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The genre of music known as "free" or "Avant Garde" jazz usually garners as much respect as the leadership skills of Idi Amin, namely none. While the Ugandan dictator rightly deserves the derision thrown at him, I am here to tell you that free jazz does not. In fact, I can’t think of a more spiritual or beautiful music. I will admit that it is hard to grasp at first, but if a little work is put into it, the rewards of being well versed in such music outweigh any effort exerted at trying to understand it.

Perhaps the most intriguing artist to work within this form is Albert Ayler. Born in Cleveland, Ohio (see, some good things come from Cleveland) on July 13, 1936, Ayler studied music from an early age at the behest of his father. He became an accomplished musician, and landed his first professional gig (notice the expert use of inside jargon) at the tender age of 15 playing with Lloyd Pearson and his Counts of Rhythm. He toured during the summer with Little Walter Jacobs, learning the basics of group playing and road life. After graduating from high school, he tried college but had to leave because of money. He joined the army, found himself stationed in France and played in the military band.

While in France, Ayler developed an interest in the French National Anthem "La Marseillaise." Some would say an obsession, but I’m trying to maintain some objectivity here. Anyway, elements of "La Marseillaise" can be found in later recordings, proving that the French are one of the cultural foundations of Western thinking (despite their deification of Jerry Lewis).

In 1961, Ayler returned to the States, and found that work was scarce for a man of his stylistic character. He was beginning to develop his "free" style, and it was something that had never been heard before. He tried California, but the West Coast scene was still under the sway of the laid back style that was known as the "cool" style associated with artists like Chet Baker and the like. He made the journey back to Cleveland, but found that work was completely non-existent for him back home.

As is usually the case with jazz artists, he had to pack up and move to Europe in 1962 so that he could be heard. Why is it that jazz, the most American of American music, is more widely accepted in Europe and Japan? Ah, well, at any rate in Sweden, he met up with Don Cherry, the fiery and controversial trumpet player with whom Ayler would record several albums. In December of 1962, Ayler would join pianist Cecil Taylor’s group, and this is where things get interesting.

Traveling with Taylor to Denmark, Ayler would record his "debut"album My Name is Albert Ayler with a group of local musicians. (He had recorded other material in 1962.) This is a fascinating album. Imagine an artist’s sketch in reverse, where the finely inked lines are in the background and the rough pencil outlines are in the foreground. The backing band keeps on a steady course, going straight ahead and staying in a traditional mode. Ayler, on the other hand, careens around the melody in loose spirals. The energy of his approach is in counterpoint to the rock solid backing he receives. The tension on this album is amazing, and while knocked in some circles as being an immature effort, I can’t stress enough how essential this album is. Not only is this one of the few places where you can hear Ayler perform on standards like "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "Summertime", but there is a spoken word introduction by Ayler himself. Ah,
the bliss of it all.

It’s now 1963 and Ayler is back in the States and living in New York. He was playing regularly with Cecil Taylor, but the dates began to dry up. After returning to Cleveland, he makes the trek back to New York and begins sitting in on jam sessions in Ornette Coleman’s home. February 1964 brings us Witches and Devils (another fantastic album) and the formation of the Ayler trio: Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on drums. It was this trio that recorded Spiritual Unity. Good Lord, Spiritual Unity is just a blockbuster. If you can pick this up, do it…don’t question, don’t waffle, just buy it. You will be happy. And really, that’s why I’m here. To make you happy.

Ayler then appeared on the soundtrack "New York Eye and Ear Control". After adding Don Cherry (remember him?) to the regular trio, the album Ghosts (or Mothers and Children or Vibrations depending on which reissue you purchase) while touring in Copenhagen. Ghosts, as Ayler himself stated in an interview in Down Beat magazine, was an example of incorporating folk tunes (not like Peter, Paul and Mary) into his music. Not only was he adding a folk element into his work, but his spiritual side was becoming more dominant.

Cherry declined to return to the United States, so upon his return, Ayler invited his brother Donald into the group. With Donald, Albert’s sound began to lean more toward a New Orleans big band/Dixieland sound, while still remaining "outside" of conventional boundaries. This, of course, threw the critics into a tizzy. Even within Avant- circles, his music was considered by many to be too radical. Ah, the persecution of genius. It never ends.

In 1965, the Ayler group recorded Bells. It was initially released on one sided, clear vinyl. There were many that were quick to criticize this move as gimmicky. Perhaps it was. Ayler was dedicated to getting his music to the largest possible audience. He wanted to use music as a medium in which to convey his deep spirituality. I suspect that the idea to release Bells as in this fashion was meant to persuade people to buy the album based on the curiosity factor. This desire to reach the largest audience possible would create more controversy later on.

In 1966, Albert toured Europe again. During this tour, the infamous BBC 2 Jazz Goes to College session was recorded. Ayler’s music terrified the BBC, and after consultation with their "jazz experts" they were advised to not broadcast the show. The tape of the show was later destroyed. It was widely thought that these tapes were destroyed because of the fear Ayler provoked with his sound, but it was simply the result of a house cleaning initiative at the BBC. It makes a good story, anyway.

Upon returning to the U.S. Ayler was rewarded with a recording contract with Impulse records, thanks to John Coltrane who convinced Bob Thiele that Ayler was a perfect fit for the forward thinking company. It was during his time at Impulse that the masterpieces Love Cry and In Greenwich Village were recorded. With Coltrane there to support him, Ayler was producing some of his most powerful and uncompromising work. One can almost hear God speaking through Ayler’s horn, as if Ayler were the modern incarnation of the Metatron.

Unfortunately, Coltrane died on July 17th, 1967. It was shortly after this that Ayler released New Grass, seen by many as a shameless "sell-out" album. Then came Music is the Healing Force of the Universe. Another attempt to soften his message. Ayler believed that he was charged to carry the word of God to people through his music, and these two albums are attempts to do that. Sadly, they lacked the power of his earlier work. Shortly after these two albums were released, his contract with Impulse was terminated. This wasn’t the Albert Ayler they had signed.

In 1968, Ayler discontinued working with his brother Donald. He then had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. Albert Ayler performed his last live concerts in 1970, in France. While in New York City, he smashed a television set with his saxophone and disappeared for 20 days. He was last seen on a ferry heading toward the Statue of Liberty. He was found floating face down in the East River on November 25, 1970. It is sadly appropriate that this man, who was freedom personified, never reached the greatest symbol of freedom in the world. Instead, he spent his last moments floating in the filth that is the East River. Draw your own conclusions and make your own symbols.

Discography (including reissues)

Something Different!!!!!! (or The First Recordings) (1962)

My Name is Albert Ayler (1963)

Witches and Devils (1964)

Goin’ Home (1964)

Prophecy (1964)

Spiritual Unity (1964)

New York Eye and Ear Control (1964)

Ghosts (or Vibrations or Mothers and Children)(1964)

The Hilversum Session (1964)

Bells (1965)

Spirits Rejoice (1965)

Sonny’s Time Now (1965)

Live at Slug’s Saloon (1966)

Live in Europe (1964 tracks 1-3 1966 tracks 4-7)

Lorrach/Paris 1966 (1966 duh)

In Greenwich Village (1966 tracks 3-4 1967 tracks 1-2)

Love Cry (1967 tracks 1-6 1968 7-11)

New Grass (1968)

Music is the Healing Force of the Universe (1969)

The Last Album (recorded 1969, released posthumously)

Nuits De La Fondation Maeght (recorded 1970, released posthumously)

Go find some.


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Mike Doughty



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