Fresh Flowers for Albert

Albert Ayler
Albert and Donald Ayler, New York 1966

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If art is news that stays news, avant-garde art is news that stays avant-garde. Most radical innovations, however misprized at first, eventually grow to be as warming as Van Gogh’s sunflowers. But not all. Some achievements remain on the fringe, requiring total attention, dedicated suspension of disbelief and a willingness to be shocked yet again. To be sure: one person’s avant-garde is another’s mother’s milk. Yet most people continue to find Milton and Schoenberg harder to “get” than Shakespeare and Stravinsky; back when I taught jazz history, I learned that Charlie Parker’s “Koko” could jolt students raised on heavy metal into a state of glassy-eyed panic. There is much to be said for art that retains its otherworldly edge over the long haul.

American music is unimaginable without the lusty hysteria and fastidious control of Albert Ayler (no contradiction here: he contained multitudes). Yet having spent a few weeks immersed in Revenant’s grand and, yes, truly revelatory Holy Ghost, I’ve no doubt that, 34 years after his death, Ayler continues to represent the highest degree of aesthetic challenge. If you don’t pay attention, you hear only the squalling-the “energy” playing, as Ayler liked to call it. Still, having converted everyone who ventured into Ayler’s tempest simply by asking them to sit down and listen to a track or two, I also know that he’s hardly inaccessible. He is, in fact, damned near irresistible.

Holy Ghost may be reviewer-proof. Ayler fans have been slavering for months and need only know that the initial release of 15,000 copies (a third more than Revenant pressed of its Charley Patton box) is priced at a reasonable $100 each. Neophytes might better begin with such classics as Spiritual Unity, Spirits Rejoice, Lorrach/Paris 1966 or Live in Greenwich Village. Yet none of those benchmark albums are better than some of the work uncovered here, and the assemblage in its entirety, including the misfires, tells one of the most gripping and disturbing stories in jazz. This music, previously unavailable except on sonically inferior bootlegs, traces his career from the beginnings in Europe to final performances in the United States and France. In a span of barely eight years, 1962 to 1970, Ayler went through multiple stylistic changes; Revenant’s 10 discs-seven of music, two of interviews (including recollections by Don Cherry), plus an eight-minute bonus of 1960 Army band numbers that will foil any blindfold test-cast new light on every step.

Sadly, Ayler is shrouded in ludicrous falsehoods even now: that he played marathon solos; performed free-jazz firestorms; latched onto Coltrane’s coattails; lacked technical competence. Ayler recorded a few longish works (he averaged six or seven minutes), but you won’t find many solos exceeding three minutes-there is no “Chasin’ the Trane” in his discography. From 1966, he focused as much on composition as on improvisation, at times nearly eliminating the latter; indeed, some Aylerphiles resent his preplanned performances. Coltrane, who asked him to play at his funeral (a performance included on Holy Ghost, and a more fitting way to acknowledge the passing of a great man is hard to imagine), stated that Ayler taught him as much as he learned, and the evidence is QED. As for technique: Good heavens, the man owned the tenor saxophone, reinventing it while patenting a virtuosity of startling dimensions, from the unexampled weight of his sound to a studied control of timbre, intonation and vibrato that allowed him not only to veer effortlessly between octaves but to invoke them all at the same time.

Disc one is a novella in its own right, beginning in Helsinki in 1962, as Ayler sits in with a dreary bop band and offers an appealing theme statement and generic yet individual solo on “On Green Dolphin Street” and a “Sonnymoon for Two” that portends the young David Murray. He is clearly stifled-stuck in the wrong room and worried about scratching the furniture. Five months later in Copenhagen, he finds liberation in the furnace of Cecil Taylor’s sorcery, stoked by Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray, and all four of them killing. Where have these amazing 22 minutes been all our lives? Then on to New York in 1964, where the Ayler of Spiritual Unity emerges, accompanied by Gary Peacock and Murray: here are the florid ululations, deep barking, yodeling cries, melodic flourishes (check out his entrance after the bass solo on “Spirits” or his reveling figure at about 3:15 into “Children”). Here is a vocalized animal passion that never loses focus or interest. On “Ghosts,” Ayler smashes the furniture and flies out the window.

A 1966 Cleveland club date introduced Ayler’s marching-band-with-strings period, which happens to be my favorite. He had just recruited violinist Michel Samson, who had to figure out his role during the course of the gig; by the time the quintet toured Europe that fall, Samson had gone from being fifth wheel (“Spirits Rejoice”) to plucky disciple (untitled waltz) to empathic collaborator (“Ghosts/Bells” in Berlin). The tunes are compact and diverse, notably Donald Ayler’s tender “Our Prayer,” and they shoot off sparks of satisfaction as Ronald Shannon Jackson’s rocking drums augment Ayler’s intensity. The musician who merits the most reconsideration from this boxed set is brother Don Ayler on trumpet. He fills out the ensemble, establishes key centers, complements Albert and solos with brio and feeling.

One of the most captivating performances in Holy Ghost is the Berlin set, which may be closer to classical music than to jazz, but by any standard is flat-out gorgeous. At times the tenor-violin-trumpet harmonies suggest Vivaldi for bagpipes; Samson, who is Ayler’s match in the vibrato department, sounds like he’s strumming a banjo at the beginning of “Truth Is Marching In.” A performance in Holland the same week is dramatically different, especially in an untitled piece that suggests middle-period Joe Maneri and allows Beaver Harris a workout. Milford Graves brings another approach to percussive interaction at Newport and the Coltrane service, though Bernard Purdie is a fish out of water at a studio rehearsal for what became the proto-fusion New Grass debacle. And yet the blues that begins that session is stunning.

In interviews, Ayler leaves no doubt about who was responsible for New Grass: “They told me to do this. Bob Thiele. You think I would do that? He said, ‘Look Albert, you gotta get with the young generation now.'” It was undoubtedly Ayler’s idea to sing, to opt for electric bass and regressive rhythms, to rely on the meager abilities of pianist Call Cobbs and his personal and professional partner, singer-songwriter Mary Parks. Nonetheless, that opening blues shows what might have been; it’s a straightforward ride through the basic 12, except that Ayler rings compound overtones and undertones while maintaining steady intonation at the center. The Ayler captured here-paradoxically, his longest solo in the box-might have won him the larger audience he coveted.

Subsequent appearances are marred by bad sound, painful edits and a diminished Ayler-his tonal control lapses and he retreats to the higher frequencies, sacrificing contrast and clarity. More troubling is the portrait that emerges in nearly two hours of interviews. In 1964 he was unfailingly soft-spoken and hopeful. Six years later, he is uncontrollably manic, talking faster than he plays, determined to remain positive despite bursts of anger and bizarre boasts. He’s doing well, $10,000 a record, only later he concedes it was for two albums, and later that the label subtracted $3,000, and later that he doesn’t know if he still has a contract. He rotates between certainty that America is now coming around (even Frank Sinatra is copying his stuff) and obsession with America’s neglect of Charles Ives. Recorded months before Ayler’s body was dragged from the East River, an apparent suicide, these monologue/interviews are harrowing, as are two hidden tracks: an undated phone call from a booker at 3:55 of the last cut on disc eight, and an embarrassing argument at an airport at 15:30 of the last cut on disc nine.

Holy Ghost was surely a labor of love for Revenant owners Dean and Laurie Blackwood and project supervisor Ben Young. In addition to the CDs and 210-page book (especially good at documenting Ayler’s years in Europe, his performing life, descriptive anecdotes and rare photos), the keepsake box includes a pressed forget-me-not and archival-quality replications of a snapshot, a scribbled note, a Slugs handout, a booklet with three articles from Amiri Baraka’s magazine, Cricket, a recording tape envelope with the Army tracks and the Paul Haines poem prepared for the first edition of Spiritual Unity. The CDs are buried in a well at the bottom; they bear witness to a tragic but glorious epic.