(b. July 13, 1936, Cleveland, OH, d. Nov. 25, 1973, New York City)
Albert Ayler’s first “professional” gigs were as a ten-year-old alto player in a Cleveland group — led by his tenor playing father — that played at funerals. Other than historical curiosity, this fact is well worth noting, since the two things that punctuated all of his playing were honest, gut-level emotion and an overwhelming sense of mournful searching. That the combination of these two elements has made Ayler one of the most reviled and revered players in the genre is testament only to how seamlessly he melded them. From his first major impact on the burgeoning “New Thing” scene — a performance with Cecil Taylor’s trio at New York’s Philharmonic Hall on New Year’s Eve 1963 — through his groundbreaking ouevre of solo work on ESP-Disk and Impulse to the day his body was found floating in the Hudson River, every time Albert Ayler played, someone was amazed and someone was disgusted.
Intially joining Taylor’s group in late 1962 for a tour of Scandinavia, Ayler’s return to US soil was brief, and he soon found himself back in Denmark, gigging and recording his first dates and making far more money than he could have possibly made in the States. These early sessions are unequivocally formative and Ayler’s squonky, New Orleans-style bellow can be seen in its nascency.
It wasn’t until his return to New York that Ayler would fully hit his stride. By connecting with Don Cherry and Sunny Murray, he found compatible souls and soon — most notably on the stirring Witches & Devils sessions (with Murray, Henry Grimes and Norman Howard — was making the kind of soulfully free music for which he would be known.
By the time Ayler recorded his landmark Spiritual Unity album (July 1964), he was shattering senses on every level. Longtime afficionados of free music, just able to get their ears around a decade of Coleman, Coltrane and Taylor were now faced with an entirely different mode of attack: Ayler was taking the blues and paring it down to its most basic emotional elements, playing furiously and without restraint. Clams abounded, but every one was painfully real and therefore, most people truly didn’t know what to make of it.
A series of groundbreaking concerts and albums followed — Spirits Rejoice, Love Cry, In Greenwich Village — however, Ayler was seriously distraught over the consistently negative criticism hurled his way. Unable to understand why equally emotional players such as Coltrane were not only respected but actually well-paid, Ayler assumed it was because he wasn’t playing the right kind of music and, turning to the blues roots that had always been a very real part of his playing, turned out an alarming chain of polished “free R&B” records in pursuit of a hit. Of course, they weren’t and, seeing no hope for his future, Ayler took his own life.
Spiritual Unity (ESP-Disk, 1964) <5 bones> The frenzied emotional interplay between the trio (Ayler, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray) on this live session is a landmark of the genre and Ayler’s heartachingly honest playing is at a peak. The anthemic “Ghosts” stands as an introductory statement and as a final, 10-minute climax and the effect is devastating. No matter what anybody tells you, this is not untrained, it’s just unharnessed.
In Greenwich Village (Impulse, 1967, prod. Bob Thiele) <5 bones> Recorded at two performances (Dec. 1966 and Feb. 1967), this album captures the essence of Ayler’s latter, pre-polish period. Featuring bassist Alan Silva and drummer Beaver Harris (among others) on the first set and brother Don Ayler (trumpet), Grimes and the underrated but integral Michael Sampson on violin on the second, this album captures Ayler at a point where he is focused, clear and at his most powerfully creative. His playing is dead-on and the interaction is miraculous.
Vibrations (Freedom, 1964, prod. Alan Bates) <4.5 bones> Recorded three months after Spiritual Unity on a tour of Scandinavia, Don Cherry’s fiercely poetic cornet is added to the trio and, again with “Ghosts” as a centerpiece, this studio set demonstrates how integral interaction was to Ayler’s improvisations.
Love Cry (Impulse, 1968, prod. Bob Thiele) <4 bones> These studio sessions from August ’67 and February ’68 suffer only in comparison to the live fire of the Greenwich Village shows. With brother Don, bassist Silva as well as drummer Milford Graves and harpsichodist (!) Call Cobbs present, this album is essential both for its inclusion of the mind-bendingly powerful “Universal Indians” and the fact that this is perhaps the only album where Ayler was able to cleanly deliver his pro-black freedom message without having to resort to the oddities that punctuated his soon-to-come vocal records.
Music Is The Healing Force of the Universe (Impulse, 1969, prod. Ed Michel) (3.5 bones) In all likeliehood, this will never be reissued on CD, since it — in some people’s minds — is part of the rash of “sell-out” records that Ayler recorded before his death. But, in actuality, none of them are really that bad. They’re just not jazz records. However all of them are brimming with Black Power messages, odd instrumentation, uplifting sentiments and, of course, Ayler’s unmistakable tone. This is the best of the lot, since it not only contains one of the dippiest poems ever set to music (the title track), but also since Ayler’s playing is simultaneously ferocious and oddly restrained.
The First Recording (DIW Japan, 1962) <2.5 bones>
My Name Is Albert Ayler (Black Lion, 1963) ❤ bones>
Goin’ Home (Black Lion, 1964) ❤ bones>
Witches & Devils (Freedom, 1964) <4.5 bones>
The Hilversum Session (Coppens, 1964) <4 bones>
Bells/Prophecy (ESP-Disk, 1964) ❤ bones>
Spirits Rejoice (ESP-Disk, 1965) <3.5 bones>
New York Eye & Ear Control (ESP-Disk, 1965) ❤ bones>
Lorrach/Paris (Hat Art, 1966) ❤ bones>
First appeared in MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, published July 1998.