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Albert Ayler: Backwards And Forwards

Nic Jones By

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....he and the members of his groups implicitly questioned the primacy of instrumental virtuosity as a fundamental value of jazz.
By March of 1965, when the first of the Village Vanguard recordings were made, Albert Ayler's career as a leader was less that five years old. He'd covered a lot of ground. It was also only thirteen years since he'd worked in Little Walter's band, yet in that time he'd moved as far away from the mainstream of African American popular music as it was possible to be, at least that was an impression. The reality of the situation was rather different.

Ayler's take on the avant-garde was not of the same form as John Coltrane's. By comparison he sidestepped the preoccupation with chords that was the spur for the exceptional creativity of Coltrane's leadership, and instead compiled a body of music on record that looked back to the roots of African American musical expression at the same time as it sounded as contemporary as tomorrow. Equally importantly, he and the members of his groups implicitly questioned the primacy of instrumental virtuosity as a fundamental value of jazz.

Live In Greenwich Village. The Complete Impulse Recordings documents the kind of skewed equilibrium that Ayler and his cohorts had reached, and is arguably the definitive statement of this stage of his musical development. At its most intense, the music is a clamour of voices. Ayler's trumpet playing brother Don brings an entirely different voice to the music than Don Cherry was doing a year or so earlier, and Beaver Harris and Sunny Murray, the two drummers featured, bring their own musical personalities to proceedings, with Harris being the more bombastic of the two and also the one best able to establish the feeling of perpetual motion which some might say is characteristic of Ayler's music.

But despite the fact that the music frequently comes on like an idiosyncratic take on modernity, the simple, folksy quality of the melodies, frequently repeated as a kind of clarion call in the midst of lengthy performances, undermines that feeling and evokes a time before the age of recording. This paradox might just be the thing that continues to polarize opinion, such as it sadly is, on Ayler's music in the present day.

All this is encapsulated on the aptly named "Spirits Rejoice", where Ayler's emphatic vibrato evokes the rejoicing spirits of old. The violin of Michel Sampson and the basses of Bill Folwell and Henry Grimes merge as mid-range voices which are unassuming in the way they vie for attention, and Harris responds to the challenges thrown down in a way that is as at odds with the history of jazz drumming as Murray's more linear flow.

The depth of evocation here is such that the storefront church and the campus in rebellion come to mind within the same piece. But having said this, the idea that Ayler's music amounts to some kind of soundtrack for the civil unrest and cultural upheavals of the 1960s is in a way to damn it with faint praise. Such is the thoroughness of the revision going on here that any purely socio-political assessment of it appears both convenient and deterministic.

Robert Palmer, writing in 1978, refers to a conversation he had with Marion Brown that touched upon Ayler's music (1) What's significant is that no major jazz saxophonist is cited as influential upon Ayler. Instead it's listening to the work of gospel saxophonist Vernard Johnson that brings the conversation around to Ayler. This amounts to Ayler's old modernism in context. At the same time as his work was aiming towards a totality of sound, Ayler was evoking the sounds of early African American Christianity. This historical depth may be the thing that irks Ayler's detractors.

1. Included in the accompanying booklet notes for the title discussed in this article.

Track Listing:

Disc 1: 1. Holy Ghost, 2. Truth Is Marching In, 3. Our Prayer, 4. Spirits Rejoice, 5. Divine Peacemaker, 6. Angels

Disc 2: 1. For John Coltrane, 2. Change Has Come, 3. Light In Darkness, 4. Heavenly Home, 5. Spiritual Rebirth, 6. Infinite Spirit, 7. Omega Is The Alpha, 8. Universal Thoughts


Albert Ayler Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Don Ayler Trumpet, George Steele Trombone, Michel Sampson Violin, Joel Freedman Cello, Call Cobbs Jr. Piano, Bill Folwell Bass, Henry Grimes Bass, Alan Silva Bass, Lewis Worrell Bass, Beaver Harris Drums, Sunny Murray Drums

Live In Greenwich Village. The Complete Impulse Recordings 052 272-2 (IMP 22732)

For sound samples from Live In Greenwich Village visit the Impulse! Records website .


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