VIBRATIONS (Arista Freedom AL 1001)
Albert Ayler / tenor and alto saxophones, Don Cherry / trumpet, Gary Peacock / bass, Sunny Murray / drums.
Tunes: “Ghosts (two versions),” “Children,” “Holy Spirit,” “Vibrations,” “Mothers.”
Recorded: September 14, 1964, Copenhagen.
Albert Ayler made two great contributions to improvised music. Both were connected, but one was more strictly musical, the other aesthetic. Musically, Ayler was the first to take the theoretical implications of Ornette Coleman’s work a practical step further. His music was at once more collective than Coleman’s and similarly more “open” in its non-specific rhythmic, harmonic, and tonal sense. Aesthetically, Ayler was the music’s only real existentialist. He best transcended the particular “point of view” and most understood and expressed the depth of ambiguity of existence. Further, while others had touched on such feelings as pain, hurt, and sorrow, in Ayler’s work there frequently crops up a sense of genuine human despair. It is not that this despair overwhelms Ayler, but he alone dares to recognize it and – more importantly – accept it as an (inherent) part of the human condition. His music, in many ways, might be said to be about how to live with it.
With two exceptions, all of Ayler’s great music was recorded in 1964. The exceptions are the out-of-print Sonny’s Time Now (Jihad) (the tracks “Virtue” and “Justice”), recorded November 1965, and the single track “Holy Ghost” on The New Wave In Jazz (Impulse), recorded March 20, 1965. Before and after, there was good Ayler, but the recordings from this period are most representative of his mature and fully formed genius. The 1964 records are Witches and Devils (Polydor), Spiritual Unity (ESP), New York Eye and Ear Control (ESP), and the record under review, previously available as Ghosts on the Dutch Fontana label.
Of these LPs, Witches and Devils is the first time that Ayler recorded with musicians entirely sympathetic to his musical and aesthetic concerns; as such, it is the first stunning indication of the actual shape of his music. New York Eye and Ear Control was, like Coleman’s Free Jazz and Coltrane’s Ascension, an attempt at free collective improvisation; but it is freer structurally than either Coleman’s earlier or Coltrane’s later work: the time is more fluid, the tonality(s) less certain, and there are fewer guidelines overall. Though, like Free Jazz and Ascension, it is not a complete success, New York Eye and Ear Control virtually defines the language of free jazz of the Sixties. Ayler is the obvious principal force behind the music which could also be said to mark the furthest extension of the strictly musical implications of his work; but as an almost entirely spontaneous and collective creation of several distinct musical voices, it is not the highly concentrated expression of his art which emerges on Spiritual Unity or Vibrations.
Of these two, Spiritual Unity strikes me as the most definitive Ayler recording. Ayler’s statements are concise, unencumbered strokes of musical genius, behind which Sunny Murray and Gary Peacock exhibit a single-mindedness of purpose, both between themselves and with Ayler that is astonishing even today, eleven years removed from the recording date. The music here, like Parker’s music, is timeless. There will be newer music, but it will not be better, it will only be different.
The Vibrations LP is largely of the same definitive character as the ESP disc and is even somewhat more ambitious in its denser ensembles and sophisticated compositional approach. The two “Ghosts,” however, are perhaps slightly less momentous than those on the former date. One is but a short, playful statement of the theme; in the other, Ayler makes a typically good opening statement, but Cherry, though he begins strong, seems by the conclusion of his solo on the verge of running out of ideas. The piece also seems a bit long, by one bass solo; the interlude by Peacock, though it is interesting enough in itself and leads toward an evocative final ensemble (with its air of proud resignation), tends to have a “tacked on” feeling to it.
But simply the fact that Ayler felt the need to record four different studio versions of “Ghosts” in the relatively short period of three months indicates something significant about his art: namely, its rejection of absolutes, and its quite deliberate ambiguity. In this sense, each of the four “Ghosts” – especially in their alternately different shapes – is just as important as any of the others. Each feeds on the others (if only by implication) subtly but masterfully calling into question what you thought was the piece’s meaning. In any particular Ayler piece, this double meaning-ness is apparent in his consistent reformulations, redefinitions, or even total (if temporary) negations of what has been presented.
In “Children,” for example, the compositional structure of the piece is built upon an entirely shifting emotional foundation. It begins with a sad yearning, changes into a brief, almost joyful, up-tempo excursion; then erupts into long, turbulent and frenetic lines. After an unaccompanied bass solo by Peacock, the above process reverses itself, but then the short, up-tempo strains are restated, ending the piece on an optimistic note. By then, it scarcely matters where the piece ends. Everything has been turned into its opposite and, what is more, lies just below the surface, nagging at that with which it does not agree.
The underlying sensibility of the remaining pieces on Vibrations is similarly fragile, with Ayler utilizing constant shifts in tempo and dynamic emphases to advance their dramatic structure. The great aesthetic contributions are “Mothers” and “Holy Spirit,” both of which are highly personal, intensely agonized and anguished statements such as could not have been made by any other artist. The most fully realized performance is perhaps “Vibrations,” which is a sharply focused reminder of the aesthetic sense of New York Eye and Ear Control but with a greater individual character (again due to the integral juxtaposition of its parts).
The further we get from Albert Ayler’s work of this period, the larger it seems to loom before us. What is clear now, if it was not clear in 1964, is that the revolutionary sounds which Ayler produced on his instrument – the stutters, the growls, the high-pitched screams, the groans – were a completely organic outgrowth of his art, not a self-conscious attempt to be “avant-garde.” Ayler’s music was not built purely on emotion, as some people thought; Albert Ayler had mastered his instrument in a way in which it had not previously been thought possible to play.
In this, Ayler was the single most important voice of the Sixties. Yet his work remains largely neglected and misunderstood. Indicative of this is that it has taken as long as it has for a record such as Vibrations, one of his most distinctive and singular musical contributions, to finally be released in his own country. Maybe now that it’s here and widely available, it will help bring something of the respect and recognition which his art so richly deserves.
Henry Kuntz, 1975
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).