and Cleveland trying to find work, but his increasingly iconoclastic playing, which had moved away from traditional harmony, was not welcomed by traditionalists. He relocated to Sweden in 1962 where his recording career began, leading Swedish and Danish groups on radio sessions and jamming as an unpaid member of Cecil Taylor’s band in the winter of 1962-63. (Long-rumored tapes of Ayler performing with Taylor’s group have finally surfaced as part of a ten-CD set released in late 2004 by Revenant Records.
Ayler returned to the US and settled in New York assembling an influential trio with double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, recording his breakthrough album Spiritual Unity, for ESP-Disk Records. Embraced by New York jazz leaders like Eric Dolphy, who reportedly called him the best player he’d ever seen, Ayler found respect and an audience. He influenced the gestating new generation of jazz players, as well as veterans like John Coltrane. He toured Europe, with the trio augmented with trumpeter Don Cherry.
Ayler’s trio created a definitive free jazz sound. Murray rarely if ever laid down a steady, rhythmic pulse, and Ayler’s solos were downright pentecostal. But the trio was still recognizably in the jazz tradition. Ayler’s next series of groups, with trumpeter brother Donald, were a radical departure. Beginning with the album Spirits Rejoice and continuing with records like Bells and The Village Concerts, Ayler turned to performances that were chains of marching band- or mariachi-style themes alternating with overblowing and multiphonic freely improvised group solos, a wild and unique sound that took jazz back to its pre-Louis Armstrong roots of collective improvisation. Ayler, in a 1970 interview, calls his later styles “energy music,” contrasting with the “space bebop” played by Coltrane and initially by Ayler himself.
In 1966 Ayler was signed to Impulse Records at the urging of John Coltrane, the label’s star attraction at that time. But even on Impulse Ayler’s radically different music never found a sizeable audience. In 1967, Coltrane died. Ayler was one of several musicians to perform at Coltrane’s funeral. An amateur recording of this performance exists, but is of very low fidelity.
Later in 1967, Albert’s brother Donald Ayler had what he termed a nervous breakdown. In a letter to The Cricket, a Newark, New Jersey music magazine edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, Albert reported that he had seen a strange object in the sky and come to believe that he and his brother “had the right seal of God almighty in our forehead.” Although it is reasonable to assume the Aylers had explored or were exploring psychedelic drugs like LSD, there is no evidence this significantly influenced their mental stability.
For the next two and half years Ayler turned to recording music not too far removed from rock and roll, often with utopian, hippie lyrics provided by his live-in girlfriend Mary Maria Parks. Ayler drew on his very early career, incorporating doses of R&B, with funky, electric rhythm sections and extra horns (including Scottish highland bagpipe) on some songs. The first album in this vein, New Grass, is reviled by his fans and generally considered to be the worst of his work. Following its commercial failure, Ayler unsuccessfully attempted to bridge his earlier “space bebop” recordings and the sound of New Grass with Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe.
In July of 1970 Ayler did fully return to the free jazz idiom for a group of shows in France but the band he was able to assemble was amateurish and not nearly of the caliber of his earlier groups.
Ayler disappeared on November 5, 1970, and he was found dead in New York City’s East River on November 25, a presumed suicide. For some time afterwards, rumors circulated that Ayler had been murdered, possibly due to his involvement in the black power movement. Later, however, Parks would say that Albert had been depressed and feeling guilty, blaming himself for his brother’s problems. She stated that, just before his death, he had several times threatened to kill himself, smashed one of his saxophones over their television set after she tried to dissuade him, then took the Statue of Liberty ferry and jumped off as it neared Liberty Island. He is buried in Cleveland, Ohio.
Ayler remains something of a cult artist. “Ghosts”—with its bouncy, sing-song melody (rather reminiscent of a nursery rhyme)—is probably his best known tune, and is something of a free jazz standard, having been covered by Lester Bowie, Gary Windo, Eugene Chadbourne, Joe McPhee, John Tchicai and Ken Vandermark, among others. Saxophonist Mars Williams led a group called Witches and Devils, which was not only named after an Ayler song, but which covered several of his songs.
Peter Brötzmann’s “Die Like A Dog Quartet” is a group loosely dedicated to Ayler. A record called Little Birds Have Fast Hearts references Ayler’s youthful nickname. In 2005, guitarist Marc Ribot (who has occasionally performed Ayler’s songs for some years) released an album dedicated to the ethic of collective improvisation, entitled Spiritual Unity in honor of Ayler’s 1964 album of the same name.
On his 1969 album Folkjokeopus, English guitarist/singer-songwriter Roy Harper, dedicated the song “One for All” (“One for Al“) to Albert Ayler “who I knew and loved during my time in Copenhagen“. Harper considered Ayler to be “one of the leading jazzmen of the age“. In the Folkejokeopus liner notes Harper states, “In many ways he (Ayler) was the king“.
In 2005, the Swedish film-maker Kasper Collin released a documentary film about Ayler’s life called My Name Is Albert Ayler. The film includes detailed interviews with Ayler’s father Edward and brother Donald, as well as the only live concert footage of Ayler known to exist (of concerts in Sweden and France).