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Scottish National Jazz Orchestra Plays Ayler at St. Giles' Cathedral

Martin McFie By

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Scottish National Jazz Orchestra
St. Giles' Cathedral
Where Rivers Meet
Edinburgh, Scotland
May 15, 2021

Albert Ayler was an expressive and accomplished voice in the free jazz movement who was greatly respected by his peers. None other than John Coltrane encouraged the tenor saxophonist to join Impulse! records and even to play for his funeral, which Ayler did alongside fellow free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Ayler focused on the music and rarely strayed into the political arena—which was pervasive at the time—and instead took the spiritual approach of his friend Coltrane.

Ayler developed his style of free jazz following the route of church music, R&B, jazz, and military band music while serving in the army until, finally, the whole of his experience coalesced into his style while in Paris. He traveled extensively from his Cleveland, Ohio home and played in Scandinavia, Holland, France, and New York City. Most of Ayler's recorded work was released after his tragic end in New York's East River at the young age of 34. The popular music of that time was The Beach Boys and The Beatles—a whole different spectrum from free jazz!

Ayler's music was often difficult, cacophonic and perplexing. To add contrast—or more confusion—he would sometimes add a piece of straight New Orleans marching band music. For their performance at St. Giles' Cathedral, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra honored Ayler's works and surprising performance shifts with an interpretation of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" materializing out of the melee. Artistic director Tommy Smith, OBE, also invited Russian performance artist Maria Rud to paint amidst all the music inside the 12th-century Gothic structure in Edinburgh, Scotland.

There are no charts for Ayler's music, so Smith scored the music while also playing tenor saxophone. Still, three identifiable themes emerged. "Ghosts" from Ayler's Love Cry (Impulse, 1967) displayed Caribbean echoes of Sonny Rollins, with whom Ayler had also played. Pianist Pete Johnstone offered the second theme, a simple repeated phrase based on the "Going Home" melody from Dvorak's New World Symphony, which was also the title track from Ayler's Goin' Home (Atlantic, 1964). This music also featured Calum Gourlay plucking fast pizzicato notes in the highest registers of his acoustic bass. After a long enthusiastic drum solo by Alyn Cosker, the well-known strains of the anonymous New Orleans spiritual came through, though whether that was for parody or on purpose was less than clear.

Ayler's work continues to represent absolute freedom for the musician, coming from a time when Black Americans had very little actual or political freedom even 100 years after emancipation. They were still striving for a professional level of respect for their music, however they chose to interpret, present, or shock with it. The SNJO's performance continued this tradition, straddling the outer reaches of melodic reason and moving still even further from anything resembling easy listening

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