The music of Albert Ayler – who died in 1970, at the age of thirty-four – is the ultimate in jazz. He did for music what Jackson Pollock did for painting, and like Pollock he didn’t live long enough to show what he could do with the familiar vanished forms. Ayler, whose recording career began in 1962, abandoned the rhythm, key and chord structure of the kicks; But above all, he abandoned moderation. His performances were of unprecedented vehemence. Anyone can noodle without structure, but Ayler has turned her swirling fervor into a form unto itself. During the last years of his life he was in search of new styles, and his search, documented in a series of commercial releases from 1968, left a sense of frustration – of an unresolved and even hopeless quest . The new release of Ayler’s “Revelations”, on Elemental Music (a four-CD set, also available on vinyl), including recordings of two concerts he gave in France several months before his death, shows where this quest led him; it is a crowning glory, a jubilant, though sadly terminal glory.
Throughout his career, Ayler’s improvisations, mostly on tenor sax, have roared and howled and shredded the very notion of chords and notes to reach a realm of pure sound. But he never gave up the melody; his wildest atonements flowed from his often short, ditty-like compositions, which had the open, ingenuous, melodic candor of spirituals and marches, gospel cries and folksongs. In his recordings of the mid-sixties – in albums such as ‘Spiritual Unity’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Prophecy’ and ‘Bells’ – his long furious solos fit oddly well with these seemingly primitive conjurations. His bands also featured collective improvisations, fury with fury, in which Ayler was joined by other soloists, on trumpets and saxophones, which evoked the freewheeling ecstasies of New Orleans jazz but with jagged edges that seemed connect the heavens and the streets. For all their abrasiveness and clamor, these mid-sixties recordings have the feel of instant classicism; though lacking the underpinnings of pop music forms, they have the internal logic of intellectual conviction and emotional necessity.
These recordings were instantly very influential, as was Ayler himself. Born in Cleveland, in 1936, where he became a prominent musician as a teenager, he joined the Army in 1958 and was assigned to perform in military bands while stationed in France. His first breakthrough came during performances with pianist Cecil Taylor’s band in Denmark in 1962. He traveled to New York in 1963 and, with his wildly original styles and ideas, struggled to find work. Other musicians recognized his importance, none more so than John Coltrane, who confessed Ayler’s profound influence on him and who brought Ayler to perform with him in a 1966 concert at Lincoln Center. (Coltrane, who recorded for the Impulse! label, also arranged for Ayler to get a record deal there.) But, finding his form so quickly, Ayler also quickly found himself in a dead end. Ayler’s record producers seem to have intended him to rely on more commercial styles. Many of his late sixties recordings featured vocals, electric instruments, and rock backbeats, but Ayler’s own improvisations did not sit well with them. He seemed to dampen and contain his improvisations in a variety of pop music styles that seemed borrowed rather than developed.
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These albums also featured lyrics and vocals by Mary Parks, aka Mary Maria – Ayler’s partner, manager, and ultimately wife. In the somewhat rigged studio sets, they too seemed to be grafts rather than essential elements of Ayler’s music. But the “Revelations” set proves that Parks’ work — not just his lyrics but his musical inventions — inspired Ayler immensely. The studio context of commercial recordings did not foster their personal and musical connection, but the two concerts in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, in July 1970 – which were recorded for French radio – did. The first of two shows, on the 25th, featured a quartet that included Ayler, Parks, bassist Steve Tintweiss and drummer Allen Blairman. Pianist Call Cobbs missed his flight and was only there for the second date. As a result, July’s first performance brought Ayler and Parks to the forefront; this gave Parks’ compositions and his styles more prominence and offered the musical interaction between the two ample space and time. This showed that Ayler did indeed have a late new manner, undisplayed in his commercial releases, which brought together a wide range of influences and ideas, styles and methods, and of which Parks’ contributions were central. The collaboration held great promise for a vast musical reimagining to come, but it also blossomed, with irrepressible energy, in this pair of concerts (which the “Revelations” box set presents as they were originally performed , in strict chronological order).
The opening number, “Music is the healing force of the universe,” begins with Ayler playing unaccompanied, adding his own cosmic vibes to the raucous swagger of an R.&B. saxophonist walking through bars. Parks then recites, in a theatrical Sprechstimme, his words (“Music makes all the bad vibes go away; it makes you want to love instead of hate”), joined by Ayler’s tender obbligatos. There has always been an element of rapturous love in Ayler’s music, but here there is a direct and personal intimacy that comes through in his tone. It also offers wonderfully wild saxophone screeches, then Parks recites more, but, when Ayler returns, it’s not with savagery but with a simple melody that he repeats and reworks with obsessive, incantatory insistence.
The musical variety of the concert is amazing. Parks sings in tongues, accompanied by Ayler in the frenetic high register; Ayler sings in tongues and, building on the same melodies, soprano sax solos with fierce, frantic, dizzying screams. Parks sings on a catchy calypso in the vein of “St. Thomas.” She, too, plays soprano sax on many tracks with an utterly distinctive, deep, overtone-laden sound. Their saxophone duets are among the highlights of the set; Parks is a less experienced and less studied saxophonist, but her solos are both fiercely expressive and part of a musical dialogue with Ayler that has a palpable unity of purpose. After a Parks song, Ayler follows up – with Blairman stirring up a bouncing storm behind him – in a quick, brisk march; a ballad-like preaching peroration; and a strutting, dancing coda, sending a clear message to anyone who doubts what swinging means to free jazz. Elsewhere, Ayler, playing tenor, and Parks, on soprano, play with such fury that Blairman and Tintweiss are screaming, and it looks like the dome under which the show is playing is going to be blown away with their energy.
Throughout these two concerts, Ayler brings together and transfigures a vast range of musical traditions which are all the more highlighted during the second concert, on July 27th. There, Cobbs, a much more traditional musician, collaborated vigorously with Ayler, and Parks’ contribution to the band was contingent. Cobbs had a swing background and a church job (Ayler recorded an album of spirituals, “Goin’ Home,” with him in 1964). Folk moods and tones are more dominant on this recording, with Cobbs’ rolling chords intertwining with offbeat, wild marching and upbeat blues. At times Ayler turns his melodic delight into swirling, obsessively repetitive, trance-like incantations, but, when he soars to his wildest extremes, the pianist seems out of place. Nevertheless, Parks’ involvement is also vital for this concert: on numbers she sings with Ayler’s obbligatos, the collaboration displays a tenderness reminiscent of the duets of Billie Holiday and Lester Young. On the extraordinary ‘Holy Holy’, a rapid melody reminiscent of Coltrane’s ‘Impressions’, Parks’ soprano sax solo has the resonant depth of a tenor; she and Ayler play together in furious, free-paced improvisations that resolve into something like bebop with a heavy blues twist.
In these recordings, the proximity of instrumental interpretation to singing and speaking, the kinship of musical fury with simple singing, put Ayler’s already classic freestyles of the mid-sixties into context, within a framework. Ayler walks into the melody like he can’t stay away, like the freestyle he’s done is now more of a choice than an imperative. This manner appears, here, as one of the many aspects of his self-portrait. These new explorations of Ayler’s many formative traditions – the great legacy of black music, but also other forms, such as military marches and even “La Marseillaise” – were also modes of self-exploration. But this artistic introspection also connects him more surely to the world and to his time. His musical collaboration with Parks is the personal and passionate engine of this transformation.
Ayler suffered greatly from the isolation he endured for his boldly original music, for the controversy it sparked. The two concerts at the Maeght Foundation, a mecca for art, resembled a coronation ceremony. The crowds were large; Tintweiss estimated that the first concert gathered about a thousand spectators, the second about fifteen hundred. The event was widely reported and acclaimed in the local press; Ayler and the gang were received like celebrities. (In an interview in the copious booklet that accompanies the CD box set, Blairman cites his shock that a hundred people lined up to ask the musicians for autographs.) As joyous as the performances of “Revelations” are, perhaps the its most exciting are the fiery, relentless applause and cheers from the audience throughout, the final waves of rhythmic applause for encore after encore, eager for more, more, more. Ayler’s mysterious death – he disappeared for several weeks and his body washed up in the East River on a Brooklyn pier on November 25, 1970 – left them and the entire music world in the dark. need.