Albert Ayler: “Coltrane was The Father, Pharoah was The Son, and I was…The Holy Ghost”

Gothic horror, funeral processions, The Exorcist ten years early on a crazed tenor. The critics loathed it. Audiences stayed away in droves. ALBERT AYLER. Have our ears caught up with him yet?

IF CRITICS had the knives out for The New Thing, the music of Albert Ayler provoked a more ribald response.

There was a quality of bumpkin naiveity about his tunes and a grossness in his treatment of them that attracted rotten tomatoes and flat-irons rather than more considered demolition.

Most authorities considered him technically hopeless, at best a fraud.

There remains a whiff of Vaudeville — the hooked pole used to hoik bum-turns into the wings — about Ayler’s statement: “I remember one night in Stockholm I started to play what was in my soul. The promoter pulled me off the stage.”

Catcalls and the old razoo are preserved on wax on The First Recordings — “Off! Off!” from the bleachers as the tenorist remembers April in wandering keys.

Kenny Dorham, an excellent trumpeter of the older generation, had this to say about Ayler’s music: “If this thing isn’t quarantined, we’ll all be in the garment centre pushing wagons.”

CRITICAL MISUNDERSTANDING was compounded by ignorance of Ayler’s development; none of the first five albums was available in the States.

In fact, his cited influences are surprisingly orthodox: Lester Young for “the way he connected his phrases, the freedom with which he flowed. And his warm tone”; Sidney Bechet’s playing was “hypnotizing — the strength of it, the strength of the vibrato.”

In fact, Ayler is a throwback, an Old Wave traditional player, but outsize in unusual ways that obscure the roots. The vibrato does have antecedents in Bechet, but treated to vegetable compound so that it rears up broad and shaky as a busker’s. The warm tone? Ayler’s warmth was a St. Bernard, knock you down, lick your hat off.

Critic Frank Kofsky came up with the dosage — 50 per cent Coltrane plus 20 per cent Coleman plus 30 per cent X — which sounds like the formula Dr. Jekyll drank, fangs extra.

Albert Ayler was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1936, the son of a violin and tenor player.

As a boy, he played alto at funerals and gigged with R&B outfits like Little Walter’s. He switched to tenor in the army because the bigger horn seemed more expressive: “It seemed to me that on tenor you could get out all the feelings of the ghetto.”

Demobbed in 1961, he remained in Europe playing with pick-up groups, touring Scandinavia with Cecil Taylor.

It was a full-grown, one-off monster that hit the New York scene in the mid-sixties. Le Roi Jones records first impressions:

“The music he is trying to get together is among the most exciting — even frightening — music I have ever heard. He uses, I am told, a thick plastic reed and blows with a great deal of pressure.

“The sound is fantastic.

“It leaps at you, actually assails you, and the tenorist never lets up for a second. The timbre of his horn is so broad and gritty it sometimes sounds like an electronic foghorn.”

Photos of Ayler in action give an impression of both feet clear of the ground. Cavernous belches, farts and shrieks burst from his horn like an exhaust-trail. Hardly surprising that nobody noticed that Ayler’s trajectory was pure and original melody, plotted like a moon-shot and lyrical as a lark.

The music on the early recordings reveals a Gothic imagination, the guttering torch in the iron dark.

Most of his tunes — ‘Ghosts’, ‘Spirits’, ‘Witches And Devils’ — begin as childishly as a Halloween pumpkin mask and move away, ascend to the turret with the locked door. Each step is linked to the one before, but the route is so bedimmed that for a time the dwarfish scuttling tunes and the missing-stair register-leaps hold the attention.

There is no parallel to this atmosphere in jazz, though there is in other art forms: Mary Shelley, Gormenghast, Borowczyk, Webster, Corman. Ayler’s finest record, Spiritual Unity, is the real ‘H’ Certificate stuff, the track ‘Ghosts, Second Variation’ builds to the most shattering exorcism in modern music.

‘Mothers’, on the other hand, is as sentimental as a locket and played with a vibrato that should fill Ayler’s hat with pennies on any pavement. Spirits gives a hint of things to come in the ‘Witches and Devils’ performance — a New Orleans funeral procession with the emphasis less on the rambles of the departed than the butchers that cut him down.

AYLER HAD problems finding collaborators.

His first two albums are hamstrung by Hard-Bop Scandinavians.

Ayler’s main man, Sunny Murray, had freed up beyond even the emancipation of Elvin Jones, who had finally — with the Coltrane group — given that last brass bastion of regularity, the cymbal, its tossing head.

Murray — possessed of an organic, free-range sense of rhythm (wind weather sea) — pared the traditional drum-kit down to four units: a noise at each corner.

For Murray, it really was goodbye ching-chinga ching. He unrolls a weird series of three-dimensional perspectives in which speeds, textures, and amplitudes tug against each other. The cymbal ebbs and flows continuously while shako snare taps move in fragmented march time below. Murray’s style perfectly complements the leader’s spectral world in which ominous shapes move in and out of focus, a pendulum to Ayler’s vision of the pit.

“I’m trying to communicate to as many people as I can,” said Ayler, but the simplicity of his themes was not enough to keep the lines open. The audience stayed away in droves.

Shepp may declare that “we are only an extension of that entire Civil Rights/Black Muslims/Black Nationalist movement that is taking place in America,” but even Harlem lave The New Music the back of its neck. At The Apollo they were breaking out the fire-hoses for James Brown and the Flames.

Ayler, like Shepp, cast about for a readymade format to house his message, and came up with New Orleans:

“In a way, we’re trying to do for now what people like Louis Armstrong did at the beginning. Their music was a rejoicing. It was a rejoicing about beauty that was going to happen.”

His previous attempts at collective improvisation had been patchy — New York Eye and Ear Control chaotic, ‘Vibrations’ from the Ghosts session, if not exactly Mardi Gras, was some kind of gettin’ up morning.

Spirits Rejoice, cut in a seemingly empty Judson Hall, unveiled The New Old Wave.

Teamed with his brilliant brother Don on trumpet, two bassists, Murray and the undistinguished Charles Tyler on alto, Ayler mobilized the Saints. Bugle calls, field-hollers, brass bands and tent shows rub fustian shoulders in the ensembles, but fall respectfully back for the ultra sophisticated flights of fancy in the solo spots.

Ayler at this period liked to work up around the ceiling, straining into the trumpet range, stringing his ideas together in the same logical way, but without the old range of texture.

Bells is the best example of this period of his work, has two of his greatest solos, but is a clear plastic disc with a design on one side and only nineteen minutes playing time on the other. Even more scandalous in its day — and about as easy to lay hands on as The Maltese Falcon — is Sunny’s Time Now which, along with the razor sharp responsiveness of Ayler and Don Cherry, has Le Roi Jones blowing his chance of the Schweitzer Prize on a recitation of ‘Black Art’: “dagger poems in the slimy bellies of the owner Jews.”

Neither Ayler nor Cherry saw their poems in this light: “The spiritual forces are uniting through the folk. We play folk from all over the world… like very, very old tunes, you know, before I was born just come in my mind. It’s fantastic, fantastic.”

THE CONTRACT with Impulse Records in 1966 signified an arrival of some sort for The Quarantine Kid. The joy that zaps across from his next three albums should put a big melon-slice smile on anybody’s map.

Live at the Village Vanguard catches the wild, skirling heterophonics at their peak, powered along by the comparatively straight-ahead drumming of Beaver Harris. There’s a Balkan flavour too, a spotted kerchief campfire knees-up feel to the violin playing and to the upper register work of Alan Silva on bass.

Love Cry has the simple counterpoint of the horns underpinned by the spectacular Milford Graves. Gunslinger-fast, Graves works his drumkit from all points of the compass, never still — snick click sneeze bang GONG! — like a claim jumper panning a riverbed. The old favourites, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Bells’, re-appear sweet, simple and short.

New Grass is Ayler’s jazz-rock record — a shotgun marriage that’s usually bound for Reno — and it caused a lot of high temperatures under the woollie hats of the faithful. It ain’t going anywhere, but it’s fun.

As an innocent, primitive form for the Ayler energy, rock is corsets, too rhythmically static. The electric bass comes on like sinus trouble, and if Pretty Purdie’s drumming has a back-beat you can’t lose it, he’s also got a pair of ears you can’t find ’em.

Ayler’s show-stopping free fall near the end of ‘Heart Love’ goes for nothing… like thanks for the support, Pretty. I’ll wear it always. In this context, Ayler’s technique puts King Curtis back in the medicine show playing rooty for Big Legs Annie.

It’s ironic that the change of labels from the daft Esperanto sleeves of ESP to the high gloss production of Impulse should result in this instruction: New Grass/File under JAZZ: Avant Garde.

Bang goes Albert’s dream of universality.

THE LATER Impulses are patchy, and there was a general feeling that the teeming inventiveness had rendered up its final pailful.

In 1966, Ayler brought his band over to London to be filmed by BBC TV for their jazz series. The video tape was cleaned off without being shown.

In December 1970, Ayler was found dead in the East River.

Posthumously, two late recordings have been issued on the Shandar label which show the tenorist in excellent form. The audience at St. Paul de Vence sound very different to the one on The First Recordings. Perhaps it’s the boogaloo beat.

Perhaps it’s like Billie Holiday said:

“They hadn’t been told by anybody yet whether I was good or bad. And when you’re doing something new, you got to have somebody tell people.” 

ALBERT AYLER: A selected discography

The First Recordings — Sonet SNFT 604
My Name Is Albert Ayler 
— Fontana 688 603 ZL
— Fontana 688 606 ZL or Fontana SFJL 925
Spiritual Unity 
— ESP 1002 or Fontana SFJL 933
— Transatlantic TRA 130
Bells — ESP 1010
Spirits Rejoice 
— ESP 1020
New York Eye and Ear Control 
— ESP 1016
Sunny’s Time Now 
— Jihad 663
Live In Greenwich Village — Impulse A9155
ve Cry — Impulse A9165
New Grass 
— Impulse SIPL 519
Nuits De La Fondation Maeght Vol 1 — Shandar SRIO 000
Nuits De La Fondation Maeght Vol. 2 — Shandar SRIO 004

© Brian CaseNew Musical Express, 6 July 1974

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