albert ayler | prophecy


Prophecy ESP 3030

Albert Ayler / tenor saxophone, Gary Peacock / bass, Sunny Murray / drums.

Recorded: June 14, 1964, Cellar Cafe, New York City, by Paul Haines.

Prophecy presents some of the most astonishing and revealing Ayler ever; astonishing and revealing because, though it is recorded only a month before Spiritual Unity, Ayler’s widely acknowledged masterpiece, it shows that LP to be virtually a consolidation of his work from this period, not even the farthest reaches of his expression! If Prophecy thus lacks something of the easy eloquence of Spiritual Unity, it is a more vital document, literally bursting with new ideas.

Nearly every aspect of Ayler’s work (and nearly every improvisational device) from whatever period can be heard: the romanticism, the humor, the tragedy, the intensity. Ayler is shown to be a master of illusion, his world a musical fun house in which the image is never what it appears to be, nor is it ever any other image. Nothing is universal, nothing the same.

Yet Ayler does not so much create illusions as he destroys them. His work is tumultuous, full of upheaval, dealing with life’s extremes. And that is why it was never easy listening. It is also a large part of the reason for its lasting musical relevance: namely, because the inner necessities of Ayler’s aesthetic – the constant reformulations, the widely expanded freedom from exact pitch and from the direct statement, the highly ambiguous accompaniment – not only implied the possibility of a spontaneously created, collectively improvised music, but also suggested a methodology for bringing such a music into being.

For a spontaneous, yet collective, music would seem to necessitate precisely the kind of rapidly changing, widely dynamic surface (with a tendency toward irresolution) which Ayler’s music opened up. Ayler’s work, of course (and his aesthetic purposes), have a great deal to do with thematic improvising as well, but the cataclysmic manner in which these ideas are pursued clearly suggests entirely new ways of creating music.

lovecrysession_charles_stew.jpgAs for the specific tunes, the opening “Spirits” is pushed and pulled in every which way, while “Wizard” (actually “Children”) greatly expands the sense of that tune as it appeared on Vibrations (Arista). In the first “Ghosts,” Ayler engages in a near reckless dissolution of the theme, as if in pursuit of some illusory “essence,” and he ends the piece in characteristically uncharacteristic fashion, the tune trailing off in mid-phrase. There is also a motif that suggests the opening figure in Coltrane’s Meditations.

The second “Ghosts” (actually, the second “Spirits”) is taken at its fastest tempo ever, and Ayler almost immediately charges in, transposing it into flightier and considerably less certain realms; the ending is similar to the ending that would later be used for “Bells.” “Prophecy” is remindful of the nameless ballad heard on Bells, with Ayler wringing every last anguished note out of it. Everywhere, Murray and Peacock are outstanding, with both men working with a somewhat larger sound span than on Spiritual Unity.

The originality of Ayler’s ideas, his creation of a whole new instrumental (and musical) range to explore them and, what is more, their sheer audacity seem more and more incredible the more we penetrate his work. This new record presents his music at its most far reaching and most demanding.

Henry Kuntz, 1976

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).


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