Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Born 75 Years Ago Today: 20th Century Music's Most Dangerous Man by Paul F. Etcheverry

"My imagination is beyond the civilization in which we live." Albert Ayler (1936-1970)

"To have heard Ayler in the flesh launch himself into evangelical multiphonic furies from those simple, diatonic and frequently hymnodic lead melodies was to have experienced, I think, one of the primal American musical experiences of modern times." columnist Jeff Simon, Buffalo News

"By 16 minutes the cover has melted from your skull and the sun shining from within and without and you have been transformed forever. Yeah you need this that bad. . . what are you waiting for?" Thom Jurek, from review of Albert Ayler - Complete Live At Slug's Saloon Recordings" on All-Music Guide

Who would have hit the 75 years of age milestone today? The single most controversial 20th century musician, bar none, Mr. Albert Ayler, born July 13, 1936. More than four decades after his November 1970 passing, the gritty and provocative tenor saxophonist still inspires awe and wonderment from some listeners, while scaring others to their deepest foundations.

Although there are many times in life when sunny, vocal harmony-drenched melodicism (or peace and quiet) is absolutely the ticket for me, nonetheless, I find myself very much in the awe and wonderment viewpoint when it comes to Albert Ayler, whose fundamental sound is somewhat along the lines of an emotionally unfettered King Curtis on one doozy of an acid trip. For sheer timbre, Albert was quite the powerhouse: his extreme high-register pyrotechnics are more searing and his low-register blasts are more earthshaking than any other saxophonist I have ever heard.

Once I understood how to listen to and comprehend the Rorschach Tests for how much unadulterated dissonance a listener can handle known as new music, avant-garde or free jazz, the genius of Ayler's incendiary, at times overpowering sound became apparent. And besides, I can't help but like a guy who, as a member of The Cecil Taylor Unit, quoted "Cocktails For Two" in the middle of a blistering, insanely fast high-voltage tenor saxophone solo.

Now, as far as avant-garde music goes. . . if one can listen to the "skronk meets garage rock meets modern classical meets doo-wop" opuses Uncle Meat and Weasels Ripped My Flesh by Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention, Captain Beefheart's Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Trout Mask Replica, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, latter-day industrial and experimental noise-rock or such uncompromising post-modernist jazz artists as Anthony Braxton, then Albert Ayler's music will NOT elicit a AAAAAAAAAAAAAAACK! response, followed by a mad headlong dash into treacly, gushy, sickly, diabetes-inducing commercial easy listening by The Kennys (Kenny Loggins, Kenny G) or The Lawrence Welk Show Meets Up With People.

Albert Ayler doesn't use a melody as a reference point or anchor, he completely deconstructs it and delves into a no-holds-barred scorched earth search for a song's essential emotional truth. In the moments when he finds that truth (YOW!), Albert can be deeply moving in a most unexpected and inexplicable way.

For example, Albert's harrowing take on "Summertime" remains beyond expressive. It's 360 degrees from the numerous tepid, sanitized, versions of the George Gershwin/Du Bose Heyward epic and the pristine, safe stuff that passes for "jazz" these days. The stark, brutal, devastating reality emanating from Ayler's saxophone packs an emotional wallop, slapping the listener upside the head precisely where the catfish are jumpin'.

Curiously, Albert Ayler's most explosively atonal performances, those that absolutely scared the bejeesus out of people - and still do - were mostly early in his recording career, in 1963-1964, often as part of an uncompromising trio with ridiculously nimble bassist Gary Peacock and innovative drummer Sunny Murray. Like the abstract expressionist painters of the 1940's, Ayler erased the last "don't go there" tonal barriers left, no doubt leaving his contemporaries (other than adventurous barrier-smashers Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra) to think, "WTF do we do now?"

At the same time as the Albert Ayler free jazz recordings for ESP-Disk were waxed, he also recorded an album of spirituals and hymns, largely sticking to the basic melodies. This "hymnolodic" approach and his more raw, visceral, gutteral avant-garde sound were the two interrelated poles of Albert's musical universe.

In 1965-1966, Albert started experimenting with orchestration and expanded his ensembles from trios and quartets to sextets and septets. The results continued his path of blending the utterly post-modern with the traditional: avant-garde skronk and elements of 20th century classical meet hymns, spirituals, folk melodies and pre-swing era polyphonic improvisation (reminiscent of New Orleans brass band arrangements and very early "riverboat jazz").

After appearing at Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall as part of The John Coltrane Nonet on February 19, 1966, Albert and his trumpeter brother Donald put together a touring band which included concert violinist Michel Sampson, two upright basses (sometimes a cellist) and percussion (usually Ron Shannon Jackson or Beaver Harris) and presented a unique mix of all of the above elements not heard before or since.

After 1967, Albert tried his hand at more commercial jazz/soul fusion records. Most of the time they are valiant and original efforts that have their shining moments but don't quite work, because the band's lead singer Mary Maria, while possessing a good voice and the ability to sing on key, did not have the prodigious pipes and truly extraordinary Aretha Franklin-style chops needed to power those songs home - and also because Albert's vocals neither mirrored his leather-lunged saxophone heroics nor reminded anyone of James Brown.

On the other hand, if he tried out his "skronk + soul" idea with say, Patti Labelle, The Staple Singers and/or the mighty musicians from the Stax label (Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Albert King), the results would have been glorious, if not necessarily the commercial breakthrough Albert sought.

That sense of restless experimentation in jazz led by Ayler got obliterated by a nuclear bomb that hit the music world - the death of John Coltrane on July 17, 1967. One could argue that the concept that jazz music was not just enjoyable listening, but a powerful, wide-open, groundbreaking, life-changing force perished with him. And Albert was among the musicians who played at John Coltrane's funeral.

In the same way that rock music got absolutely hammered by the untimely "crash and burn" deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Gram Parsons, jazz was devastated by the loss of Coltrane, preceded in 1964 by the death of Eric Dolphy, then followed a few years later by the tragic, untimely demises of Ayler and trumpet genius Lee Morgan.

While some of my favorite Ayler music is from 1966-1967, corresponding EXACTLY with the same timeline of my favorite pop and rock music albums - Pet Sounds, Revolver, The Byrds' 5th Dimension, Forever Changes by Arthur Lee & Love, The Doors - one of his most shattering yet soulful performances turned out to be his last recordings, released posthumously, from concerts at the Foundation Maeght, in St. Paul De Vence, France on July 27, 1970.

While both rock and jazz suffered mightily from the descent into heroin addiction and poverty of too many outstanding and innovative musicians, at least we have the recordings to listen to, enjoy and argue over.

Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin, who produced and directed the documentary My Name Is Albert Ayler, reflects, "Maybe he did not really succeed in the way he wanted when he was living, but the interest in his music now is much, much bigger today. I think there's a lot of people coming to this music from more alternative, rock music. It's not really a jazz thing, really. But I think there's a lot more open-minded people today."

Should a fascination with Ayler's ecstatic, orgiastic music of the spheres hit one like the proverbial ton o' bricks, check out the excellentannotated discography and session list by Nobuaki Togashi, Kohji "Shaolin" Matsubayashi and Masayuki Hatta of Jazz and the epic 9-CD box set, The Holy Ghost, from the multi-genre and fearless indie label Revenant Records.

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