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Reassessing

Albert Ayler: New Grass

By Published: November 29, 2004
Albert Ayler
New Grass
Impulse!
1968

If there is one word that is poison in the minds of jazz fans and critics, it's sellout. If any musician, for whatever reason, decides to change their sound in a way that could be considered commercial, they have committed the deadliest of sins. So many debate and whine over whether an artist is a sellout, but really, what the hell difference does it make? None. If a record is great, it's great.

Albert Ayler was always controversial. His ripping tenor produced sheets of articulated squeals and buzzes that helped to revolutionize a new kind of jazz. His work was always leading edge or barbarically raw, depending on your critical orientation. But his original approach and methods of delivery differed from Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, AACM and other peers. Like these players, he found his sound and ideology repeatedly scrutinized.

And so it wasn't much of a surprise when he released New Grass that critics would rip him apart. What made this record different is that his cult of fans and critics were the instigators of the attack. Why? He had sold out; he threw out his loose structures for classic R&B arrangements. What they failed to observe is that New Grass is a genius piece of work that welds his sheets of sound to classic African-American styles such as R&B, soul and gospel. How could a man who created sounds that influenced artists ranging from Sonic Youth to John Zorn to Captain Beefheart to David Murray to the Velvet Underground create a record in such a "commercial" format?

Ayler knew this record was going to upset his fans and he took time to explain himself on the opening track "Message from Albert/New Grass." Opening with a primal rant of classic soloing that could have fit anywhere on Spiritual Unity , Albert proceeds to explain his emotional playing as a gift from God and that this record is a further exploration of his sound. He states that he hopes people will like the record... and, well, it sounds like a plea. Why should any artist ever have to explain themselves or their ideas? They shouldn't have to, but Ayler took it upon himself to ask the listener to have an open mind. Yet the record overall isn't as commercial as the critics of the day would have us believe. Sure, kicking tunes such as "New Generation" and "Heart Love" have grooving R&B/soul/gospel arrangements with vocals, but his solos still rip with bloody emotion. Yet "Sun Watcher" is a ripper; though not as harsh as his earlier work, he still holds onto his ideals.

Though Impulse! has been accused by critics of pushing Ayler into making a commercial disc, it seems strange that the label would have, since much of its roster consisted of free jazz artists. They were, after all, responsible for releasing the majority of John Coltrane's riskiest and most experimental work. After many spins it seems more that Ayler was looking for a new way to explore his music than just making a record that would reach a larger audience. The solos on this record would have never gotten airplay then, nor would they get it now. His squeaks and honks may have R&B riffing, but the solos are too gritty for most to handle.

That is why it is time to re-evaluate this record and accept it for its musical merits. The chops are solid and the arrangements are tight. Sure this may be the first time you hear yourself humming an Ayler tune, but it doesn't minimize the genius he put into this record. It shows an artist at a turning point, and because of negative feedback it remains an obscure record, instead of a big seller. It is time that we as jazz fans open our minds and be willing to allow artists to try on different suits. Sure quite often the results are horrid, but often the results are like New Grass.

Suggested Spins:
"Sell-Outs" and Changing Styles

Miles Davis - Bitches Brew (1969 Columbia)
Miles Davis - A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1970 Columbia)
Charlie Parker - Bird with Strings (1950 Columbia)
Rahsaan Roland Kirk - Left and Right (1968 Atlantic)
Rahsaan Roland Kirk - Volunteered Slavery (1968 Atlantic)
Ornette Coleman - Skies of America (1972 Columbia)
John Coltrane - Ballads (1962 Impluse!)
Herbie Hancock - Head Hunters (1973 Columbia)
Ray Charles - New Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962 ABC-Paramount)
Sun Ra & His Outer Space Arkestra - Nuclear War (1982 Atavistic)

R&B/Soul:
Otis Blackwell - Singin' The Blues (1955 Davis)
Soloman Burke - The Very Best of Solomon Burke (1998 Rhino)
Ray Charles - The Genius of Ray Charles (1959 Atlantic)
Ray Charles - Ultimate Hits Collection (1999 Rhino)
Sam Cooke - Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 (1963 RCA)
Sam Cooke - The Man who Invented Soul (2000 RCA)
Otis Redding - Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul (1966 Atco/Atlantic)
Otis Redding - Dreams to Remember: The Otis Redding Anthology (1998 Rhino)
Al Green - Let's Stay Together (1972 The Right Stuff/Hi Records)
Al Green - I'm Still in Love With You (1972 The Rigth Stuff/Hi Records)
Sam and Dave - Soul Men (1967 Atlantic)
Sam and Dave - Sweat 'n' Soul: Anthology (1993 Rhino)
Wilson Pickett - The Very Best of Wilson Pickett (1993 Rhino)
Jackie Wilson - The Best of Jackie Wilson (1994 Rhino)
Stevie Wonder - At the Close of the Century (1999 Motown)
Various Artists - Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971 (1992 Motown)
Various Artists - The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968 (1991 Atlantic)



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