My Name is Albert Ayler

Still misunderstood and neglected, the man who took jazz saxophone to its furthest limits awaits a new appreciation. Richard Cook offers a personal view.

I’VE BEEN wondering lately if anyone listens to Albert Ayler any more. Eighteen years after his death, the man who, more than anyone else, shocked and dishevelled the jazz of his time has become antique. If Ayler came along today, his currency would be, if not exactly commonplace, no more sonically disturbing than many of today’s extremists.

Borbetomagus exploit the edges of Ayler’s art with a relentlessness that might have fazed Albert himself. Last Exit would just drown him out. Yet no saxophone screamers or noise merchants have truly mastered Albert Ayler. He organised his music in forms and emotions which, for their candour and determination, have never been surpassed. But it’s no use trying to sell Ayler as a sensation. In his dark, mysterious recordings, he is pursuing a different goal.

People who heard him remember Ayler with a mixture of affection and sadness. Anyone who lived through the new jazz of the 60s tends to look back on it with nostalgia, as they do on everything else that happened in that decade. The outrage and bewilderment which once accompanied that music have mellowed (the alcohol turning to sugar, perhaps).

Ayler has left little to remember him by, though. His records were comparatively few in number, and fewer still remain available. His masterpieces for the New York ESP label have been in and out of the catalogue, although it’s valuable that at least Spiritual Unity is once again being distributed. John Coltrane, who admired Ayler enough to incorporate elements of the younger man’s music into his own playing, is more ubiquitous than ever; Cecil Taylor is an honoured and still vitally creative force; Ornette Coleman is a grandmaster lionised by disciples, pushing onward with his fusions; Eric Dolphy has taken a posthumous place as an instrumental virtuoso. The great Black masters of the avant-garde have received at least something like their due. Albert Ayler remains on the fringes, a shadowy name more spoken of than listened to, and not much spoken of at that. Even critics, who once raged over the properties of Ayler’s music, have left him alone. He is scarcely perceived as an influence. His time has gone, and Ayler has almost gone with it.

It’s not that history has been rewritten. It’s that Ayler’s force has been rationalised away into a kind of dead zone. He was bad for jazz on too many levels to have survived as a primary agent. Even in his own lifetime, when the livid power of his early music led him nowhere in either critical or commercial terms, Ayler squared off his most radical tendencies. He came in hard and fast, and was broken quickly as a result. Cecil Taylor has proved to be as radical as Ayler, but his music grew more slowly and was in any case delivered in less confrontational terms.

Ayler was unprecedented in the manner of his music. At the time of his first (official) recordings in 1963, jazz had gone as far afield as Taylor’s ‘D Trad, That’s What’, Coltrane and Dolphy’s ‘Africa’ and Coleman’s ‘Free Jazz’ — imposing statements, but all comparatively digestible to adventurous contemporary listeners. My Name Is Albert Ayler, and the first records he made in New York, marched ahead of all of these. There is a case for saying that we’ve moved no further since.

AYLER WAS already 27 when his first New York recordings were made. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1936, and like so many of his generation of musicians he served a rhythm and blues apprenticeship. His crucial association in the 50s was with Little Walter’s band: Walter Jacobs played harmonica in a brutal, cleaving style that was not so different from Ayler’s saxophone multiphonics (Albert played alto then, and switched to tenor while in the army in 1958). He built his early reputation in Europe, following his discharge, having found little appreciation in the US for his gathering conception. My Name Is Albert Ayler was recorded in Denmark, a chaotic assemblage of standards and one free piece, culminating in an unholy rendition of ‘Summertime’. The song becomes an extravagant, blaring music, the saxophone humping up and down over the uncomprehending rhythm players.

This first session sounds like a prelude to something awesome. Ayler’s music burst in 1964. His records from that year are transfixing in their power and intensity. But it’s a personal, not an impossible music. “We play folk tunes from all over the world, like very, very old tunes,” he said, much later. Seeking the source of Ayler’s music was compulsory activity: it’s as though people couldn’t believe a man had the gall to play the way he did, so they had to determine his previous incarnations. Albert was detected in pygmy music, in New Orleans dirges, in gospel hollers and raw country blues; his bands were compared to old marching bands, ancient European folk ensembles, military brass sections. One could make a case for all of these, but it obscured the fact of Ayler himself, a middle-class black who played an excellent golf game but had the street smarts to be friendly with his neighbourhood hustlers. Driven with missionary fervour, he seemed ready to overthrow the notion of the jazz tradition. The music wasn’t some kind of folk accident but the product of a single, furious inspiration.

What did this inspiration sound like? The records remain a stunning experience. The greatest of them might be Spiritual Unity, made with Gary Peacock (bass) and Sunny Murray (drums), released by ESP. Allegedly, the engineer set the tapes rolling and fled the studio when he heard the music begin. Everything about the record is extraordinary. The sleeve, an illustration by Howard Bernstein, depicts a naked protean figure cradling a saxophone. On the other side, bleached portraits of the players are placed between the forks of the symbol Y, “the rising spirit of man”. A booklet given away with the first copies of the record includes a commentary by Paul Haines, the poet best known for his libretto to Escalator Over The Hill. He calls Ayler’s sound “that of a diseased pearl”.

The first sound on the record is a shock: the tenor saxophone blurting out the beginning of a melody line, out of a clear pitch, before bass and drums fall in beside it. ‘Ghosts’ was Ayler’s most enduring melody, and he played it for the rest of his career. There are two versions on Spiritual Unity, opening and closing the record. The theme itself has the simple appeal of a rhyme: it sounds as though it might have been composed on a bugle, as many of Ayler’s later themes also suggest. But from there the trio move into dimensions of vast complexity.

Ayler’s solos assault a passive listener. Everything in his sound is extreme: the mountainous volume, suddenly feathering off into small crying sounds, the tone he gets, cracked from the inside, touching all the false registers of the horn, shrill and hoarse at the top, bottoming out into a cavernous low honk; the phrases blasted out until his lungs are empty. In the second version, ‘Ghosts’ becomes an exorcism of something unnameable in the saxophonist’s music. The terror in this performance lies in the way an exultant if ominous mood is annihilated by Ayler’s solo, a marathon of split tones, bellowing cries and herculean crescendoes. He hammers on and on. It isn’t a quest for fulfilment, like Coltrane’s music. These are the throes of something already achieved. Something fantastic seems to fly out of the music, a moment of collective hysteria that subsides as the tenor dies out.

Albert Ayler isn’t the only remarkable thing about Spiritual Unity. The record also marks the end of the jazz rhythm section. Sunny Murray dispenses with timekeeping and plays a continuous, flashing line of cymbals and tapping snare interruptions — gently, almost wispily, creating an amazing contrast to the leviathan weight of Ayler. Gary Peacock follows his own line, a blur in the middle, roving between the two measures and offering his own dense form of counterpoint.

It’s at once a complete ensemble music and a vehicle for a gigantic personality. ‘The Wizard’ and ‘Spirits’ are, basically, more of the same, although the internal logic of ‘Spirits’ will prove that Ayler wasn’t charging randomly into his music. There is a marvellous moment about half-way through the first ‘Ghosts’, when the trio seem to pause for an instant before collectively gathering themselves and moving onward.

AYLER’S MUSIC receives its most striking portrayal here, and in the companion records Witches And Devils, Vibrations (alias Ghosts), and The Hilversum Session, the latter two involving Don Cherry as a foil who stands slightly apart from Ayler, offering his own, raised-eyebrow improvisations to the strident sounds around him. ‘Mothers’, from Vibrations, is a stark dirge which none of Ayler’s critics could take seriously: played remorselessly straight, the saxophonist using a vibrato that shivers like a fevered body, it points towards his next direction.

In 1965, Ayler formed a group with his brother Don on trumpet and Charles Tyler on alto sax. The principal change came in the source material, which seemed to come from some archive of fusty old tunes. Sometimes the group will just play the melodies, as belligerent, blustering recitalists: the vernacular was weirdly out of step with the other jazz in Ayler’s hearing, and only he could have done it. Bells, released as a one-sided record for ESP, is a compelling example of this group in concert. Ayler had already attempted a major work with other horns in the massive New York Ear And Eye Control, commissioned for a film by moviemaker Michael Snow. Ayler asserts himself through the near-chaos by force of personality. In the film, where the soundtrack suddenly booms in after several minutes of silence, the music accompanies a series of static images until the closing sequence, where Snow films each member of the group talking in close-up while their playing thunders on.

As powerful as the music of 1965-66 was, with the European tour which included the violinist Michael Sampson, and an American recording with the young Ronald Shannon Jackson, the impact of Ayler’s earlier music had already begun to dissipate. Earlier! Only two years separates Spiritual Unity from the concerts in Lörrach/Parrish 1966. In that period, with Coleman and Taylor largely absent from the studios, much debate centred on Albert Ayler. But it was going on in a tiny margin of the music. Unlike John Coltrane, who had studied and learned from Albert’s manner, Ayler was struggling as much as any stranded bebopper under the onslaught of rock.

That may account for the way his music turned, a notorious change at the time, but one which now seems less amazing, given the ongoing fusions of the last two decades. New Grass and its following music stuck him with what Ian Carr calls “a nice little blues/gospel backing band”. The music’s brief tracks and vocals slip past harmlessly. But when you reflect on what the same man was doing a few years before, it seems absurd.

IT’S A LONG time ago now. Albert Ayler’s death in February 1970 seems to have been at his own hand, his body found floating in the Hudson River. As swiftly as his career ran its course, so did his philosophy move towards the end. “It’s not about notes any more, it’s about feelings,” he said at the beginning. “All my music is purely music of love.” “I really meditate on the universal thoughts, I can’t be restricted to an earthly plane.” “I must communicate with their spirit that comes within the soul and the heart.” “I saw in a vision the new Earth built by God coming out of heaven.”

There’s danger in seeing him as a mystic, as mystifying as his music could be. Ronald Shannon Jackson remembers him carrying an aura around with him, an indefinite sense of otherness. But if we see him as some kind of Black shaman, a man “speaking in tongues”, as Nat Hentoff described Coltrane and Sanders, we marginalise him again, into the eccentric, exotic limbo which too much difficult Black music has been conveniently sent to.

How else to appreciate him? As harbinger of revolutionary anger? As much as Ayler embodies the zeal of the new jazz of the 60s, he is set apart from most of his contemporaries by the lonely force of his vision. The easy interpretation of his music is “rage”, a description often used by such different personalities as John Coltrane and Archie Shepp. But the message of Spiritual Unity isn’t so easily expelled. It’s a turmoil of communications.

The vividness of that music is undiminished. People have screamed through saxophones ever since without getting to the grain of Ayler’s heart and mind. He was the most pragmatic of jazz artists: “Never try to figure out what happens, because you will never get the true message.” That is rashly taken advice, but at one level it suggests a way to understand Ayler’s music. Ever since he first appeared, people have tried to explain him away. Maybe he does reach back into the oldest, deepest roots of the music. But he gathered and expressed those echoes with a force and purpose which were and are unswervingly modern. It has always been held against him. He deliberately revived nothing of the jazz past; maybe that’s why, in this revivalist era, he is slipping further into neglect, his challenge unanswered. 

RECORDS

My Name Is Albert Ayler (Fantasy)
Spiritual Unity (ESP)
New York Ear And Eye Control 
(ESP)
Witches And Devils 
(Arista Freedom)
The Hilversum Session (Osmosis)
Spirits Rejoice (ESP)
Bells (ESP)
Lörrach/Parrish 1966 (hat ART)
In Greenwich Village (Impulse)
The Village Concerts (Impulse)
New Grass (Impulse)
Love Cry (Impulse)

© Richard CookThe Wire, January 1988

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