By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
FORTY YEARS AFTER the phrase was coined, "free" jazz improvisation has taken a number of different roads. In most current applications, the term "free" is so vague that it hardly means anything.Yet if your familiarity with the avant-garde is rooted in some notion of honking and squawking saxophones wailing over an out-of-sync rhythm section, you're probably thinking of the work of Cleveland saxophonist Albert Ayler and the school of performers that he inspired.
It was this legendary tenor more than any other musician-composer--more than John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, or Cecil Taylor--who brought the manic-depressive cacophony of jazz's early New Orleans days to the '60s, replacing the egocentric bebop soloist with graceful, tumultuous group interaction. Before Ayler, jazz had fallen into a stale head/arrangement/solo/head/arrangement rut. After he and his ESP-label cohorts (Sonny Murray, Frank Wright) made the scene, all barriers were breached and all that remained were possibilities.
No other musician in jazz has ever possessed Ayler's high, lonesome tone. Coltrane and Coleman may have been free music's bridge from bop, but Ayler went back further, taking in jazz's entire history, introducing spirituals and marching themes into his compositions. The saxophonist's gospel roots--like those of his notable successor Charles Gayle--are immediately familiar to modern ears; today we can hear his tumult as soul music. Ayler, the emerging genius, knew it: As the '60s progressed, he pushed further into R&B in an effort to get his "message" to a larger audience. And for his contribution, he was rewarded with accusations of incompetence and the usual semi-starvation wages. He committed suicide in 1970.
Impulse has just released an epochal two-CD compilation of Ayler's previously unavailable Greenwich Village concerts, and it easily stands as the jazz reissue of the year. Spanning 1965-1967, it compiles three LPs' worth of material along with "Holy Ghost" from the New Wave in Jazz (still available), an unreleased piece ("Universal Thoughts"), and his first LP for the label (from which this compilation takes its name). Most consider that first album to be his best for the label, and rate it just below his nominally freer work for ESP. It's his most archetypal. Hell, it's his best.
All of these concerts emphasize group dynamics, as Ayler was, above all, a bandleader. The mournful, singsong melodies of his tunes were thick enough for musicians to swim around in, and his use of several string instruments on many tracks creates mudslides of overtones and myriad melodies. The merging of Ayler's sax with his little brother Donald's trumpet often suggests a single voice; then the instruments phase out of sync and meet again in a completely different form. The medley of Albert's "Truth Is Marching In" and Donald's "Our Prayer" works its way from death chant to life-affirming ecstasy. It may be the saddest piece of music ever recorded.
Strangely enough, nowadays some avant-garde folks downplay Ayler's achievements as too gutbucket or too tuneful, preferring the gentle atonalities loosed upon us by snobs with graying ponytails. Ayler had that Charlie Brown sound, so knowingly naive and human that its pathos was undeniable. And today's equally oblivious jazz neocons, for some reason, try to argue that theirs is the sound of American musical democracy. Maybe that's because you can't pull a lever in a pine box.