My Name Is Albert Ayler (dir. Kasper Collin)

Synopsis

Feature-length documentary about the African-American saxophonist Albert Ayler (1936–1970), told through archive footage and new interviews with friends, family and musicians, including his brother and bandmate Donald Ayler, the drummer Sonny Murray, the bassist Gary Peacock and the photographer and writer Val Wilmer. The film tells his life story, from growing up in a middle-class black family in Cleveland, Ohio, playing oboe and then saxophone for a military band, touring the US with R&B bands, and then pioneering a radical form of avant-garde jazz in Stockholm and New York. The story ends with Ayler’s death, presumed to be suicide, in 1970.

Review

A LOW-BUDGET DOCUMENTARY about a relatively obscure avant-garde jazz musician should, by rights, appeal only to a few bearded aesthetes and Black Power disciples. So it’s something of a triumph that My Name Is Albert Ayler, helmed by rookie Swedish director Kasper Collin, manages to turn this austere subject to life, turning Ayler’s short, turbulent life into a compelling narrative. 

Albert Ayler was only 34 when his body was found in New York’s East River in September 1970. Kasper Collin’s short documentary works as a revealing biography — even Ayler obsessives will learn much they didn’t know about Ayler’s partner Mary Parks, about his spell in Sweden and about the cloud of mental instability that surrounded both Albert and his brother Donald. But it also works as an exploration of the issues that clung to his music — issues of race and segregation, spirituality and commerce, mental illness and artistic expression.

Considering there is so little surviving footage of Ayler (a 1966 BBC recording of Ayler’s band at the London School Of Economics was not only scrubbed but never even broadcast), Collin has used what little archive film exists brilliantly. We see Ayler’s band ecstatically flailing before a well-dressed concert audiences in France and Sweden; we see Ayler in full Black Power threads playing from his bonkers psychedelic funk album New Grass to an audience of hippies in 1968; we see home-movie clips and eerie slow-motion footage of a bare-chested Ayler staring at the camera. The only voiceover comes from Ayler himself, taken from 1960s audio recordings.

Collin tells the story in simple chronological order, speaking to people who knew Ayler. There is his father Edward, a Sunday school teacher, now in his nineties but looking incredibly well preserved. There is Albert’s brother Donald, who played trumpet in Albert’s band and who also suffered from mental illness (he was diagnosed as psychotic in the 1970s). There are numerous girlfriends, acquaintances and bandmates, including avuncular drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Gary Peacock. Ayler’s last wife, Mary Parks, is notable by her absence, although she does agree to be interviewed on the phone. 

As an inspired linking device, each interviewee is filmed listening to Ayler’s music on headphones. We watch as they wince, grimace, grin, laugh, blissfully nod their head in quiet ecstasy or let out a sharp, exasperated snort. “That is just too strong,” says a Swedish drummer, close to tears when played a track he recorded with Ayler in 1962.

Collin documents Ayler’s relationship with fellow saxophonist John Coltrane, who not only got Ayler signed to a major label (ABC-Paramount’s hip jazz imprint Impulse) but also requested, shortly before his death, that Ayler play at his funeral (we hear a recording of the event at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York over still photographs of a shocked congregation). Still, even at his most terrifying, Ayler’s music had an unusually broad appeal — unlike other avant gardists from the 1960s “New Thing” (Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman) Ayler’s music was steeped in early blues, field hollers and New Orleans-style collective improvisation, which led even crusty old conservatives like Philip Larkin to embrace his music. 

Collin also explores the (often problematic) line that black musicians were only able to truly flourish in liberal Europe. “In Scandinavia, for the first time, I felt free,” says Ayler, and we see how this compared with the band’s life of grinding poverty on the New York circuit, often living on handouts from his acolyte John Coltrane. On the other hand, we hear black musicians that Ayler worked with in Sweden tell us that they were often encouraged to play up the “exotic” by gig promoters, playing then-fashionable musics like calypso.

Ayler’s statements which open the film (“I believe I am a prophet”) sound faintly ridiculous at first (recalling the space-age Afrocentric hokum that runs from Sun Ra to Lee “Scratch” Perry), as do the claims that he wishes to “move beyond the civilisation in which we live”. But this mysticism eventually turns into a discourse on freedom — freedom to move beyond segregation, convention, racial stereotyping, the marketplace and ultimately the planet. It also shows that, underneath the brash, proto-punk tone of Ayler’s saxophone, there was a real heart. “Nowadays they play the saxophone so damn hard,” says Sonny Murray at the close of the film. “Albert didn’t. He played it with love.”

© John LewisSight & Sound, November 2007

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