Rediscovering Albert Ayler
by Ed Hazell
The most shadowy of all the major figures in jazz of the past 40 years,
tenor-saxophonist Albert Ayler had an impact that can be felt throughout
contemporary free jazz. Yet most of his important albums remain out of print.
So the recent release of the double-CD set Albert Ayler Live in Greenwich
Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings (Impulse!) is a major event.
In the 1960s, a time of revolutionary extremes in jazz, Ayler's music was the
most extreme of all. Playing without chord progressions or steady beat, he
vaporized conventions under a high-energy assault of lightning-fast lines,
human-sounding moans and shrieks, and a massive, vibrato-laden tone that hit
with the force of a physical blow. But for all the formal freedom in his music,
his playing was not chaotic: there was always a visionary force and direction
to his solos.
As new as Ayler's music sounded then -- and it still sounds shockingly new --
it taps a vein of religious feeling that runs deep in African-American music.
His music shares with the Delta blues and gospel a painful vision of earthly
suffering and a beatific sense of salvation in a glorious afterlife. Acutely
aware of the gap separating this world from the next, Ayler poured a torrent of
compassion, anger, longing, rapture, and joy into his playing. An Ayler solo is
both jeremiad and hymn of praise. The simplicity of Protestant hymns (you can
hum an Ayler tune), the immanence of the deity, the grim reality of suffering
on earth -- it all laced his modernism with Old Testament fury and New
With his momentous ESP albums out of print, the live Impulse sessions,
recorded in late 1965 and early 1966, are the best Ayler available.
Fortunately, they are also among his greatest works. The players include modern
jazz giants like drummers Beaver Harris and Sunny Murray and bassists Henry
Grimes and Alan Silva, as well as lesser lights like violinist Michel Sampson
and bassist Bill Folwell, and Ayler's brother Don on trumpet. They are not up
to the same standard as Ayler's earlier trio with bassist Gary Peacock and
drummer Sunny Murray (a group who later recorded with trumpeter Don Cherry),
but Ayler himself is in fine form. On "Truth Is Marching In" he bellows and
roars obsessively repeated short figures that evolve into long, low warblings,
arching upward and ending with little fillips of notes. "Spirits Rejoice" is
more jubilant; "Our Prayer" displays a softer and more elegiac lyricism that
works well with the four string players. The futile sawing of Sampson and the
less detailed blurs of Don Ayler lower the interest of the music at times, but
Ayler's powerful incantations more than compensate.
Ayler's legacy is carried on by tenors like David Murray and David S. Ware, in
various groups led by bassist William Parker, and by the band Other Dimensions
in Music, to name a few in a growing list. And two of his near contemporaries,
Charles Gayle and Peter Brötzmann, have recently weighed in with excellent
albums in the Ayler tradition.
Gayle shares Ayler's Christianity, and his new Daily Bread (Black
Saint), with its two string players (three when Gayle doubles on violin), even
sounds like Ayler's Greenwich Village bands. Bassist Wilbur Morris and cellist
William Parker form a much stronger pulpit for Gayle's preaching than Ayler's
string section, however. And Gayle's tone is darker and rougher than Ayler's,
which makes the music bleak indeed at times. But Gayle also has a rough-hewn
grace (in both senses of the word) that accentuates the stern testimony of
"This Cup," the joy of "Earthly Things," and the slow, glutinous flow of notes
on "Watch." Two tracks feature Gayle's bright, percussive, clumsy piano, and
two feature his raw, somehow compelling violin, but they don't call down the
spirit with the same fervor that his tenor does.
Brötzmann's Ayler tribute quartet, Die like a Dog, have released their
second album, Little Birds Have Fast Hearts (FMP), and it's one of the
best of the year. Independent of Ayler, the German saxophonist evolved a style
with many similarities to his American counterpart, though Brötzmann
doesn't wear his spirituality on his sleeve. This album conveys both the sorrow
and the transcendence of Ayler's music while adding new rhythms and textures.
Although Brötzmann has a reputation as a power player, Little Birds
is surprisingly delicate. Yes, the music surges to densely energetic climaxes,
but Brötzmann's soaring, keening lines seem almost weightless at times.
Bassist Parker and drummer Hamid Drake are among the most formidable teams on
the planet, and they maintain a relentless flow of swinging free rhythms that
make the music dance. Trumpeter Toshinori Kondo modifies his solos with
electronics that heat up the music with rich and unusual sonorities. The truth
is still marching in.