Ayler — Beyond This World

Richard Williams pays tribute to Albert Ayler

BACK IN 1964, Albert Ayler (whose death is reported on the front page) bore down on jazz with the force and surprise of an unforecast hurricane.

Around that time I remember walking into Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop to pick up My Name Is Albert Ayler and a Ken McIntyre album. The assistant snorted: “McIntyre’s okay, but that other guy just can’t play his horn.”

In this way, Ayler was probably the object of more derision than any other musician in jazz history, which is paradoxical when one considers that his playing is in many ways closer to that of Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton than to Parker, Miles, or Rollins.

He brought back to jazz the wild, primitive feeling which deserted it in the late ’30s, and his inspiration was the same one which produced, for instance, Duke Ellington’s early bands.

And yet he was a sophisticated player, too. His technique knew no boundaries, his range from the lowest honks to the most shrill high harmonics being unparalleled, and the tonal variety he employed was astounding. On ballads, for instance, he would use a wide, wobbly vibrato, but even his fastest runs bore evidence of the most exact intonation and articulation.

Albert and his brother, trumpeter Donald Ayler, were born in Cleveland, Ohio, the former in 1936. Albert had an early grounding in Rhythm and Blues, going on the road with Lloyd Price and Little Walter and his Jukes.

His first jazz exposure came when he visited Scandinavia in 1962. playing with Cecil Taylor and recording with local rhythm sections. The two albums from this period, The First Recordings (Sonet) and My Name Is Albert Ayler (Fontana), show that he had grasped the essentials of a new approach, even though he was forced to play standard tunes. His treatment of ‘Summertime’ from the latter album is a classic reading, stately yet full of pathos and a flavour new to jazz.

His first critical mention was, inevitably, from LeRoi Jones, who praised him for his contribution to Taylor’s set in a concert in New York’s Philharmonic Hall on December 31, 1963. Jones wrote that he had “a tone as broad and gritty as an electric foghorn,” and announced the arrival of a major revolutionary force.

But it was two albums for ESP, Spiritual Unity and Bells, cut in ’64 and ’65 respectively, which turned everyone round. The former was a perfectly-executed trio album; with Gary Peacock on bass and drummer Sunny Murray, the three reaching new heights of freedom and empathy. Bells, his most controversial work of all (partly, perhaps, because it was released on a single-sided album pressed on clear plastic), was recorded at a Town Hall concert with a quintet including brother Don, altoist Charles Tyler, bassist Lewis Worrell, and Murray, and gave the first glimpse of a new aspect of his style, an ensemble approach based on the old New Orleans marching bands and on Nonconformist hymns. Many of those who would drool over the Eureka Brass Band, doing exactly the same thing, sneered at Ayler.

In later years, after the spate of ESP albums, he signed with Impulse, for whom he created four albums: Live In The VillageLove CryNew Grass, and Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe. The last two were strongly tinged with an R&B influence, including vocals by Albert and, on the last, guitar by Canned Heat’s Henry Vestine.

Neither album was as satisfying as his earlier output, lacking the purity of style which marked the ESPs, and live appearances became rare events until he was almost forgotten as a performing artist.

He was deeply convinced of the spirituality of the music. In 1966 he told Valerie Wilmer, “My music is the thing that keeps me alive now. I must play music that is beyond this world. That’s all I’m asking for in life and I don’t think you can ask for more than just to be alone to create from what God gives you.”

A calm, soft-spoken man, he also believed that his time would come: “If the people don’t like it now, they will. People are coming from every direction, and appreciation is just a matter of time.”

Coming hard on the heels of Coltrane and Ornette, Ayler was a cornerstone of the New Music. He inspired countless musicians, and his epitaph can be found in the playing of those who followed him. Inevitably, like Trane and Bird and Billie and Eric, he gave more to the world than the world could take. Now the world has taken him.

© Richard WilliamsMelody Maker, 12 December 1970

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