"Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I was the Holy Ghost."
-saxophonist Albert Ayler
The first time I heard Albert Ayler I was horrified. I was 17; my mom used to frequent junk stores, looking for bargains, and she would bring home any records that looked like they might be jazz. I've mentioned the Arista/Freedom Sampler album that she picked up for me in a previous post. As I said before, the Anthony Braxton and Oliver Lake tracks got to me right away, but the Ayler track, "Saints," was just repellent. I couldn't believe anyone would want to play like that. But, being a curious guy, I also wondered why anyone would play like that - what was Ayler getting at? So I listened again, and then again. On the third listen, a light bulb went off - the piece was a rondo. Ayler kept coming back to the same melodic material. And there was a melody - I could hear it. I was fascinated. Once I knew that the piece made "sense" - it had form and logic - I wanted to hear more Albert Ayler and understand his message.
Thirty-something years later, I sometimes feel that I'm not much closer to "understanding" Ayler, but I love his music - the best of it, anyway. Albert Ayler represents the furthest extreme of jazz; the most "advanced" music (in terms of language) created in the name of jazz. It's difficult to imagine how anyone could take the musical language of jazz further than Ayler did, and almost 40 years after his death, no one has. At its most extreme, Ayler's music was harsh, atonal, and devoid of regular pulse. It makes for very intense and demanding listening.
If you have access to the Revenant Holy Ghost box set of Ayler's work, listen to his first small-group recordings, with Herbert Katz's Finnish group. He plays the written melodies of these conventional tunes with assurance, but once his solos start, he is in another place than the rest of the group. It's easy to understand why some of the group thought he didn't know what he was doing, since his improvisations have little relationship to the harmonies of the pieces. But it's also apparent, at least in hindsight, that they were wrong. As odd and unexpected as some of Ayler's note choices were, it's obvious that he knew exactly where he was in the structure of the tunes all the time. And it's equally obvious that Ayler needed a less conventional setting in order to get his message across.
In practice, Ayler's mature music was not unrelentingly harsh or demanding. Many of his improvisations, no matter how intense and abstract they were, were launched by simple, singable "heads," often marchlike. And as his career went on, the tonal, folkish melodies became longer, while the atonal solos got shorter. And pieces like the beautiful "For John Coltrane" had an identifiable key center throughout.
But in my opinion, the music he recorded in 1964 represents Ayler at his purest. The heads are short and the improvisations are frightening, accomplished, and utterly unlike anything heard up that time in jazz or any other music. His colleagues (usually Gary Peacock on bass, Sunny Murray on drums, and sometimes Don Cherry on trumpet) are totally in tune with Ayler's aims. He created some wonderful music after that, but for a taste of the "real" Ayler, hear Spiritual Unity, Prophecy, Vibrations (also known as Ghosts), or The Hilversum Session.
Although Cherry came from a somewhat different place than Ayler, musically speaking, his work with Ayler showed how adaptable he was - he adjusted his playing so that it fit perfectly with Ayler's. Later, Albert tried to create a trumpet player in his own image by bringing his brother Donald into his band. This was valuable as a negative example; Donald's one-dimensional playing showed that Albert, in contrast, was really onto something. On any record on which they play together, compare Donald's blaring, monochromatic playing to the range, variety of phrase shapes, and dynamics of Albert's improvisations.
Ayler's intense music came from a pretty intense individual. As might be deduced from the titles of his pieces ("Holy Holy," "Spirits Rejoice," "Zion Hill"), Ayler's music was largely inspired by his strong religious feelings. The Holy Ghost box set contains a 1966 interview in which Ayler frankly sounds a little crazy; he is so full of pseudo-biblical sayings that's it's a little scary. He sounds somewhat more in control in the 1970 interviews; he is still pretty intense, but also amiable. But in November of that year, his body was found in the East River; the circumstances of his death have never been completely explained.
This post has been difficult to write, and I'm still not satisfied with it. Ayler's music is so complex and demanding that's it's difficult to talk about. So I'm going to end with a copout. Here is perhaps the best paragraph ever written about Albert Ayler, by Max Harrison. Reading the first sentence here always gives me a chill.
Even decades later, on listening to Ayler's courageous, bewitched, desperate music, we are haunted by the strange and disquieting impression that we are out on the very limits of the expressible, out on the last dangerous fringes where the ice of what we normally call art is so thin that we can almost see through into the depths below, into the mysterious thing-in-itself from which we abstract the all-too-human conventions of music. What he did in his best moments seemed like a further attempt at exploding the language of music so that it might eventually approximate to the mind's complexity. To those who say that language, even musical language, is a social contract which cannot be broken without loss of communication, Ayler would maybe have replied that his aim was less communication that communion in the appreciation of mystery.
from The Essential Jazz Records, Volume 2; p. 502.