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Rediscovering Albert Ayler

By Ed Hazell

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  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 Testament rapture.

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.


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