Albert Ayler In Greenwich Village – Impulse A-9155 | The Village Concerts – Impulse IA-9336/2 | Lörrach / Paris 1966 – hat MUSICS 3500
With recent releases, a large body of Ayler’s music has become available from a period of about four months from late 1966 to early 1967. In part, this music can be seen as an outgrowth of that which first appeared on the 1965 records Bells (ESP 1010) and Spirits Rejoice (ESP 1020). Yet it is something more than that, really the full flowering of what can only be termed Ayler’s “visionary” music.
I’ve written previously of the broad “existentialist” quality of Ayler’s playing and of his 1964 records in particular. And while the characteristics of that music – its ambiguousness and constant change – are still in evidence, something has dropped away and been transmuted. There’s nothing near as dark or bleak as, say, the outlook on “Mothers” or “Holy Spirits” (Vibrations, Arista Freedom Al 1001) from the earlier period. In its place, there’s much thematic good humor and, at times, even a feeling of “peace” (though that may in turn be perceived as “sad,” “resigned,” “full of longing,” or “mystic”).
I should point out that “existentialism” and “mysticism” are but two sides of the same coin. Both understand and move into “the Void,” which may be interpreted, however, as either “Nothingness” or “the ALL.”
By the end of 1964, Ayler seems to have realized that his music had in some ways reached the pinnacle of its expression – or at least that expression which could be accommodated by even expanded and updated forms of jazz. He had faced the song form, as it had been liberated by Coleman, head on, and he had taken it apart. As thematic improviser, for his manner of following everything to its logical conclusion, he had no equal. But something new was needed to accommodate the expansion of his sound.
Free improvisation would have been one possibility, expanded compositional forms another. But Ayler, always an exacting composer in any case, chose a way in between, one which allowed him the freedom of both choices without musical compromise. His new music of this time contains considerable thematic decoration and elaboration, but little thematic improvising as such. The addition of new string instruments, often two basses and, on one date, both violin and cello, give his music a startlingly liquid and textural quality and a marvellous fluidity of line, motion, and phrasing.
The themes are simple, repetitive, and universal in character, often indulged in, without soloists, for their own sake. They usually include an up-tempo march-like line, that resolves into its own afterthoughts or redefinitions, its own subconscious or alter ego, only to emerge again or be re-formed.
The themes’ “resolutions” are primarily expansive musical environments or musical landscapes, more mood-oriented than anything else. In that sense, they never really seem to be going any place. They often simply open themselves up before you, becoming more visual (and “visionary”) than sonic in substance. Energetically speaking, something happens in the meeting between the propulsion of line and the line’s dissipation of the space.
Interpretively, the thematic form of these pieces may be seen as cycles of birth and death and occasionally (in the solo sections) release. Certainly, the solos are only in the most remote sense related to the themes which inspire them. They are freely improvised interludes, that can stand on their own apart from the specific tunes. And they are, in all cases, extremely powerful – propulsions of line and of pure energy, of fire, of air. Ayler’s solos themselves have a wholly etheric and purely vibratory quality to them and a sound like the sound of light.
The non-thematic relationship of the solos is extremely important, both in a musical and in a spiritual sense. For they are freedom from form within form and a clear break with all of the past while not denying it. On some level, they are not even cathartic, they simply are. Their particular musical space exists in and for itself; it is not a springboard to anything else. Contrast that with Coltrane’s music from this period, with the energy flights of him and Pharoah Sanders which, if they are nothing else, are musical and spiritual catharses, forces moving continually against themselves toward something else. But for Ayler, there was nothing else, he simply moved in the space, the highest space he could find to play in.
Albert Ayler In Greenwich Village, of course, was the first of these albums to be released, while The Village Concerts appeared more than a decade later, and Lörrach/Paris only in the last months. The music is uniformly good on all of the records, with the 1967 date presenting all new compositions, all but one (”Omega”) unrecorded elsewhere. That date also includes the unusual and attractive combination of horns, string quartet, and percussion. The recording quality is best on the two sessions for Impulse, the only drawback being that violinist Sampson is under-recorded. That is rectified to a large extent on the Lorrach/Paris album which begins to give another (hymn-like) sense of what this music was like. Lorrach/Paris also includes wonderful new versions of “Bells” and, especially, of “Ghosts” (”1st Version”).
Titling of the tunes continues (deliberately) on the Lorrach/Paris records to be as much of a jumble as ever. “Jesus,” a tune attributed to Don Ayler, sounds amazingly like “The Prophet” on Spirits Rejoice; “Holy Spirit” is a new version of “Truth Is Marching In” while “Spirits” is another version of “Ghosts,” and “Our Prayer” changes midway into “Spirits Rejoice.” The second “Ghosts” (on side C) begins with (presumably) Pharoah Sanders’ “Japan,” played two days before Sanders himself recorded it; then changes to “Our Prayer,” then to “Holy Family.” “Holy Family”, meanwhile, is another version of the tune which appears as “Divine Peacemaker” on The Village Concerts.
Hearing this body of music has caused me to partially re-evaluate Ayler’s total work. The 1964 records remain to me the most significant and substantial (and, in the first instance, revolutionary) of all of his music. Yet the late ‘66 and early ‘67 recordings have a power and substance all their own, with implications every bit as far reaching as those of the earlier music. They are, however, generally suggestive rather than direct implications. That is, the overall sense and feeling of this music – simply the way it is in the world – seems to me more important than its specific musical form, whose underlying concepts had already been established earlier. Ayler’s solos from this period, however, are some of the most incredible, forward-looking, and far removed from orthodoxy that he ever played.
Henry Kuntz, 1982, (previously unpublished)
Albert Ayler In Greenwich Village – Impulse A-9155 | The Village Concerts – Impulse IA-9336/2 | Lörrach / Paris 1966 – hat MUSICS 3500
Side A (Greenwich Village), Sides A & B (Village Concerts): Albert Ayler / tenor saxophone, Don Ayler / trumpet, Michel Sampson / violin, Joel Freedman / cello, Bill Folwell / bass, Alan Silva / bass, Beaver Harris / drums.
Side B (Greenwich Village), Sides C & D (Village Concerts): Personnel same as above without Joel Freedman and Alan Silva and with Henry Grimes / bass.
Recorded: Sides A, A & B: February 26, 1967,The Village Theatre, New York . Sides B, B & C: December 18, 1966, The Village Vanguard, New York.
Lörrach / Paris 1966 hat MUSICS 3500
Albert Ayler / tenor saxophone, Don Ayler / trumpet, Michel Sampson / violin, William Folwell / bass, Beaver Harris / drums.
Recorded: Sides A & B: November 7, 1966, Lörrach, Germany. Sides C & D: November 13, 1966 Paris Jazz Festival.
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).