Two life long Albert Ayler enthusiasts – Bill Smith and Brian Case – remember the legendary, lost tenorman. This feature first appeared in The Wire 3 (Spring 1983).
13 February 1966, a new era of enlightenment began. The overjoy of one's first child. A girl. A celebration of some magnitude would begin.
19 February, 1966 – The Lincoln Centre – NYC. The people's section of Philharmonic Hall was filled, so we were forced to purchase the expensive seats. Front row centre. Titans Of The Tenor was the title of the show. Coleman Hawkins, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Rollins, and then Carlos Ward, Pharoah Sanders, John Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, Rashied Ali, JC Moses and Don and Albert Ayler. This era, in the popular American press, was being proclaimed as dead. JAZZ IS DEAD.
Philharmonic Hall is quite what you'd expect, built for a symphony, but not expecting the 40 minute symphony that ensued. The music was truly unbelievable. From Garrison's flamenco opening, the music built and, as the confidence of the players strengthened, as their spirits became of one accord, so the music transcended "My Favourite Things" and exploded into vocalised shout/song/holler. Sanders scream surrounded by Ali flurry. Coltrane knowing that this was a 'new' song. Albert so beautiful, singing praise so virile, me no longer a virgin, taken by a new power so real that most everything afterwards would seem not to happen. The truth is marching in.
"This piece of music by Coltrane's augmented band, was all solo music. There was no attempt made to produce any real group music. Probably there wasn't time, for the Aylers were only invited to appear a couple of days before the concert. Apparently Coltrane had been trying to persuade the promoters to book Ayler's own group, but when this failed he solved the situation by inviting them to play with him." John Norris - Coda magazine
The silence at the performance end exploded into amazed appreciation.
Monday nights was Albert Ayler night at the Astor Playhouse – a small, funky old theatre in the Village. Now we could hear him in total. The players in the band are almost a description in themselves. Albert and Don Ayler, Charles Tyler (alto), Joel Freedman (cello) and Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums). It's such a warm feeling that one gets from old theatres, the slightly tatty environment being a comfortable parallel with one's life. It feels, that for the first time the parameters of jazz are being redefined, for although Ornette's and Coltrane's saxophone music have made positive steps away from boredom, they still rely, in this period, a great deal upon the tradition.
Here is a new music, not necessarily in notation, but in spirit. Time is free-floating rhythm, escaping from clockwork meter, throwing off the last confinement of European traditions. A pure American music. Already there are comparisons by critics, having as they do to link everything with past standards, that it is based in European folk rounds. I still search for this mythological European music that is so volatile it makes the soul tremble.
Just around the corner was Slugs, a lower East Side neighbourhood bar. Much of the new music was being performed there. Spit and sawdust, I guess, would be a description. In NY State waiters are required by law to wash their hands after using the toilet. There seems to be no washbasin. Had gone there with Elizabeth Van der Mei and Albert, just for a beer. The Burton Greene quartet is the music. The saxophonist is Frank Smith, a white tenor player, sounding already so much like Albert. A musician leaps up from the audience, knife thrust forward, ready to damage the imitation, wanting only to hear the master. The truth is marching in.
By now, in New York, Albert's reputation is building strong controversy, and he will, of course, be challenged by the jazz standards. One afternoon, at the Dom, a small club opposite the Five Spot, on Saint Marks Place, the tournament will begin. Tony Scott, a liberal bopper, runs the club. He has a rhythm section on this day, consisting of Henry Grimes (bass) and Eddie Marshall (drums). Pretty classy. The song is "Summertime". Albert's tenor is borrowed from Tony Scott, but the higher register unison lines are crystal clear, and soon – as was often the case – he is alone, singing his beautiful song. The truth is marching in.
I saw Albert only twice after this, once a year later at the London School of Economics, in England, where he was being filmed by the BBC. A show of 'animal music' that was never broadcast. And then in June of 1967, at last recognised, he appears at the legendary Newport Festival. Albert in two-tone beard, white suited, shining in stage lights. The truth is marching in.
In November 1970, Albert Ayler was found murdered, his body floating in the East River, NYC. The Truth Is Marching In.
Given the fact that practically all of his best work – Spiritual Unity, Spirits, Ghosts and the recently released Prophecy and Hilversurn Session – was recorded in 1964, one goes first for the legendary spirituals album, and is massively disappointed. I suppose one expected those near pentecostal freak outs that occur on his own hymn like originals, the tenor hysterically howling in the aisle while the group maintains the sobriety. Ayler here sticks reverently to the tunes and is dull. His soprano nowhere approaches the passion shown on My Name Is Albert Ayler, and is often out of tune, while his tenor – apart from some busking in the vibrato and whimperings at the close of a phrase – is careful rather than caring. All the duet sections with the corny Call Cobbs remind one of an Edwardian recital of "In A Monastery Garden", one posing with a roll of sheet music, the other with rosewater on his hair. Murray is inaudible – he often was – and the only drama and adventure comes from Grimes, who succeeds in giving the leader some momentum.
As a missing piece of the jigsaw, Swing Low Sweet Spiritual has the fascination of finding, perhaps, Cecil Taylor doing his best on "The Girl With The Flaxen Hair"; as music, unfortunately, it isn't up to much. What did Ayler think he was doing here? Probably looking for a ready-made armature to house his improvisations – an old form which would carry the burden of black American history and conventional spirituality for him. It's lonely being far out. Mingus and later, the Art Ensemble and Air, managed to roll out the whole heritage within a number; Ayler never really reconciled his antique forms with his wildly contemporary improvisations. The tragedy is that before he became self conscious about it, letting the music follow its head, he made the most artistic sense.
None of his post 1964 idioms came near the intensity of which he was capable. New Grass, the attempt at a crossover into R&B and Soul, was frequently daft, while the collaboration with Mary Maria was disastrous. The other albums here come from Ayler's collective period in which the Moorish-Balkan pat-a-cake structures buckle in the middle to release famous breaks. There is nothing here that you don't already know from Love Cry and Greenwich Village – except that Paris variations on "Ghosts" sound as if the group is desperate to ring the changes on all those predictable swoons and ceremonials. One is not surprised. Ayler must have known that he had painted himself into a corner as far as improvisation was concerned. Most of his solos sound like Ornette on violin, brutally high ululations that register little beyond a one dimensional fury.
Of the two collections, the Lorrach/Paris is the better recorded. The ensembles on the familiar "Bells", "Our Prayer" and particularly "Holy Ghost" are charming and consequently at odds with the uniformly end-of-tether solos. Sampson is clear for a change, and comes on like Barry Guyon violin on "Bells" to good effect, whereas the At Slug's Saloon recording reduces him to whiskery whistlings. There's quite a bit of murk at Slug's, and a lengthy conversation across "Bells". One finds oneself grateful for the odd divergence in intonation or placing in both lots of routines.
Albert Ayler has been dead 13 years. His best work still shakes the heart like nothing else, but we are talking about five albums from a single year, and a few great moments. He hadn't lost it, any more than he couldn't find it, as "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "For John Coltrane" prove, but he was possibly so driven by the knowledge that he had found a route to the spirit, that nobody wanted that he dissipated his power looking for popular formats.
Gary Giddins maintains that Ayler's synthesis "blanched in a flower power compromise". It blanched in something all right. It's a problem of our times.
The following discography accompanied Brian Case's essay:
Albert Ayler Swing Low Sweet Spiritual (Osmosis Records
Recorded: Atlantic Studios, NYC - 24 February, 1964.
Side One: "Going Home"; "Old Man River"; "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen".
Side Two: "When The Saints Go Marching In"; "Swing Low Sweet Spiritual"; "Deep River"; "Old Man River".
(Albert Ayler (ts, ss) Call Cobbs (p) Henry Grimes (b) Sunny Murray (d))
Albert Ayler Lorrach/Paris 1966 (Hat Musics 3500)
Recorded: S W German Radio, 7 November, 1966, and Radio France, 13 November, 1966.
Side One: "Bells"; "Jesus".
Side Two: "Our Prayer"; "Spirits"; "Holy Ghost".
Side Three: "Ghosts"; "Ghosts".
Side Four: "Holy Family".
(Albert Ayler (ts) Don Ayler (tpt) Michael Sampson (vln) William Folwell (b) Beaver Harris (d)
Albert Ayler Quintet At Slug's Saloon, Vol One
& Two (Base 3031, 3032)
Recorded: Jan Werner - 1 May 1966
Side One: "Truth Is Marching In".
Side Two: "Our Prayer".
Side One: "Bells".
Side Two: "Ghosts".
(Albert Ayler (ts) Don Ayler (tpt) Michael Sampson (vln) Lewis Worrell (b) Ron Jackson (d))