Many attempts have been made to locate the source of tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler
's muse in American history and culture. Among the less outlandish suggestions are the field hollers of slaves toiling on Southern plantations and the Pentecostal church's tradition of talking in tongues. Given the importance Ayler's parents placed on him attending church as a child, and his own abiding interest in spiritual matters, talking in tongues could well figure. The most likely source, however, yet the one most often overlooked, lay inside Ayler's head and heart: his style was his own creation, his own gift to the world.
At the time he developed it, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ayler's sound was unlike anything else in musicbut only from an American perspective. A few years earlier, in 1955, an uncannily similar sound emerged in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was the creation of tenor saxophonist Getachew Mekurya. At the time, twenty-year old Mekurya had zero awareness of jazz or any other American music. Wild and shamanistic, his music, like Ayler's, was born in himself, although unlike Ayler's, it used codified scalar structures.
Mekurya's music also had easily identifiable historical roots. It was based on a vocal tradition called shellala, which was sung acapella by warriors before going into battle. It was declamatory, epic, harsh and hoarse-voiced, and was mostly sung in 3/4 time. At the peak of his popularity in the 1960s, Mekurya performed wearing a warrior's animal-skin tunic and a head-dress made from a real lion's mane. He was as dread as the Rastafarians in Shashemene, a few hours drive south of Addis. But by the new millennium, Mekurya was reduced to playing cheesy tenor for tourists in upscale Addis hotels. Happily, in the early 2000s, he was discovered by European Ethiophiles and became a featured soloist with the Dutch anarcho-punk band The Ex, with whom he recorded and performed at musical festivals, retaining much of his original sound. Mekurya passed in 2016.
Ayler, on the other hand, was never reduced to playing in cocktail lounges to survive, although in the late 1960s he did embrace elements of R&B, the music he had cut his professional teeth on during his teens. The move was controversial, and some critics were impudent enough to call it a sell out. But if it was a sell out, it did not result in mega sales. Ayler remained a niche figure until his body was found in New York's East River in November 1970. A multiplicity of rumours, conspiracy theories and fanciful imaginings still surround the circumstances of his death.
The Albert Ayler Quartet with cornetist Don Cherry
's European Recordings Autumn 1964 Revisited
is part of the Swiss-based ezz-thetics label's estimable remastered series of landmark avant-garde recordings of the 1960s. A 2xCD set, it brings together two earlier releases on ezzthetics' parent label, Hat Hut: European Radio Studio Recordings 1964
(2016) and Copenhagen Live 1964
(2017). Cherry is a wonderfully complementary presence throughout, and Ayler's regular band mates, bassist Gary Peacock
and drummer Sunny Murray
, are in full flower. Some of the material was recorded for broadcast in The Netherlands, the rest live at Club Montmartre in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is all primo Ayler.
Interestingly, rewinding to Ayler's music's possible cultural roots, Cherry, in the YouTube clip below, places Ayler firmly in the continuum of the African American sanctified church. He also says the feeling Ayler's music induced in him was one of "bliss." Yes indeed.
CD1: Angels; C.A.C.; Ghosts; Infant Happiness; Spirits; No Name; Vibrations; Saints; Spirits.
CD2: Spirits; Vibrations; Saints; Mothers; Children; Spirits.