Albert Ayler at 80

The two Albert Ayler records that I still know best were staples of my high school-era listening: a CD reissue of Vibrations (with Don Cherry, Gary Peacock, and Sunny Murray) and an LP twofer of The Village Concerts (the later band with brother Don Ayler and strings).

Vibrations is well-recorded and has marvelous playing by all members of the quartet. Don Cherry’s casual, unfettered melodies offset Ayler’s fulminations perfectly; Gary Peacock’s initial virtuosic salvo with Ayler remains one of the glories of his extensive discography. (Much better known historically than Vibrations is Spiritual Unity, which I didn’t hear until much later. Kevin Whitehead’s article on Unity has much valuable information on Peacock’s early years.)

On The Village Concerts, the individuals are less important than the overall Salvation Army message. The logical comparison is to Charles Ives: songs like “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” or “At the River” fit right next to this aesthetic. One time I played Ayler’s “Light in Darkness” for Mark Morris, who loved it, exclaiming, “This is the kind of band I want to have myself!”

There’s great joy in Ives and Ayler, but there is also intense sadness. At his darkest Ayler is a cry of unremitting pain. These days one of my favorite Ayler pieces is “The Truth is Marching In,” recorded at the Village Vanguard in 1966 with  Don Ayler, Albert Ayler, Call Cobbs, Michel Samson, Bill Folwell, Henry Grimes, and Beaver Harris. The head is two parts, a hymn and a march. The march breaks off mid-stride and the tenor solo plunges deep into the abyss. 

Ayler told Nat Hentoff, “It seemed to me that on the tenor you could get out all the feelings of the ghetto. On that horn you can shout and really tell the truth. After all, this music comes from the heart of America, the soul of the ghetto.” 

Ayler remains one of the icons of civil rights-era progressive jazz. However, with some exceptions, the public soundtrack for the fight against racism has mostly been a long list of danceable hits. The power of Amiri Baraka’s glorious prose in Black Music (for years the most significant text about Ayler) obscured how little impact avant-garde jazz generally had within the black community. Stanley Cowell told me, “I was playing angry free jazz in the 1960’s, totally against the man, but when we looked up to see who was in the club all the faces were white!” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent memoir Between the World and Me, which will probably eventually be seen as a watershed in American race relations, discusses a fair amount of music but almost no jazz, let alone avant-garde jazz. 

The more practical application of Ayler’s chaotic poetry has been elsewhere. Main exponents of noise rock, punk, and other experimental genres frequently claim Ayler as an influence. Tellingly, few jazz musicians have taken on quite as much significance for critics mostly associated with rock. Recently the editor of Pitchfork, Mark Richardson, delivered a meticulous and technically accurate overview.  My old Impulse twofer of The Village Concerts had a superb liner note by Robert Palmer, for years the chief pop music critic at the New York Times.

It helps that Ayler has a Story: experimental, religious, black, underground. There’s even the appropriate tragic coda, a body found in the East River, circumstances unknown. But this may be another case where the Story occasionally gets in the way of the music.

Ayler’s saxophone was incandescent. But there were other great blowers of experimental horn, then and now. Ayler’s greatest contribution may have been as a composer, giving us all those melodies seemingly carved out of an old hymnal with a blunt instrument. During that era, perhaps Ayler was second only to Ornette Coleman in terms of generating instantly memorable themes.

The Ayler records of standards and spirituals have great saxophone playing  but there is seldom a coherent band concept to speak of. Admittedly, not all the musicians are always that good: it seems like Ayler’s pianist of choice Call Cobbs could barely follow the most basic of changes. On “Down By the Riverside,” Ayler is threading like Dexter Gordon but the hapless “swinging” band can’t get from A to B. Another fascinating listen is “Summertime” at dirge tempo with a European rhythm section, where the rhapsodic saxophone engulfs the square accompaniment. (Don Cherry spoke of Ayler playing “Moon River” at a “ballad medley” European jam session with other great American tenor saxophonists and winning the day.)

In the end it is too much work to find consistently great music in these awkward circumstances. But the moment the themes are composed by Ayler himself, the energy coheres. The direction is clear. It becomes impossible for the music to fail. All impediments fall away, we shall transcend to a higher truth together. 

The definite Ayler performance may be the medley at Coltrane’s funeral with Don Ayler, Richard Davis, and Milford Graves. There isn’t even any blowing, except that near the end Ayler repeatedly screams to profoundly eerie effect as his brother sounds the last trump. I first heard a bootleg of this many years ago, then it came out on the deluxe Revenant set, now it’s just up on YouTube. On Albert Ayler’s 80th birthday there is no better use of six minutes of your time than dialing this up, closing your eyes, and mourning our humanity.