Jazz Monthly (No. 151, September, 1967) - UK
ALBERT AYLER—CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION? (1)
BY W. A. BALDWIN
ANYONE who has taken any interest in jazz criticism will hardly have failed to notice the controversy which invariably surrounds any new musician with a degree of originality—the interesting thing about this controversy is that it is repeated in an almost identical fashion in the case of each musician. Exactly the same criticisms (lack of “swing” etc.) are made today about a figure such as Albert Ayler as were being made some years ago about Ornette Coleman, and of course were also applied to Charlie Parker in the ’40’s. Just alter the names and any review of an early bop issue or one of Ornette Coleman’s early records would serve quite adequately as an Ayler review.
The real irony of such controversy is that it is usually conducted on a level totally removed from reality: thus the original artist is praised by some for the revolutionary nature of his art as well as being attacked by others for his spurning of tradition: both these attitudes in fact turn out to be equally misguided, as the musician in question is usually very much less revolutionary in his approach than either side of the dispute appears to imagine.
This is perhaps a commonplace observation, but it is a necessary preamble to an attempt to comment usefully on the style of Albert Ayler, who is regarded by many as the most uncompromisingly revolutionary of the jazz musicians of today. Ayler’s supposed removal from the jazz tradition has become the main issue in any discussion of his work, both on the part of the detractors, and, in many cases, of the enthusiasts. In fact Ayler’s playing is not merely an extension of the jazz tradition rather than a break from it, but his work is in some ways more traditional even in form than much of the music being played today. Any useful evaluation of Ayler’s work must start by making this clear.
Undoubtedly the most important aspect of Ayler’s traditionalism is the fact that although his playing is nominally “free”, nevertheless, as the critic Henry Woodfin has pointed out in an article on Ayler in Down Beat (Nov. 17, 1966), in practice he plays around an implied time—something which seems to have escaped the attention of many commentators. If I add that this “implied time” always sounds remarkably like 4/4 time, it should be clear that by the standards of the New Thing and even of Modern Jazz in general Ayler—like Ornette Coleman—is even something of a conservative.
It is rather strange to note that both Ayler and Coleman give the impression, in statements they have made about their music, of imagining that they do play completely freely: since this is not so, it suggests one of two possible explanations. It is possible that sheer force of habit is responsible; that musicians who have been playing in 4/4 time for a number of years come to play naturally in this time without intending to. On the other hand it is possible that 4/4 time is simply the best time for playing jazz in, and that a jazz improvisation does not sound “right” unless it has the rhythmic continuity which comes from a steady beat, played or implied. Certainly all jazz improvisations which are really completely free rhythmically suffer seriously from a lack of continuity.
The work of the rhythm sections on Ayler’s records is probably more responsible for the difficulty which many people find in listening to it than the playing of Ayler himself. Although not generally given enough credit for it, most New Orleans horns play around the beat, often with a considerable amount of subtlety. The only really marked development in jazz rhythm is to be found in the rhythm section, which, leaving aside the work of certain notable exceptions, has progressively gained a greater degree of freedom from the beat. Even on Ayler’s records however the rhythm section is not completely independent of the beat, although careful listening is required to hear the implied beat in the work of such as Sonny Murray or Gary Peacock. At times the rhythm is only being maintained by either bass or drums, but it is certainly rare to find a completely arhythmic backing on any of Ayler’s records.
There is little that is new in the construction of Ayler’s improvisations, either. The “motivic” development, making use of a melodic or rhythmic “motif”, which is found in Ornette Coleman’s work, is the basis of Ayler’s style. Ayler in fact applies this system more consistently than Coleman, and in general reveals a greater care in the construction of his solos.
It is clear of course how Ayler has gained his reputation as a revolutionary: the answer lies in the strikingly different sound of Ayler’s tenor. There should however be no need to point out that the transformation in terms of technique, intonation etc., of an instrument’s normal characteristics is not by any means unusual in jazz. If no one had previously treated the tenor saxophone in this way, there is certainly plenty of precedent as far as other instruments are concerned.
Since criticism of Ayler’s work has usually revealed the most basic misconception it would perhaps be useful to comment on each of his releases individually. Covering only about two years, the recordings he has already made are remarkable not only for their consistently high quality but also for the variety of different approaches that they reveal. The fact that they also show a consistent development of Ayler’s style towards a more formal and concise conception of the solo, and away from the rather loose form and long solos characteristic of much modern jazz, allows us to draw some conclusions about the real nature of the “New Thing” in jazz.
MY NAME IS ALBERT AYLER
Danish Debut DEBI4O — Fontana 688 603 ZL
THIS record is probably the weakest of Ayler’s records, as due to a combination of circumstances Ayler was forced to record with a completely unfamiliar rhythm section instead of the Cecil Taylor group with which he had been playing. There is a strong similarity to Ornette Coleman’s first record which also had a pianist who was a hindrance rather than a help: there is the same compromise between the attempts at purely thematic improvising and suggestions at least of conventional improvising on the chords. Most of the tracks are not really very satisfactory, although they each contain some attractive and original ideas (as well as a number of clichés) and they are generally quite listenable. The only outstanding performance is on the ballad Summertime. Here Ayler stays close to the melody throughout his two solos, concentrating on expressive phrasing to bring out its lyricism: he shows fine rhythmic inventiveness and control, his timing always being both unpredictable and satisfying, and makes extremely telling use of effects of intonation and of dynamics. Henry Woodfin in the above-mentioned article suggests that Ayler’s technique of melodic development comes directly from the work of Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk. Although this is possibly so, it must not be forgotten that such techniques go back much further in jazz, and in his approach to this ballad, especially his timing and phrasing, Ayler seems to me to resemble Lester Young rather than anyone else, even though he does not play any actual Lester Young phrases.
The other track of interest is C.T., a free improvisation which is probably the most free that Ayler has attempted—and the least successful. He continually attempts to change tempo, and the rhythm section often seems completely unaware of what tempo he is playing in. The only “rapport” in fact is on the crudest level: Ayler plays a phrase which the drummer repeats, or vice versa. A good illustration of my point about the continuing necessity of a steady beat even in the jazz of today is to be found in this failure.
Danish Debut DEBI46 — Transatlantic TRA-130
THIS is the first record of Ayler in helpful surroundings. Norman Howard is on trumpet, and Cecil Taylor’s rhythm section is used; Henry Grimes (bass) and Sonny Murray (drums), with another bassist, Earle Henderson, added for Witches and Devils and replacing Grimes on Holy, Holy. (The significance of these titles is probably very small.)
With this record we can begin to examine Ayler’s mature style. The 4/4 quality about his playing is very much apparent, especially on the medium tempo tracks Spirits and Holy, Holy, and it is enhanced by Murray’s unusually driving (for him) percussion work. Indifferent recording makes it more difficult to assess the basses, but Grimes seems very competent, especially on Spirits. On Holy Holy, Henderson bows the bass a little but gives a rhythmic accompaniment for the rest of the time. As far as Ayler’s ability to swing is concerned, it must be admitted that his playing is perhaps a little lacking in drive, but certainly not in ease and relaxation. The authority of Ayler’s phrasing in fact recalls at times the classic blues singers, especially on Witches and Devils, which is based upon a theme resembling a New Orleans style dirge, and is taken at a very slow tempo, with Ayler’s phrasing having something definitely “archaic” and almost anti-modern about it. The relaxation which Ayler’s playing always displays is all the more remarkable in view of the rhythmic complexity of his style—Ayler frequently superimposes different rhythms on the underlying 4/4 or creates complex patterns of cross-rhythms.
Many commentators have pointed out that the development of jazz towards an ever-greater complexity has led all too often to a lessening of the ease with which it is performed. Although this is an oversimplified view it has some basis in reality: examples of this development are not lacking in the jazz of today. The very much over-praised “Out to Lunch” by Eric Dolphy (Blue Note) is a particularly painful instance, showing how a self-consciously complex approach can result in an almost complete absence of “swing” in the traditional sense of the word—whatever the record’s other qualities may be. Much the same can be said of other recordings by the same Blue Note team. At its best the drumming of Anthony Williams can be stimulating, and the same can be said of Hutcherson and Richard Davis as well: in combination they can often produce a jerky rhythm which moves in fits and starts and seems at times a more appropriate accompaniment for a puppet show or a Disney cartoon than a jazz performance. Considering the pitfalls awaiting those who stray from the “straight and narrow” of the regular, stated beat—pitfalls not always avoided by the boppers of two decades ago—it is certainly encouraging to find a musician able to negotiate the complexities of his style while retaining an easy swing.
Rhythmically, Ayler is characterised by tremendous ease and authority, which on this record is emphasised by the almost arhythmic playing of trumpeter Norman Howard. Melodically Ayler shows a very high degree of inventiveness and is able generally to maintain interest right through his solos even though they are not always perfect from the point of view of overall construction, the Spirits solo in particular seeming to peter out through lack of ideas. Ayler’s lines have a lyricism with which the various tones (for the most part anguished and painful) of Ayler’s tenor are deliberately contrasted, so that the feeling of this record, though not exactly madly gay, is not by any means as bitter as some writers, presumably able to hear little else except Ayler’s tone, have appeared to think. Sometimes Ayler uses a strong vibrato which has led to accusations of grotesque sentimentality: at times Ayler does use this effect excessively, but in general the tremendous strength and conviction of Ayler’s lines again contrasts with this, and the overall impression is not one of sentimentality.
Ayler often makes use of purely rhythmic ideas, many of which are quite lively, so that in spite of the moments of tension the tone of this record is in fact fairly lighthearted, a quality not found to any great extent in his subsequent recordings. This probably accounts for the greater acceptance that this particular record has gained; it was actually voted for by two critics in the Jazz Journal poll last December.
Since this record is distinguished by its melodic and rhythmic attractiveness the comparative absence of overall form in most of the solos is less important, and Ayler’s later recordings show much greater attention to “motivic” development which is sustained throughout the whole length of the solo.
In the light of this record it is interesting to consider Ayler’s possible influences. Although, as remarked above, Ayler shares Ornette Coleman’s basic approach, his melodic originality is undoubtedly the greatest in contemporary jazz, and his melodic lines are so far from the accepted type of line in any jazz style that there is a frequent failure to recognize their melodic quality at all. As far as his influences in earlier styles of jazz are concerned, Ayler does not seem able to give us much help himself, alternating between statements such as “I prefer listening to classical music more” and giving long lists of influences which usually include the following: Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Freddie Webster, and Clifford Brown, as well as New Orleans Jazz in general, folk music and march music. The folk music, march music, and New Orleans jazz influences are apparent particularly in Ayler’s themes, and therefore in his soloing when, as in Witches and Devils it is based on the theme. (Some of Ayler’s later solos are not based on any stated theme.)
As far as Ayler’s soloing in general is concerned however, the influences are less obvious. He might follow Bechet’s influence in the strong vibrato of his tone. I would however tentatively suggest that the only clearly discernible influence on Ayler the soloist is that of Lester Young mentioned briefly above. Although Ayler plays none of his ideas and his tone is almost as directly opposed as one could imagine to the “cool” approach (except that Lester Young, like Ayler, is capable of considerable variations in his tone for expressive effect) I do not think that perceiving this influence is pure imagination. Ayler’s long lines, often of unpredictable length, recall those of Young, while he also delights in adding an “afterthought” to a line which sounds as though it is already complete. The technique of motivic development is in fact found with Lester Young at least in embryo, and sometimes takes the form of building lines out of repeated riffs, often with a change of interval, devices used to a considerable extent by Ayler.
It is certainly true, of course, that many other jazz musicians have these elements in their styles, and it would be rash to conclude on such evidence that there is a direct influence: but the character of Ayler’s lines themselves recalls those of Lester Young. The use of a series of small intervals (the repeated note being the extreme example) and of lines which remain firmly within a narrow band of the instrument’s range, with a deliberate contrast achieved by moving unexpectedly into a different register, is one recurrent aspect of the style of both musicians. And while many other jazz musicians, from George Lewis to Eric Dolphy, will make use of a sudden move to the upper register, the use of the lower register for the same striking effect is characteristic of the Lester Young school and also used by Ayler. In both cases such “honking” can at times seem rather gratuitous, a cover for temporary lack of ideas.
Ayler’s concern with the continuity of his lines might be considered to stem from this influence, and it is possibly worth pointing out that in naming Young as an influence, Ayler drew specific attention to “The way he connected his phrases” as well as to the aspects of Pres’ style which are more usually stressed. This continuity of line means that the melodic development often borders on being predictable, and therefore Ayler, like Young, finds his surprises in the unexpected interval, or in his timing, rather than as Charlie Parker does in a surprising phrase or a change of direction within the solo. Doubtless this is what Keith Knox meant when he put Ayler in the “square” category as “lacking the wild unpredictability exhibited by Parker” (in Jazz Monthly of March of this year).
To comment briefly on the individual tracks on “Spirits”: the title track has an attractive solo from Ayler which is, however, poorly constructed: to be more precise it consists of a number of separate structures developed one after the other without being really linked together. Norman Howard’s solo is poor both melodically and rhythmically but shows a good sense of building to a climax—there are just rather embarrassing gaps between each climax.
Witches and Devils has, as stated earlier, a theme which recalls a New Orleans dirge, which is played by Ayler with a quavering vibrato which borders on parody (unintentionally, I suspect). Fortunately the solos are more restrained. Norman Howard builds very strongly for most of his solo and shows considerable imagination and sensitivity constructing a very lyrical statement. Unfortunately he goes on just a little too long and his solo becomes rather shapeless towards the end. Ayler is again better, his greater tonal resources and rhythmic and melodic imagination making his work continually interesting, although here again the solo has little overall shape and ends rather abruptly. So does the final theme statement, which is cut off in the middle, for no very apparent reason.
Holy, Holy has by far the best solo from Ayler, with a continual flow of connected ideas and many changes of mood, together with a rhythmic momentum which again breaks down in Howard’s solo. The solos are followed by a collective section, (as with the title track which is also introduced by such a section) but here Ayler gives the collective improvisation a greater coherence and significance by recapitulating material from his solo.
Saints is another slow-tempo number with Ayler soloing against a not very helpful accompaniment from Norman Howard. This particular solo is of variable quality, with some brilliant ideas, but also a rather gratuitous use of his exaggerated vibrato which, as I have said, is used effectively elsewhere, at times really becoming a rhythmic force, but which here seems inappropriate. Howard plays a rather incoherent solo and the album ends on this rather lame note.
In all this is however a very fine record. Ayler’s playing, in spite of one or two lapses, is very assured throughout and his solo on Holy, Holy will possibly come to be regarded as a classic solo of the 60’s. One fails to see why there should always be talk of having to judge “New Thing” jazz by “new standards”, when a record such as this will stand judgment by the oldest jazz standards of all: the performances have a relaxed swing, and the considerable amount of emotional involvement is well expressed. The sleeve note points out, rather aggressively but nonetheless correctly, that this is not weird music of the future but music which can be enjoyed today by anyone prepared to listen to it.
IN view of Ayler’s evident concern with musical continuity it is not surprising that his next recording should reveal a more systematic approach to the construction of his solos. Whereas Ayler’s solos on Spirits make use of the principle of “motivic” or thematic development in order to build up tension in specific passages, on this LP each solo seems to be almost an exercise in this kind of development. In the two versions of Ghosts the development is purely linear, each phrase referring directly to a preceding phrase (usually the one directly preceding)—with this method Ayler builds up, on the 2nd Variation, a really magnificent structure, a musical argument of compelling logic. In the 1st Variation, Ayler is admittedly less successful and, doubtless because of a failure of invention, introduces some irrelevant material which breaks up the development.
The structure of The Wizard (another version of Holy, Holy from the “Spirits” album) and especially of Spirits (unrelated to the earlier Spirits) is considerably more complex. The Wizard is admittedly based on motivic development, as are the Ghosts solos, but whereas with these solos the development moves progressively away from the themes, on The Wizard there are references back to the theme in the course of the solo, which serve to give an impression of even greater formal control by showing the relationship of the solo to the theme. In this respect it is Spirits however which is the really extraordinary performance, being perhaps unique, in its almost analytic approach to the theme, in all jazz improvising. What Ayler does is to play not one solo, but a series of solos which each begin with the theme, move away and then return once again to the theme. These solos (there are four in all) become progressively longer and progressively more distant in their relationship to the theme. What we have in effect is a sort of moving away from the theme by stages. The first of these solos consists of no more than a paraphrase of the theme, reorganizing it rhythmically and making use of different intervals but without actually abandoning the original melody. The second solo develops in linear fashion but almost every phrase also relates directly to the theme, and Ayler returns gradually to end up playing the theme once again. Both these first two sections are unfortunately spoilt a little by indifferent contributions from Gary Peacock on bass and Sonny Murray on drums. The third section or “solo” has a thematic development which leaves the theme entirely but then returns to it, while the fourth section represents the normal solo, moving rapidly away from the theme and not returning to it.
Although, as I have suggested, each of these performances is almost an exercise in form, to concentrate on this aspect of the record would be to do it an injustice. The truth of the matter is of course that “form” (a word continually misused by jazz critics) should always be appropriate to content, and if on this record Ayler concentrates on constructing a strong musical argument it is because he has a strong message to put across. The 2nd Variation of Ghosts in particular builds up to a tremendous sustained climax of shifting emotions held together by the almost inexorable logic of the development. The lighthearted rhythms found on the Debut recording are almost entirely absent from this date: there are certainly plenty of rhythmic effects but they are mainly percussive in nature, adding to the emotional force. In addition Ayler places whole phrases or passages ahead of or behind the beat with a strong accentuation. This creates considerable rhythmic tension, although as indicated above it also has the effect, on the 1st Variation of Ghosts as well as the earlier sections of Spirits, of creating uncertainty in the rhythm section.
In Murray’s drumming a considerable change is noticeable from the strongly rhythmic style of five months earlier. On this date Murray concentrates on mainly decorative cymbal work, with occasional use of the snare drum, and throws the main burden of rhythmic accompaniment onto Gary Peacock. In spite of occasional faltering Peacock is a continual source of inspiration with his positive bass line.
As with the earlier recordings, Ayler’s playing is a little lacking in drive but still very relaxed and assured. Ayler seems at times so concerned with creating complex patterns of cross-rhythms that he resembles a percussionist as much as a saxophonist: one very interesting device which suggests an additional rhythmic pattern is the use of a particular note (very lightly accented if at all) which recurs at regular intervals. If Ayler is in any sense at all an innovator it must be in the way in which he has extended the rhythmic resources of jazz soloists.
Ayler’s ability to suggest a multiplicity of rhythms has important consequences from the point of view of the richness, in terms of material, of his solos on Spiritual Unity. It would be easy for the sort of strict thematic development which Ayler uses to become merely obvious or repetitive, due to the restrictions that such an approach places on material. Good examples of this fault can be found in the playing of John Tchichai, where a particular melodic rhythmic idea is often repeated over and over with only very slight variations. One instance of this is to be found on Tchichai’s solo. on Coltrane’s Ascension, where his repetition of one or two rather banal little phrases becomes extremely tiresome. As indicated above, Ayler’s individual phrases are not only more interesting in themselves but because of this the subsequent development of the solo can be less obvious without being less logical. Ayler can, for example, merely suggest a particular rhythmic idea in one phrase and then take that as the basis for a new motivic development. Thus his solos on Spiritual Unity are always changing direction (more so than on any other of his records) without losing the closely argued logic which as I have suggested is what makes Ayler’s music so satisfying and powerfully convincing, particularly on this record.
I think that it is no exaggeration to say that Spiritual Unity, taken as a whole, is one of the most satisfying recordings in jazz. It is an achievement which Ayler himself seems unlikely to repeat, combining as it does immense subtlety with tremendously powerful emotional force. One hardly dares to use in connection with Ayler such a word as subtlety, which in current jazz criticism tends to be applied to any musician whose playing is not particularly expressive. Spiritual Unity is final proof, if it were needed, that “subtlety” or “understatement” should not stand in opposition to the expression of feeling but should rather enhance it.
Jazz Monthly (No. 152, October, 1967) - UK
ALBERT AYLER—CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION? (2)
BY W. A. BALDWIN
NEW YORK EYE AND EAR CONTROL
THE recording presented under this particularly unlikely title is the product of what ESP-DISK calls “an informal session” for use as a film sound-track. According to the record sleeve it was recorded only a week later than “Spiritual Unity” which I find difficult to believe since it is so different in style. This may however be largely explained by the personnel, which adds Don Cherry (trumpet), John Tchichai (alto) and Roswell Rudd (trombone) to the trio. As is unfortunately so often the case, “informal” means simply “disorganized”, and in spite of the fact that an Ayler tune is played—ITT is another version of Holy, Holy/The Wizard—the session gives little impression of having been organized according to Ayler’s ideas.
Apart from the brief Don’s Dawn the format is simple, each side of the record being occupied by a long collective improvisation.
The comparative failure of the record invites consideration of the whole question of collective improvisation within the “New Thing”. I think that it is time to admit that some of the claims made by enthusiastic writers, in Jazz Monthly and elsewhere, have been hardly justified: nearly all successful “New Thing” performances have consisted for most of their length at least of solos with accompaniment from the rhythm section. Almost all attempts at large-scale “free” collective improvisation (between two or more horns) from Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” to the more recent efforts of the New York Art Quintet, have been only successful to a moderate degree, and even then the success is in inverse proportion to the amount of freedom to be found. A very good case can be made for maintaining that “Free Jazz” owes such coherence as it has to the strong 4/4 beat to which it adheres.
The list of really successful “free” collective improvisations is embarrassingly small. The only good one of any real length is Ornette Coleman’s Maya from the album “Ornette on Tenor”. Other successful but brief collective sections can be found on Coleman’s records, usually as an introduction to a solo by either Coleman or Don Cherry, or as on Free from “Change of the Century” by way of a conclusion.
It would in fact be very surprising if it were otherwise. Surely the Free Jazz approach calls for a greater degree of self- discipline and a more unified conception, which are precisely the qualities which can only usually be found in one individual. It is certainly true that by playing together for a length of time a number of musicians can come to share a common conception, but such conditions are not often realised.
The collective improvisation occupies the same place in Ayler’s recordings as in Coleman’s, being used generally as an introductory passage or as a conclusion: there must be no mistaking however that the solos constitute the most important and satisfying part of the performance. The brief collective sections share the same implied 4/4 time as the themes and solos and, as I have just suggested, this is very helpful in lending coherence to such sections, and re- inforces my belief that Jazz is best performed to a steady pulse even though a few musicians of today appear to consciously strive to avoid it. The performances on “New York Eye and Ear Control” resemble the work of the New York Art Quartet (of which Tchichai and Rudd are members) in that they consist of total collective improvisation throughout their length and fail to establish any kind of rhythmic continuity. Admittedly a definite time does underlie certain passages, but for the most part little rhythmic momentum is generated. The performances are also extremely long.
Here in fact are to be found most of the ingredients for complete failure, and it is very much to the credit of the musicians concerned that the failure of the musicians is only partial. In fact each performance completely lacks overall shape and simply seems to end when someone stopped the tape, but there are some fine passages of collective interplay to be heard. Ayler himself plays some magnificient phrases, although there are some lapses of taste on his part, including long strings of lower-register “honks” which have some rhythmic interest but still seem rather out of place. Ayler also builds strongly at times in conjunction with Cherry or Tchichai. As far as the rhythmic qualities are concerned, Peacock is sometimes able to pick up a beat, but often seems at a loss due to the excessive freedom, and bows the bass to a considerable extent. In the circumstances this seems very much like an admission of defeat when compared to his rhythmic accompaniment throughout “Spiritual Unity”.
Ayler’s playing reveals his usual rhythmic assurance but the performances only swing intermittently, Roswell Rudd’s rather stiff phrasing not helping in this respect, nor the fact that at times there seems to be no general agreement on what the tempo is. Fortunately, most of the time Ayler plays the dominant role and the others tend to follow him, or at least be carried along. Sometimes however, Ayler seems to ignore the others and pursue his own time of development quite independently.
The thematic basis for these performances is minimal, AY having no stated theme and ITT very quickly leaving the theme in spite of references to it by Ayler and Don Cherry. Some of Ayler’s other performances, as on Bells (ESP), have no stated theme, but nevertheless make use of certain definite material and do not ramble in the way that these performances do.
One of the really impressive aspects of Ayler’s music is its variety. Each of Ayler’s records is a separate and distinct achievement, rather than merely another example of one particular style. Although this record is, as I have suggested, less of an achievement than Ayler’s other records it is nevertheless evidence of his continually fresh approach. He plays one or two phrases which recall similar ideas on “Spiritual Unity”, but otherwise all his ideas are not only different in shape but also in character, in order to fit the usually quite different character of the improvisation. The same can be said of Ayler’s instrumental tone, over which he seems to have an extraordinary degree of control, being able to make it sound remarkably like that of a bugle for the brass-band style sections in his later records, or on the other hand producing sounds which have been compared to an electronic foghorn and an express train coming down the line. These unusual sounds are almost always entirely appropriate to Ayler’s melodic and rhythmic ideas, although on this record there are some examples of a lapse in taste, where an extreme tonal effect is used rather pointlessly. In general however one can say that it is very much in keeping with the totally different character of the music that the quite hard and dry tone used for the highly disciplined performance of “Spiritual Unity” has been replaced by a very much more romantic type of tone, which often tends to stray into self-parody. Most of Ayler’s work seems very serious, fundamentally joyful in the feeling of release that it conveys, but having little use for humorous touches. On this record however, as well as on “Ghosts” can be found examples of the “black humour” which Terry Martin has referred to in connection with Ayler.
Danish Debut Deb 144, Fontana 688 606ZI
THE element of parody mentioned with regard to “New York Eye and Ear Control” seems fairly strong throughout most of this record. This can be seen immediately by comparing the two versions of the theme Ghosts on this record with the two versions on the earlier Spiritual Unity on E.S.P. Whereas the 2nd Variation in particular used the theme to create a tremendously impressive musical structure of great emotional force, on this later recording Ayler seems quite unwilling to take the theme seriously at all. The 1st Version has no real improvisation, being no more than a rather ironic statement of the theme which alternates between a slow-tempo romantic style and sudden dramatic speeding-up. The 2nd Version has a solo from Ayler which in its way is as brilliant as that on Spiritual Unity, but which has very little in common with it in style or mood. Here the solo begins, as did the earlier versions, with a rephrasing of the theme, and then develops away from the theme. Whereas, however, the paraphrasing of the theme on E.S.P. was deeply serious, in a brooding vein, here Ayler parodies the theme and then develops this into a sort of rhythmic game. Seeming to tire of this, he changes direction rather suddenly (although admittedly maintaining the thematic development) to build up to a powerful climax of strong rhythmic figures making use of the upper register. The tension then flags a little before he moves into a wild rhythmic figure which he exploits extremely well when he rapidly alternates snatches of melody in the lower and extreme high registers, a device he uses elsewhere but which gains additional strength here from the fact that these pieces of melody are set to this same exciting rhythm. Out of this confused turmoil of melodic shapes Ayler fashions a line and carries on with his thematic development, the solo tailing off in a fairly satisfying anti-climax. The solo certainly has its weak spots, not being very systematically developed, at least by Ayler’s standards, and not having the same consistency of mood as Ayler’s other solos. It does fit into the mood of this particular record, however, in its rather uneasy combination of tremendous emotional climaxes and humorous or satirical elements.
This is not to suggest that the grim and the grotesque are the only aspects to this record. The humour is often lighthearted, as in the typical touch of wit from Don Cherry, (who is retained on trumpet to make a quartet) when, at the end of Children he adds a single squeak after it has finished on a serious note. And Ayler himself either makes a mistake on Vibrations or makes fun of his own use of extreme registers by not articulating quite as one would expect the last in the series of leaps from the extreme low register to the high. It is difficult to tell as Ayler’s technique, possibly due to his placing ever-greater demands upon it, does not sound quite as sure on this record as on the earlier ones: in Ayler’s solo on Ghosts one or two of the high harmonies come out rather weakly.
Of all Ayler’s records this is possibly the most disturbing and the least satisfying. There is one track, Mothers, which I find particularly enigmatic: I honestly cannot decide whether to take it seriously or not. It consists of a rather appealing theme, played straight by Ayler, but with a really grotesque tone, using a quavering vibrato, which strongly suggests that this is sheer parody. All the time however there is something in Ayler’s phrasing which is in dead earnest and even strangely moving. Don Cherry plays an obviously quite serious and well-developed trumpet solo, as does Gary Peacock on bass. Ayler returns in even more romantic vein, in between shrieks and cries at the end of each line from himself and Cherry, but they suddenly go into a wild double-tempo which effectively removes any suspicion that the performance might be intended seriously. After this brief double-tempo section however the mood becomes serious again and the performance ends in a restrained and acceptably serious tone.
This listener is frankly baffled. One explanation does however spring to mind. In an interview with Nat Hentoff in Down Beat, Ayler said that he wanted to make use of simple melodies “that people can hum” in order to introduce his listeners to “the more complex sounds”, adding “I’m trying to communicate to as many people as I can”.
The first version of Ghosts on this record seems clearly intended as a simple introductory piece. Is Mothers at all similar? Ayler’s idea perhaps of a more approachable performance? Certainly this explains Ayler’s frequent use of simple thematic material, and his almost exaggerated care, on Spiritual Unity particularly, to relate the more complex textures of his improvisation to the themes.
This record certainly has confusing aspects, it is not a completely satisfying record. Nevertheless it is certainly by no means a poor set of performances. There is in fact a tremendous force and energy behind Ayler’s playing here which makes up for anything it lacks in consistency of mood or development. In dealing with Ayler’s earlier records I have suggested Ayler’s playing is lacking in rhythmic drive although not in ease and relaxation. In fact on this record Ayler generates at times a very powerful swing, while at other times pouring out almost arrhythmic streams of notes.
This tremendous energy communicates itself to the rhythm section, and instead of the usual introspective mood of a modern bass solo, with every note weighed carefully, Gary Peacock actually builds up considerable rhythmic excitement in his solo on the 2nd Ghosts, while his accompaniment as well as that of Murray is strongly rhythmic, especially on Vibrations.
This performance, which is another version of the Spirits from “Spiritual Unity”, is about the most successful performance on the record, being significantly completely different in approach from that earlier version. Whereas previously it was a vehicle for the careful formal exercise which I have described, here it becomes a collective improvisation between Ayler and Cherry which rapidly forgets the theme and in every respect resembles the extended collective improvisations in “New York Eye and Ear Control”. Unlike them however this performance fairly gallops along. Lightened at one point by the touch of humour mentioned above, it nevertheless sustains the tension throughout its length, even though the mood becomes reflective at moments, and it effectively contradicts almost everything I have said about collective improvisation within the New Thing. Not quite everything, however, because it owes its success largely to the strongly implied 4/4 time, which, as I have suggested, remains a necessity even in the New Thing. The sheer momentum generated is tremendous, and the rhythm section maintains it during its own “solo” spot, instead of contributing the usual out-of-tempo improvisation.
Much the same momentum characterises Ayler’s solo on Children. He gets away to a good start with Don Cherry playing variations on the theme in support of him. Unfortunately both on this track and on the 2nd Ghosts Don Cherry contributes a solo which is rhythmically weak and in the latter case repetitive and uninventive melodically as well, so that both these performances would have petered out but for Peacock’s bass solos. Cherry redeems himself however by his well-developed and beautifully expressive solo on Holy Spirit.
This track is a very fine performance, full of intense lyricism, on the part of both Ayler and Cherry. It is also interesting from a formal point of view, in that a “cry” is introduced into the theme statement and repeated as a motif throughout Ayler’s solo. Something similar happens with Vibrations, in which a highly intense motif taken from the theme is introduced by Ayler whenever the performance shows the slightest sign of flagging. In this more reflective performance however the motif serves to divide Ayler’s solo into sections and allows Ayler to change the mood and development of his improvisation without the change seeming arbitrary. Ayler makes a poor start to his solo with some rather obvious phrasing, but recovers to build a well-developed statement in each “section” of his solo, the mood shifting in a satisfying way from anger to resignation, albeit a highly intense kind of resignation!
It should in fact be clear enough that in its way this is a great record, in spite of its faults. Like each of the records under discussion, it has a quite distinct character, in this case having a vitality which makes up for an occasional lack of discipline or taste. Like the other records it is an achievement which Ayler seems unlikely to repeat.
I am inclined to attribute the inconsistencies of these performances to the fact that this record seems to represent something of a transitional stage between Ayler’s approach on “Spiritual Unity” and his approach on the records which he made the next year, of which the “live” recording “Bells” is the best example. The change in style is in fact a considerable one to have taken place in such a short time.
Jazz Monthly (No. 153, November, 1967) - UK
[also available as a .pdf download)
ALBERT AYLER—CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION? (3)
BY W. A. BALDWIN
Impulse A-90, HMV CLP 1932
I HAVE pointed out that on his 1965 recordings Ayler’s style shows considerable development when compared with his earlier work. On this single Ayler performance, the highlight of an anthology LP, the new style is not quite developed to perfection, but is sufficiently formed for its main characteristics to be apparent. It is clear that Ayler is concerned with an even more intense emotional expression than can be found on his earlier recordings. The subtlety and rhythmic complexity of “Spiritual Unity” have been replaced by a more directly forceful style, with a more obvious motivic development and more straightforward accenting. The directness of this style is reinforced by Ayler’s abandonment of the earlier tendency to slur together lines of notes. Here the notes are articulated often at great speed, which adds to the tension, but each note in addition is struck with a sharp clarity which is consistent with Ayler’s tendency to avoid any kind of ambiguity. Most obviously of all, Ayler’s tone, which on earlier recordings is capable of many different shadings, assumes on these recordings a strident, imperious quality which makes them particularly daunting to the newcomer. The emotional climate is kept at its most intense by a more general use of the extreme high register.
Whether this change of emphasis represents an advance on his earlier achievements or a decline must remain a matter of personal opinion. There is no doubt that this new style is in some ways very limited. The more straightforward development means a loss in the variety of the ideas precious found in a solo, and can lead to banal repetition of the sort which I earlier accused John Tchichai of falling into. Most of the time however, Ayler’s imagination allows him to surprise the listener even when repeating one basic idea in a number of consecutive phrases. As I have said, he already tended in his earlier work to do this by means of finding the unexpected interval, making particular use of sudden changes of register, and by his timing. Ayler’s very fine sense of timing and phrasing does suffer a little on the later recordings due to the greater number of notes that he plays: however the fact that his playing is more straightforward rhythmically tends to result in a more powerful swing, accentuated on this record by Lewis Worrell’s steady bass line.
Other disadvantages of this approach, beside the restricted imagination, on a melodic and rhythmic level, and Ayler’s less varied use of tonal effects, are to be found in Ayler’s virtual abandonment of his earlier extremely sensitive use of dynamics, replaced by a tendency to blow at maximum volume all the time and the lack of variety of mood implied above. This is not to suggest that the prevailing mood is desperately sad. As I made clear with regard to his earlier recordings, a sort of fierce joy comes from the release in this uninhibited manner of such strong emotion.
While I myself tend to regret the limitations of this style, I must admit to being hardly conscious of them while actually listening to Ayler’s solos, except when the tension is not entirely sustained throughout. I think there is a parallel here with bebop, also a limited form of music, the limitations of which are nevertheless easily overlooked when one is listening to a soloist of such emotional force and unflagging inventiveness as Charlie Parker.
Certainly Ayler’s inventiveness does not let him down on Holy Ghost. The performance begins with a very simple rhythmic figure used as a theme, which Don Ayler (trumpet) then expands but does not take up as the basis for the development of his solo. This solo, his first on record, does not in fact seem to be developed along any very clear lines at all, and turns out to be merely a collection of his favourite phrases. An interesting device is used for Albert Ayler’s entry, a sort of “semi” stop-time in which the bass carries on with its normal accompaniment while Sonny Murray lays out. The horns play stop-time figures, first Don Ayler (ending his solo) and then Albert Ayler (beginning his). This device is repeated in the tenor solo, when Albert Ayler builds up considerable tension by setting stop-time figures to the strongly rhythmic accompaniment of bassist Lewis Worrell.
A cello solo from Joel Freedman follows. He leans predictably quite strongly on a Bartok influence but his playing shows a good sense of jazz rhythm, being quite free and relaxed, and although it does not match the intensity of Ayler’s his solo is well sustained and the change of mood is in fact timely. Lewis Worrell follows with a solo which is very much in the same vein as his accompaniment throughout the performance, with a strong but supple beat, and just a suggestion of a Latin flavour (!). By comparison Sonny Murray’s accompaniment on this recording does not seem to help the soloists very much, and seems to have become merely a background of percussive effects. This is a tendency which showed itself in his earlier work but which seems to dominate his style on the 1965 recordings, so that he gives the soloists only very brief and intermittent rhythmic support. Perhaps this is a rash judgement, as he is not very well recorded: at least I suspect that a better recording of Murray’s contribution might reveal more than is immediately obvious from these records.
The performance concludes with a fairly brief section of collective improvisation, which seems to have little continuity on a thematic level, or rapport between the different horns, so that apart from the 4/4 time and although there are some interesting melodic fragments, it seems in parts little more than noise. In spite of this I find it exciting to listen to, but I find it difficult to understand why. I suspect that the reason lies in its position rather than anything else: it seems a fitting conclusion to a performance in which the most powerful emotion has been built up to by a logical and therefore acceptable development (in Albert Ayler’s solo)—since the tension has been raised to such a point the incoherence of the collective section is less important; the ground work, the development of a musical argument which will convince the listener, has already been done, and no further logical development is required.
This seems to me at least to be the probable reason why such an essentially incoherent passage in a performance is acceptable. It is significant that when Ayler recorded for BBC-2 he made the mistake of opening his performance with a couple of minutes of this collective playing, which then seemed merely absurd: in spite of myself I couldn’t help sharing the general amusement. So although this collective playing may be at times appropriate in the context of a particular performance, it certainly does not seem to be able to stand up by itself, and it is in fact more acceptable as a rule if it is fairly short in duration, and preferably held together somewhat by having one or two recognizable motifs—the similar sections on Bells and Spirits Rejoice are better in this respect.
As far as Ayler’s own playing is concerned it must be admitted that on this record he shows little of his usual technical command. Whether because of a bad reed, or whether he was pushing his technique beyond its limits, his solo here is distinguished by some untypical clinkers. Quite a few notes are badly articulated, one or two coming out as little more than escaping air, and another note although perfectly played hardly sounds like the right one. Much play is made by opponents of the New Thing of the fact that it is impossible, from a technical point of view, to point out that any particular note is wrong. This does not mean that New Thing musicians can get away with a lack of instrumental control: the listener can still say what sounds wrong to him, which after all is what matters. It is certainly apparent to me that apart from the one or two very slight lapses on Ghosts and the more serious failings here, Ayler’s command of all registers of his instrument is absolute, his most recent recording of all, Spirits Rejoice, showing a mastery of the tenor saxophone which will probably never be equalled.
Apart from this uncertainty of his technique Ayler plays on Holy Ghost one of his finest individual solos. The performance as a whole is surpassed by the later Bells only because the contributions of the other musicians, particularly Don Ayler, are greatly improved.
THIS record has achieved some notoriety due to its ridiculously short playing time, only being recorded on one side. In spite of this it is a record well worth obtaining, as it represents what is possibly Ayler’s greatest achievement. The most striking aspect of it is the very conciseness that Ayler has achieved in his solos. It has long been a myth, assiduously promoted by some of the more-or-less professional opponents of the New Thing, that over-long solos are an intrinsic part of the style. In fact of course jazz musicians have probably always played much longer in “live” conditions than their recordings suggest, and the coming of the LP record has allowed longer performances and therefore longer solos to be preserved. While there have been plenty of New Thing musicians who have shared the modern tendency to put on record long solos which are often, though not invariably, very loosely constructed, such musicians (Coltrane is a good example) have usually been conventional modernists attempting to arrive at a coherent “free” jazz style by means of continual and frequently lengthy experiment.
Although his own writings can sometimes suggest that he is in favour of the experimenters, it is Max Harrison who has pointed out in this magazine (January 1967) the non-experimental nature of all really creative art. Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, are, I feel, the most creative musicians within the New Thing, and it is significant that neither of them is given to long-winded soloing or to any kind of “casting around quite aimlessly” which, as Max Harrison remarks is what the real experimenter does.
A re-assessment of the real nature of the New Thing is, as I have earlier suggested, long overdue. The general idea that the New Thing musicians have expanded still further the freedom gained by jazz musicians as a progressive development throughout jazz, seems to me to be rather wide of the mark. The freedom from conventional ideas of pitching, intonation etc. allegedly gained by the New Thing musicians is in fact found with many New Orleans musicians and blues singers. It has become less apparent in later developments in jazz, a tendency which reached its highest point perhaps in the ‘50s with the widespread notion that it was necessary for jazz musicians to have a classical training, which seems in retrospect to have resulted in a generation of poor jazzmen if good musicians. Although of course such an undeniably important figure as Cecil Taylor has a classical training, the general tendency in the New Thing has been nothing more than to restore the original situation where musicians handled their instruments as they pleased. So much for the exponents of theories of a continuous development in jazz. I am going to suggest, and I consider Bells to be a powerful piece of evidence, that the real tendency of the New Thing, first apparent in the work of Ornette Coleman, and reaching its highest point in Albert Ayler, has been not to reach towards a greater degree of freedom, even though their own statements may suggest this, but rather to replace the existing form of modern jazz, which was becoming excessively free, with a different but essentially more disciplined approach. It is certainly true that they have cast aside such conventions as they find unhelpful but it seems clear to me that the modernist improvising on an “advanced” chord sequence has a greater choice of potential melodic lines than an Albert Ayler improvising a strict motivic development, and I suspect that this freedom is largely responsible for the failure of most modernists to develop an individual style. After all, if we consider what modernists are trying to do it is really rather astonishing. Spurning (in the case of most of them) any help from the original melody, they set out to improvise new melodic lines over a chord-sequence. One needs no knowledge of harmony to see that this chord sequence becomes less of a guide to the improviser the more we advance along the “evolutionary path”. The New Orleans or Swing improvisation has a form more-or-less imposed on it by the shape of the original melody—this becomes less and less the case until with a Coltrane there is virtually no form imposed on the music at all—he must find his own. And while there are musicians able to really improvise fresh ideas and create a self-contained structure, they are far outnumbered by those who string together conventional phrases in no particular order beyond that of conforming to the increasingly loose structure of the chord sequence. Many modernists, evidently desiring to avoid the conventional phrases, have sought refuge in pushing even further the supposedly logical evolution of jazz, in more dissonant harmonies, in more self-consciously complex rhythms. Examples can be found in the work of Coltrane, of (to a certain extent at least) Cecil Taylor, and of the Blue Note school already dealt with briefly. Another parallel but opposite approach is a complete break with tradition resulting in something near to anarchy. The “Free Form” of Joe Harriott in this country as well as the work of some lesser American musicians are examples, but it must be said that these two tendencies, although seemingly opposed, often have much the same result. With such a performance as Les Noirs Marchant from Hutcherson’s “Dialogue” (Blue Note) complexity might be said to have been developed to a meeting-point with confusion. Other modernists have tried to find the answer to their dilemma by combining jazz with classical music, early and modern, with Indian music and various other different musical traditions.
I may be wrong, but I am inclined to doubt that the hard strivings of any of these gentlemen will ever allow them to achieve the easy freedom found with Coleman and Ayler. This real freedom is achieved by carefully avoiding anything which is either completely random or contrived, and simply allowing their own sense of form to dictate to them what is logical and appropriate. They are not concerned with performing to any formula or system, but simply with making a complete, self-contained statement. This concern leads them to be more systematic in reality than those who are trying to adhere to a formula. That this sense of form is evidently merely instinctive does not make it any less real, and, as I have said, this record is the most conclusive possible proof of that.
Bells consists of three separate pieces. The first is based on the same “theme” as Holy Ghost and is opened by a short section of collective improvisation which does not add up to much but launches Don Ayler on a very good trumpet solo, a very imaginative development of a deliberately restricted range of ideas. Don Ayler’s imagination is largely directed towards rhythmic reorganization rather than melodic inventiveness as such. Indeed he tends to avoid inventing new melodic lines, and seems concerned with building a solo out of some particular idea. And he builds very strongly in fact, sustaining interest right throughout his solo; there is no anti-climax towards the end of this solo, which is interrupted (doubtless intentionally) by Albert Ayler, who begins by making use of material similar to that of Don Ayler and then develops away from this to make a brilliantly logical construction. This solo, I feel, merits close examination, for it expresses as coherently as it does its very powerful emotional message because of its fine construction, which relies mainly on strictly motivic development, as well as to some extent on traditional “call-and-response” patterns. The solo consists of twenty-two phrases, the relationships between them being indicated below:
1 An idea based on an idea in Don Ayler’s solo.
2 Based on first phrase.
3 Based on first two, but the second half extended with a striking interval to form a new idea. (Given further prominence by strong accent).
4 New idea in second half of phrase 3 used to begin new line.
5 Carries on from phrase 4 but also refers back to Don Ayler’s original idea.
6 Develops from phrase 5, but the second half resembles the last part of phrase 3.
The first six phrases form an interesting structure. It should be clear that Ayler uses the device, in order to give emphasis to an idea, of making it the culmination of two separate developments (a device he also uses in his second solo). In this case the idea shared by the latter half of phrases 3 and 6 is to form the basis of the subsequent motivic development and therefore needs to be well stressed. To continue:
7 Consists of last part of phrases 3 and 6 played twice (modified slightly).
8 Idea repeated again three times in modified form but forming a quite different phrase.
9 Carries on from 8 but makes use of repeated extremely high note to build tension. Whole phrase in extreme high register.
Throughout these three phrases tension is heightened by a progressive rise to the higher harmonies of which Ayler is capable.
10 Coming down the scale a little. Forms a “response” to phrase 9.
11 Developed from a figure at the end of 10.
12 This phrase seems very appropriate but more difficult to explain why. To a certain extent it is a response to 11, but I think it is also effective due to a contrast between its three lower-register “honks” (which form a strongly rhythmical figure) and the earlier higher register, almost arrhythmic lines.
13 Repeat of l2.
14 Based clearly on 12/13.
15 Based on 14, but played more rapidly and rising to the higher register.
16 Another slight variation, played more rapidly and pitched higher.
17 Speeded up further still, pitched even higher.
Another climax is prepared by a progressive rise to the upper register. This may seem a rather obvious device on paper, but is effective in practice. Ayler repeats the same idea but finds interesting slight variations each time. The climax then arrives.
18 Develops out of previous figure, makes use of leap down to lower register, repeated but with lesser interval the second time. The two lower notes are stressed and played with powerful intonation, and make a rhythmic figure which recalls that in 12. Ayler makes the most of this idea.
19 Near-repeat of 18.
20 19 speeded-up and extended—intervals becoming closer and rising again to upper register.
21 Developed out of second half of 20—”response” to it (anti-climactic).
22 Based on 21, but restores some tension, is interrupted by Charles Tyler playing alto.
Thus the performance passes on to the next solo while maintaining considerable tension, which Tyler is in fact unable to keep up, as although he plays some good ideas his solo is not so perfectly organised as Ayler’s.
Jazz critics, it has been pointed out, often use superlatives excessively, and one which is used very often and is in fact least often appropriate to an improvisation is to say that “every note counts”. This is one of the very, very few solos of which that is really true.
The first number concludes with two more collective improvisations separated by a bass and drums section. These collective improvisations are reasonably coherent and effective, being dominated by repeated motifs. In the second Charles Tyler reintroduces a phrase from his solo as a basis for further development, and this tends to give some unity to the performance.
The second number is a solo by Albert Ayler at a slow tempo. Again the solo is beautifully developed, continually shifting in mood while held together by the thematic link between each phrase and the next, with one recurring motif used very effectively throughout the solo. One might regard this motif as the theme. It is suggested in the opening phrase, but there is no separate, stated theme.
As mentioned above, Ayler makes use of the device used in the opening phrases of his first solo of emphasizing an idea by leading up to it twice. Here this becomes a means of ending the performance in a very satisfying way. Ayler builds up to a very fine, lyrical phrase which seems a fitting conclusion to the solo, but then returns to play a variation on his previous development and lead back to the same phrase, thereby giving it a greater air of finality. A very fine performance, and a fairly approachable one, as Ayler’s tone avoids its occasional over-ripe romantic flavour on slow numbers and, on the other hand, the aggressive quality of his tone on the other sections of this record.
The third performance, which I believe is the one really called Bells, is based on brass band motifs. I think it is probably a head arrangement, as it does not sound improvised. Each horn takes a solo which is not based on the brass band themes, but is nevertheless thematic in its development, each soloist seeming to start off at random but throwing up a theme in the course of his solo. Ayler takes the first solo and I could analyse it in the same way as his solo on the first number, as it is quite as well developed, although a little too repetitive in parts. Charles Tyler’s solo is again a little disorganized but shows promise in his melodic inventiveness. Don Ayler’s solo is more inventive in the conventional sense than his first solo, not being based on such restricted material and showing a considerable melodic gift. A really wild collective section concludes the performance, being followed by a brief recapitulation of the brass-band style theme. Once again Charles Tyler introduces the same motif from the first number into the collective improvisation, which makes one suspect that this is a deliberate means of tying together the performance as a whole.
This is a record which repays the most careful listening. It certainly makes nonsense of those usual critical clichés which I referred to when beginning this study of Ayler’s work. Any critic who maintains in the face of this record that Ayler’s playing is “lacking in form” simply testifies to his own inability to listen.
As I pointed out with regard to Spiritual Unity, Ayler’s concern with form is not a merely pedantic approach. This record is a tremendously powerful experience because the tremendously powerful feeling behind it is contained in such a satisfying form. Each of Ayler’s solos on this record is a perfect statement, a quality only found in the very greatest improvisations. More often we have to accept a certain degree of incoherence in a jazz performance because of its other virtues, such as spontaneity and directness of feeling: only a masterpiece combines real improvisation with perfect form.
AFTER Bells this record is perhaps understandably something of a disappointment. Two of the tracks, Holy Family and Angels seem intended purely as light relief, and although quite enjoyable as such, serve to fill out the playing time without really adding very much to the record. Of the remaining three numbers the title track is the longest, but is largely occupied by Ayler’s brass band style playing. While again I must admit to enjoying this, it does not have the powerful emotional impact of the Ayler brothers’ soloing. I was frankly not inclined to take it at all seriously when I first heard it on Bells: subsequent developments, such as the BBC-2 recording, suggest that the Aylers take this side of their playing very seriously indeed. As a serious piece of music in brass band style I think Spirits Rejoice is superior to Bells, but here as before there is a clash of mood between the brass band passages and the solos, which except for Don Ayler’s are not based on the themes. It is in fact rather strange to note that on this record in general Albert Ayler is pretty convincingly cut by his brother. Don Ayler is willing to make use of the theme as a starting point for each of his solos, and his solo on D.C. is really a magnificent example of the way in which his great imagination can make a solo of considerable variety out of deliberately limited material. On this track Albert Ayler also builds off the theme to good effect. There are one or two things about his playing, especially on Spirits Rejoice and Prophet which rather tend to spoil their development. Ayler shows a tendency to overdo the lower-register “honks” as well as to indulge in a fair amount of mere repetition. The fact that he also plays some of his most brilliant ideas on record makes up for this to some extent, but at times his usual rhythmic assurance lets him down a little. His solos on Spirits Rejoice and Prophet are not very strongly rhythmic at all in places and he is quite awkward in his phrasing towards the beginning of the otherwise very fine D.C. solo. Charles Tyler does not justify much of the promise he showed on the earlier recording, his two solos, on the title track and on D.C., not being very brilliant although the latter has some unity of construction, being based around one particular sound. Unfortunately this sound becomes rather tiresome as we are offered little else.
Prophet, another performance based on the theme of Holy Ghost and the first part of Bells, is interestingly different in that the theme is re-iterated throughout the performance, helping to tie it together. As indicated above, Albert Ayler’s two solos alternate between mediocrity and brilliance. Don Ayler seems more dependable and consistent on this form, although he is never as exciting as his brother is at his best. The sections of collective improvisation, which conclude this track and Prophet are not very coherent but seem appropriate after the tension generated in the solos.
The presence of two basses makes it difficult (with my monaural copy) to comment upon their work. However one of the basses which I think is Henry Grimes, plays a strongly rhythmic accompaniment on D.C. Fairly strong rhythmic support is also given on Prophet but comparatively little on the solos from the title track. There are a couple of good bass solos on D.C., which I take to be by Grimes and Peacock in that order. Once again Sunny Murray’s contribution seems to have more dramatic than musical effect, although again his contribution may be greater than the recording allows us to hear; nevertheless it is superior to Bells in this respect.
Jazz Monthly (No. 155, January, 1968) - UK
ALBERT AYLER—CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION? (4)
BY W. A. BALDWIN
IT should be clear that I regard these L.P.’s as a very satisfying body of work, especially considering the short period which they cover. I believe that I have judged them by the most demanding standards, possibly to the extent of being unfair to some of Ayler’s recordings. This is particularly the case with some of the performances which I have described as comparatively formless: I think that even the worst of them is far from being totally incoherent, and indeed some listeners may prefer these solos with a looser structure, and regard the solos on “Bells” or “Spiritual Unity” as over-organised and lacking in spontaneity.
I mentioned earlier Ayler’s BBC2 recording which I had the good fortune to attend. This was sympathetically reviewed by Ronald Atkins in Jazz Monthly, and I agree with his review in general, but I must differ on one or two points. It is not true to say that the solos played by the Ayler brothers were just noise, without the “merest kind of structure”. I must admit that Albert Ayler’s soloing meant little to me (although I should prefer to check my impressions with a second hearing before committing myself), but Don Ayler on trumpet seemed to me to play a couple of quite coherent solos, even if he did go on a little too long.
Ronald Atkins was certainly correct in pointing out the change in emphasis in Ayler’s approach in that the brass band passages found on his last two records have been greatly expanded, becoming collective improvisations in a style based on the New Orleans brass bands. Nevertheless I do not feel that such a development is inconsistent with Ayler’s earlier work. In dealing with the Danish Debut/Fontana L.P. “Spirits”, I drew attention to the “archaic” phrasing, the almost anti-modern approach, particularly on Witches and Devils from this album. In spite of this, when first hearing the brass band passages in Bells, I enjoyed them without taking them seriously, and I still cannot take them seriously. It is my belief that Ayler started out by parodying the brass band style in an affectionate sort of way: but on the BBC-2 recording the improvisations were serious and quite profound, although lacking the intensity of Ayler’s solo work.
I think that the reason for this development lies in the nature of Ayler’s style on the 1965 recordings as opposed to the earlier ones. As I have pointed out, this style is in many ways rather limited. It takes the form of solos of great intensity and brevity. It would clearly be impossible to make up a whole programme of such solos. Therefore I believe that the brass band passages, as well as such pieces as Holy Family and Angels from “Spirits Rejoice”, were introduced by way of light relief, and they are effective as such. The reason why these passages have turned into serious improvising (previously they seemed to be pure routine) is, I consider, to be found in my discussion of collective improvising within the New Thing. It is clear that Ayler is concerned with making collective improvisation work, and because it does not work very well when it is really free, as on “New York Eye and Ear Control”, Ayler has turned to base his collective improvising on the New Orleans mdoel, which after all is the obvious model for anyone attempting this kind of improvising.
While Ayler’s borrowings from New Orleans jazz are selective (he is hardly likely to break into an up-tempo Tiger Rag) I still agree with Ronald Atkins that the resulting performances have something of a split personality, due to the obvious differences in style and mood between the collective improvisations and the solos. And I am also inclined to agree with his prediction that Ayler will develop the ensemble style into something more personal and more in keeping with the rest of his music.
At the beginning of this account of Ayler’s work I promised a re-assessment of the New Thing: as I have pointed out however, in my letter to this magazine (printed in the February edition) there is a great danger in generalising about the New Thing because the description seems to cover a wide diversity of different approaches. Nevertheless I shall try to clarify a little my own view of the movement. Firstly, I am convinced that the usual way of looking at the New Thing as a sort of extra-complicated Modern Jazz is largely false. The Parker influence is admittedly strong in Ornette Coleman, but it is tempered with folk-music and blues influences, while such musicians as Archie Shepp and Ayler seem to have avoided modernist influences to a remarkable degree, so that one is led to consider the possibility that this avoidance is conscious. It is clear that the Free Jazz style has its roots in the whole of jazz, and it shows every sign of being a rejection, to some extent, of certain tendencies in Modern Jazz, particularly the tendency towards complexity for its own sake. Archie Shepp has expressed this view very clearly in Down Beat (January 14, 1965):
“The new music reaches back to the roots of what jazz was originally. In a way, it’s a rebellion against the ultrasophistication of jazz.”
Shepp’s argument is too long to reproduce here but it is well worth looking at. Although I do not regard Shepp as a creative artist on the level of Coleman or Ayler, this may well turn out to have been the most significant single comment on the New Thing. I suspect that Ornette Coleman, as the first of the Free Jazz players (if we exclude the doodlings of the “cool” men) is important not only because he has developed an original and exciting style but because he has done so without making things more difficult for himself. This holds out considerable hope for the future of jazz, which Coleman, if he is followed by the majority of musicians, will have diverted from the path of ever-increasing (and self-defeating) complexity. The ultimate working-out of this latter tendency can, as I have said before, be found today particularly in the work of the “Blue Note” school. The jerky rhythms, the frequent near-incoherence of the final result, all this seems to me to suggest that there is no future at all in the complex approach. It is a mistake to regard this music as ‘transitional”, as bridging the gap between conventional Modern Jazz and the New Thing. In fact it seems to be in total opposition to “Free Jazz”. The more complex such efforts become, the less they resemble the approach of Coleman or Ayler.
It may seem to the reader that I am drawing some rather fine distinctions here. After all, I myself have referred to Ayler’s “complex patterns of cross-rhythms”. The distinction is admittedly not obvious to the casual listener, but is nonetheless extremely important. Ayler often plays phrases which are complex in themselves, but he does not relate in any way to the technique of the latter-day modernists, which is to start off by establishing a complex set of cross-rhythms and then try (hopefully) to fit the actual phrases in as best they can. By contrast with Ayler, the Blue Note men often end up with phrases of banal simplicity (take for example the worst moments of Hat and Beard from the already-mentioned “Out to Lunch” album).
This writer is convinced that with the encouragement of the critics, perhaps even due to the encouragement of the critics, jazz has been headed up a blind alley even since the innovations of the boppers. That critics have failed to see this is, I believe, largely due to a mistaken view of jazz rhythm. The mistake was, as far as I know, originally, and quite ironically, made by Rudi Blesh, who in his advocacy of the merits of New Orleans jazz, claimed to hear in it complex cross-rhythms. Since that time, jazz critics have always been happy to be able to report the existence of cross-rhythms in a jazz performance. Blesh was, of course, mistaken: New Orleans jazz betrays less signs of cross-rhythms than any other kind of jazz—nevertheless he seems to have introduced the idea that we should be looking for them, and that we should judge a jazz performance according to whether we find them.
Now of course jazz means something different to every listener, and I can well believe that to some it finds its highest form in a set of rhythmic exercises: this writer is inclined to feel that jazz is primarily a form of musical expression, and that the rhythmic qualities of a jazz musician should be assessed in terms of the rhythmic drive which he is able to generate, of the degree of relaxation which he is able to retain, and above all of the expression and imagination in his phrasing and timing, not in terms of the number of accents which he contrives to displace. Of course individual and imaginative phrasing may involve the displacing of accents, and one can find a great many examples of this in Ayler’s work, but the major talent of many modernists appears to be to avoid placing their accents on the beat, an exercise which does not necessarily involve any control over phrasing.
I should like to advance the opinion that the really important and distinctive thing about jazz rhythm is the freedom which jazz musicians enjoy in terms of phrasing and timing and accenting, when compared with, for example, the performers in European “straight” music. I should further like to suggest that this freedom of phrasing has little to do with freedom from the beat: in spite of being tied to the beat, many New Orleans musicians enjoy a great deal of freedom in their phrasing and in particular in their accenting (of which more later). Nevertheless there are two styles within what I shall call the jazz tradition in which we sometimes, if not very often, find that the requirements of phrasing and timing override the maintainance of a steady beat—the two styles being country blues and the New Thing. What do these two styles have in common? I believe that they both display this occasional characteristic as a result of being relatively independent of the demands of dance music. I am sure that it has nothing to do with being either primitive or ultra- sophisticated. To advance this view is of course to stand in direct contradiction to the usual story about how jazz musicians have progressively gained more freedom from the beat. I believe nevertheless that it is supported by the facts.
It should be clear that by these standards I regard criticisms of the rhythmic simplicity of New Orleans musicians as being entirely irrelevant—I am also less than impressed by the rhythmic daring of the boppers. There is plenty of evidence that their rhythmic complexity was more of a hindrance than a help to really free phrasing— although they were not admittedly in quite the same desperate state as their followers today. Nevertheless even such an undeniably great musician as Parker is not always as relaxed or as authoritative in his phrasing as many commentators would have us believe.
The history of developments in jazz rhythm since the bop era is, to this listener, rather depressing. The initial wildness of the boppers became formalised to an orthodoxy previously unknown in jazz. As far as phrasing goes, the cool school is characterised by a total lack of authority, the impression of groping hesitancy possibly being a mannerism but nevertheless being a symptom of a real lack of purpose; as a reaction against this, the hard boppers developed an equally stereotyped but in this case resoundingly obvious phrasing. Parallel with this came another tendency, namely to avoid phrasing in an obvious way by simply avoiding phrasing at all and just playing as many notes as possible.
Of course it is true to say that in any given style of jazz the majority of musicians phrase in a fairly stereotyped way, and only the outstanding musicians have a very individual phrasing. What is disturbing about recent modern jazz is that although there are individualists in terms of phrasing, it is often difficult to regard them as more creative than the others. The best example of this can be found in Coltrane, who attracted a great deal of favourable critical attention in the late 50’s, largely because his style of phrasing was original: on examination however the “sheets of sound” approach turns out to be nothing other than the above-mentioned tendency to play too many notes taken to its furthest (and most absurd) extreme. Such a performance as Giant Steps appears to be an infallible source of ecstacy to those critics who get their kicks from analysing chord sequences—as a jazz performance it is very near to being grotesque. It is true, of course, that Coltrane moved away from this style, doubtless aware of its limitations, and although his phrasing has often been incoherent—for example in Chasin’ the Trane which was criticised when it came out for every reason except the right one, namely the very poor phrasing—nevertheless one has the impression of a gradual improvement in this respect, and Coltrane’s further development might well have brought some very much more satisfying recordings.
This is mere speculation however, and has nothing to do with our subject, which is the general lack of rhythmic creativity in Modern Jazz. One of the results of the “impasse” which was reached in the 50’s was a tendency to turn to what, in retrospect, can only be seen as slightly desperate measures to try to get away from the orthodox. This has been the era of the odd time signatures, the bossa nova; the thinking behind these moves is clear—if we cannot phrase in an original way by virtue of inspiration, we can at least stop ourselves from phrasing in the same old way by adopting a different rhythm. Significantly, all the most creative of the New Thing musicians have found 4/4 quite adequate for their needs.
The purpose of this long digression is to make clear the contest in which the real importance of the New Thing might become apparent. Most critical comment on the New Thing is entirely on the level of “A is further out than B”. If critics spent less time drawing up charts of the development of jazz, they might well find more time to really listen to the music and discern its real qualities. It is this writer’s view that Coleman and Ayler are the two most important musicians in jazz today not because of any real or imaginary innovations but because they show a real awareness of the ways in which jazzmen express themselves, subtleties of phrasing, of accent, of intonation of which most modernists seem blissfully unaware.
I think that at this stage it might be most instructive to consider the full extent of the innovations which have been credited to the New Thing, in order to see what an uncompromisingly revolutionary movement it is.
First we might consider the “sounds” produced by such as Ayler, the unorthodox effects of intonation which have led to widespread suggestions that Ayler’s music consists of mere noise assemblages. This misconception can only be due to a failure to grasp the melodic and rhythmic development in Ayler’s work. Ayler does nevertheless produce sounds never made before on a saxophone. The interesting thing is that most of Ayler’s sounds have been produced before, but on a trumpet. There is no doubt in my mind that such musicians as Kid Thomas Valentine could easily match Ayler in any sounds-producing contest. The other interesting thing is that New Thing trumpet-players do not even apparently attempt this range of effects. Certainly Don Ayler plays nothing but notes, individually and fairly cleanly articulated notes. I must admit to having been rather amused by all the fuss which has surrounded Don Ellis’s statement that Red Allen was the most avant-garde trumpeter in New York. If the production of unusual tonal effects makes a musician avant-garde, then it is a simple statement of fact.
All that we find, in reality, is that the saxophone has taken over the role of the trumpet—which should not surprise us, since it has become the dominant instrument. Ayler’s range of effects is indeed impressive, but even the most outrageous can be found in earlier styles of jazz. A particular jerky effect (suggestive of stuttering) which Ayler uses is for instance also favoured by Kid Thomas, and something quite similar can be heard on Freddie Keppard’s 1926 recording of It must be the Blues, where Keppard actually selects his notes so as to enhance the effect.
On the first point therefore, concerning those unusual effects, we can hardly credit the New Thing musicians with very much in the way of innovation. And it should be clear from what I have already had to say on the subject that we are going to find even less in the way of rhythmic innovation. While many of their contemporaries are struggling to play in unlikely time signatures, the leading free form stylists seem quite content with 4/4. The freedom from the beat and from a steady tempo which many commentators claim to find in Ayler’s work becomes less apparent with further listening, and it is quite evident to this listener that Ayler’s work not only implies a definite “beat”, but that this beat is maintained throughout his solos with no changes of tempo. It is a remarkable reflection on how one’s listening ability can sharpen that I already feel inclined to withdraw my criticisms of Ayler’s work on Spirits Rejoice on the grounds that it is not very strongly rhythmic, only a few months after having written it. From my own experience I am inclined to suspect that the listener grasps the beat in a jazz performance as much from the shape of the phrases as from any actual accents: perhaps the best example is Lester Young, who can play entirely arhythmic lines which swing like mad as soon as one can appreciate the shape of his phrases. If the listener is unable to deduce the implied rhythm from the shape of the phrases, no particular rhythm is apparent at all. How else can we explain initial dismissal of Pres, of all people, on the grounds that he did not swing?
I think that it is safe to say that most listeners can already appreciate the swing of Ornette Coleman’s playing, whereas until quite recently Coleman’s alleged failure to swing was the principal issue in the controversy that surrounded him. Coleman is actually more unconventional than Ayler, in that he is prepared to change tempo in the middle of a solo, although he uses this device sparingly for the most part.
As I have endeavoured to make clear, the conception of phrasing which we find in the work of Coleman and Ayler is distinctly traditional when compared with the “sheets of sound” approach of Coltrane; one area in which commentators have found a degree of innovation is in the accenting of the New Thing musicians, who make frequent use of percussive accents. This is usually believed to derive from a Monk influence further developed in Cecil Taylor’s work. Now it is true of course that in the context of modern bop-influenced jazz Monk’s use of percussive accents was quite a departure from the norm—indeed it was considered to be quite an eccentricity until comparatively recently. Nevertheless this writer cannot help feeling that the mistake is too commonly made, when assessing the stature as an innovator of a New Thing musician, to compare his work only with Modern Jazz. In fact percussive accents are a fairly common feature of pre-bop piano styles, most particularly boogie. In this latter case it might be argued, with some justificaton, that the use of percussive effects is as much a matter of dynamics as of rhythmic surprise; one can however find plenty of examples in the earliest jazz of the use of such accents for their own sake.
It needs to be pointed out, with regard to Modern and Mainstream jazz, that although the placing of accents in relation to the beat is less predictable than in New Orleans jazz, the actual strength of the individual accents is often very much more predictable. Until the present day, I think that it is true to say that the most imaginative of the New Orleans horns have been almost alone in recognizing the importance of the strength, or, perhaps more accurately, the sharpness of an accent. Two elements are involved in this “sharpness”—the force with which the accent is struck and the length of time for which it is sustained. It has always seemed remarkable to this listener that, in all the discussion surrounding the Hot Fives and Sevens, (including the accusations of rhythmic primitivism), no-one seems to have indicated the real source of the individuality of these recordings, namely the frequently startling use made above all by Armstrong but also by Dodds of accents with a percussive quality. Much the same is true of another highly individual set of recordings, again very much a subject of continual controversy, the Bunk Johnson American Musics, where all three front-line men make highly creative use of this device, even, surprisingly enough, Jim Robinson, on whose other recordings this approach is much less in evidence. A paradox frequently noted with regard to these recordings is that although Bunk’s style is never overtly aggressive, say in the manner of Kid Thomas, these recordings surpass all other recordings in jazz in their powerful drive. It is an imaginative use of percussive or semi-percussive accents, at times almost becoming an interplay of accents between the horns and Baby Dodds on drums, which largely accounts for this drive. In view of these examples, and a great number of other, less remarkable instances, it should be clear that, even in this respect, the New Thing is merely reviving an old technique rather than inventing a new one.
Jazz Monthly (No. 156, February, 1968) - UK
[also available as a .pdf download]
ALBERT AYLER—CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION? (5)
BY W. A. BALDWIN
IT is when we come to the work of the rhythm section that we find a little more in the way of real innovation. Even here however there has been considerable exaggeration of the amount of innovation which has actually taken place. One cannot help suspecting that some critics regard it as their obligation to find new developments even where none exists: how else are we to explain all these references to the elimination of the distinction between the rhythm section and the front line? We are assured that it is now difficult to say who is accompanying whom, that the rhythm section now occupies a position of equality with the horns. Now one can think of examples where the rhythm section dominates the proceedings, but this is invariably when the horns are extremely weak. (Or perhaps the horns are so weak because of the dominance of the rhythm section.) Perhaps I might refer the reader to the review in this magazine of “Barrage” by the Paul Bley Quintet; Max Harrison (in the June 1966 issue) opens with some comments on collective improvisation in the New Thing, and manages to include the inevitable remark that “. . . it becomes absurd to speak of ‘front line’ and ‘rhythm section’ as separate entities”. He goes on however to admit that “the horns . . . actually say very little”; then he concludes by saying that “. . . this record is more attractive for its manner (i.e. the collective improvising) than its matter”. Whilst agreeing entirely with this assessment of the quality of the music, I should like to suggest that it is the manner which is responsible for the low standard of the actual content.
It seems to this listener that on all the most musically worthwhile of the New Thing recordings there is no doubt whatsoever about who is being accompanied and who is doing the accompanying. This is most certainly the case with Ayler, whose solos show a formal perfection which would be impossible if Ayler were prepared to change the course of his solos in order to accommodate every whim of his accompanist.
During the course of this article I have, as I am well aware, tended to avoid discussing in very much depth the work of the rhythm sections on Ayler’s records. This is because quite frankly I find it difficult to discern the underlying principle behind their work. Most of the figures played by Sonny Murray on drums are clearly related to the beat, but do not actually seem to give much consistent rhythmic support. This does not detract as seriously from the records as one might imagine, because Ayler’s rhythmic control is such that he seems quite assured even in passages where he gets no rhythmic support at all. And it is not really so wildly revolutionary either, because the accompaniments that country blues singers give themselves can often amount to a sort of free commentary rather than a rhythmic backing. From my own point of view I should like to hear Ayler with a more positive accompaniment. It can however be said of Murray and the various bassists that their contribution never actually clashes with Ayler’s soloing, which may seem faint praise indeed, but which is really saying quite a lot in view of some of the rhythm sections to be heard today. Murray in particular shows a considerable awareness of dynamics and his frequently simple and repetitive but powerful figures can heighten the effect of a climax. Of the bassists, Lewis Worrell gives the most consistent rhythmic support on Holy Ghost from the “New Wave in Jazz” album. Peacock is the most individual of Ayler’s accompanists, and the one whose ideas can at times seem most independent of Ayler’s soloing, although some of the most memorable moments on Ayler’s records occur when Peacock plays strongly rhythmic but imaginative figures behind him. There is no doubt that today’s rhythm sections have become tired of the stereotyped but efficient devices which constitute standard practice in Modern and Mainstream jazz. There might be some reason for maintaining that in throwing away the rule-book today’s players have made way for some inefficient and even downright unhelpful rhythm section work. This is true enough but to talk about throwing away the rules is rather misleading. The standardised conventions of rhythm section playing have no really universal application. They do not, for example, apply in New Orleans jazz, which might be compared to the New Thing in that the absence of any real accepted practice gives plenty of latitude to an individualist such as Baby Dodds but also allows lesser musicians to get away with some very poor work. It also means that individually fine musicians may prove incompatible. In the dispute surrounding the New Orleans All-Stars, for example, the evidence of the record suggests that Max Harrison was right to criticise the rhythm section. This does not alter the fact that both Frazier and Purnell have been outstanding in other contexts. The danger of incompatibility is very real in free jazz but this is not an insurmountable difficulty, for two reasons. First of all, groups within the new style tend to be organised on a less casual basis than in standard Modern Jazz, so that there is not the same immediate necessity of musicians being able to play together. Secondly, if a leader feels that he is not getting very helpful accompaniment he can always get rid of his accompanists. Critics who speak of anarchy when rules are broken tend to ignore such essentially practical considerations. Rhythm section men today have at least one discipline on their work—they want to keep their jobs.
It has to be admitted that the work of rhythm sections in the New Thing reveals some innovation, although not as much as many commentators seem disposed to claim. There is in this writer’s view only one innovation of importance to be found in the New Thing, and that is the abandonment of the repeated chord sequence as a basis for improvisation. This does not mean, as has been suggested, a complete abandonment of harmony as a structural force: there seems to me to be no doubt that the “call-and-response” patterns to be found in Ayler’s work have a harmonic basis.
I have already stated the case, in dealing with Ayler’s 1965 recordings, for regarding the change from the repeated chord sequence to motivic development as being motivated not by a hankering for musical anarchy but by a desire on the contrary for greater true formal control. In this respect I am very much inclined to welcome Miles Kington’s well- argued article in Jazz Journal entitled “Form in Jazz—if any”. Mr. Kington provides convincing evidence to support the view that as chord sequences have become more “advanced” they have offered less and less formal guidance to the improviser. Seen in this context the abandonment of the chord sequence altogether is, as Mr. Kington points out, merely the next logical step. I cannot altogether agree however with his conclusions. Mr. Kington admits the complete lack of overall shape in modern improvising, but seems to me at least to dismiss in an excessively facile manner the idea that this lack of form might be regarded as legitimate grounds for criticism. Jazz critics, most especially in this magazine, have a tendency to regard the increasing formal looseness found in the development of jazz as a matter of increasing the possibilities of musical surprise. I am of the opinion that this idea is founded upon a misconception. It seems to this listener that a genuine musical surprise comes, not when one has not the slightest idea of what is going to be played next, but when one thinks that one knows what is going to be played next and instead hears something better and more truly appropriate. Perhaps the best example of this might be found in the singing of Billie Holiday. Here, according to the ideas of some critics, might be found the perfect formula for a total absence of surprise. The singer is tied by the words, and cannot make startling departures from the melodic line. Even the phrasing and timing are restricted if the meaning of the words is to be retained (and recordings in which the meaning of the words is sacrificed are comparatively rare). All the evidence is that the very restrictions on the style contribute to her power to really surprise us. It is to some extent because we know that she must sing “I’ll never be the same, since we’re apart” that we are so surprised and delighted when she sings “I’ll never be the same, Since we’re apart”. In the case of much Modern Jazz, we cannot predict what is going to be played next with any degree of certainty, but what has already been played often adds up to so little that it can become rather difficult to care.
This writer is firmly of the opinion that the real importance of the New Thing is that in spite of its complete abandonment of the repeated chord sequence, an increasingly less effective formal device, it does not represent a further formal loosening of jazz improvisation. Indeed the brevity and coherence of Ayler’s best work represent the most effective refutation of the idea that long-winded ramblings are the ultimate logical development of the jazz tradition. In putting forward this idea I presented Ayler’s solo on the first part of Bells as being the most powerful piece of evidence for this point of view. In fact although this solo remains the most remarkable for the brilliant, six-phrase “exposition”, all of Ayler’s solos recorded in 1965, including those on the record “Sonny’s Time Now”, which has become available too late for inclusion in this survey of Ayler’s work, show the most remarkable consistency in terms of development and overall form.
Even this is not in fact the whole answer: freedom from a strict repeated form is found in some examples of country blues, without the suggestion ever having been made that this results in musical anarchy. Furthermore, I cannot help feeling that even New Orleans jazz is less concerned with the European “rules” of musical correctness than many critics have tended to assume. It is true that the music conforms to a regular repeated form, but this is easily explained in view of the origins of the music as an increasingly “free” variant of the standard brass band and dance music. I should like to question whether New Orleans musicians are really absorbed in exploring the simple chord sequences which they make use of, and if so, why they are prepared, by means of off-pitch notes, to introduce discords more startling than any to be found in the New Thing. If New Orleans musicians really set out to play variations on a theme, then it must be said that they do rather badly, for this writer can think of many New Orleans performances which contain nothing very much at all in the way of melodic variations. Modernists will reply that this is because they are not very inventive, but I cannot help feeling that this idea is based on a lack of understanding of the whole point of the style. Many New Orleans musicians, especially those of later generations than the Oliver band, simply do not set out to improvise the maximum number of variations in the course of a performance. Indeed it seems fairly clear that striking melodic variations are deliberately rationed in the course of a performance so that they can be used as a surprise effect, perhaps in combination with another device such as an unusual effect of intonation or an increase in volume, in order to raise the tension at a climactic point. I would like to suggest that if it is true of any jazz style that it is concerned with sounds rather than with notes, it is true of latter-day New Orleans jazz (it is certainly not true of the New Thing). The sound of the band, the sound of the individual musician, these are the things which concern New Orleans musicians much more than any melodic development. By their phrasing, timing, and accenting, the musicians are able to transform the nature of the tunes which they play, the object of the performance being an interplay of tensions brought about by all these means, such melodic variations as there are being just another of these devices, to be used when appropriate.
I am trying to suggest that in abandoning the idea that a jazz performance consists of a set of variations, today’s musicians are not really being so iconoclastic as it might at first appear. The reader may not be inclined to accept my reasoning on this point, but I think that all but the most unreasonable critic of the New Thing must admit that when we take all the innovations with which these musicians have been credited and consider them carefully they do not really amount to very much. I cannot help feeling that it says rather little for the perceptiveness of many jazz commentators that they have been able to regard this movement as related in any way to the self-consciously “different” art-forms which have been dreamed up by the so-called avant-garde in Europe and the United States.
I think that to get the real measure of the conservatism of this movement it is perhaps not sufficient to consider how relatively minor their innovations have been; it is just as instructive to bear in mind some of the innovations which they might have indulged in. An avant-garde, after all, might reasonably have been expected to have introduced some new instruments to jazz. Instead we find that all the musicians of any real standing within the movement play traditional jazz instruments in traditional combinations (there is plenty of precedent for the absence of a piano). There are exceptions to this rule, but, say in the case of Ayler’s use of a harpsichord on Angels, there is little evidence of serious innovation. Not only do the New Thing musicians play traditional instruments, but they are not even concerned with playing them in self- consciously novel ways, such as playing three at a time, or plucking the strings of a piano instead of using the keys. In fact the New Thing musicians can offer no competition in this respect to such fundamentally conventional modernists as Roland Kirk or Charles Lloyd. (Modernists are getting desperate for ideas.)
I think that many critics tend to assume that anything which seems difficult to understand merits the description avant- garde. In fact, contrary to the general belief, avant-garde art is not at all difficult to understand, consisting as it does of little more than a set of standardised gestures. Hence the fact that the Kirks are able to introduce such effects without endangering their popularity in the least. It is not easy to say what makes music difficult or easy to understand. Simple New Orleans jazz or country blues have never enjoyed, and, it is safe to say, never will enjoy, the popularity that supposedly more complex forms have found. I cannot help suspecting that what makes the music of an Albert Ayler difficult to grasp is that it is powerful and meaningful music which requires a strong emotional response. If we ever discover what it is in music that people find easy or difficult, I suspect that the answer will be that most people find something very comforting in mediocrity. Modern Jazz has been able to offer such mediocrity performed at a very high level of competence. It may seem absurd to the reader to make a blanket condemnation of a whole style, and indeed it is. Great art is produced by great individuals, not by conforming to a set of stylistic requirements. It does seem a valid point to this writer, however, that modern Jazz seems to have been a little short of those great individuals.
One particular myth which surrounds the fact that the New Thing is generally found difficult to understand, is that jazz has become a less happy and for that reason less acceptable music. Everyone must have read those little pieces on the theme “Why isn’t jazz happy any more?”; a recent example would be Leonard Feather’s fatuous contribution to the most recent Down Beat year book. In this piece Feather is reduced to claiming that country blues only express sadness or anger in their lyrics, never in the actual music. It we were not already aware of Feather’s lack of appreciation of early jazz and blues, this should be enough to leave us in no doubt. Frankly I am of the opinion that to suggest, as many critics do, that early jazz musicians were unable to offer anything more than a sort of “Good Timey” jollity is insulting in the extreme. Jazz has always struck a balance between the different emotions (it is very rare for a successful jazz performance to be either completely happy or completely sad). I for my part have never noticed that the balance is significantly different as between the very earliest recordings and those of Coleman or Ayler. I am inclined to suspect that those critics who claim otherwise are merely displaying their insensitivity to the work of the New Thing musicians—and in some cases their insensitivity to early jazz as well.
It may be worthwhile to point out, in this respect, that the most vociferous opponents of the New Thing tend to be those whose tastes are most exclusively modernist—the above-mentioned Feather, Ira Gitler, our own Benny Green. It seems fairly clear that for these gentlemen jazz only really began (I mean really began) with Charlie Parker, and perhaps one should not be unduly surprised that it has now ended with Miles Davis. Readers may draw their own conclusions on the qualifications of these self-appointed guardians of the true jazz spirit.
I digress, however, and I wanted, while dealing with this story about how jazz has stopped being happy, to deal with this other one about how jazz these days expresses nothing but race hatred. Readers who have noticed that out of the eight sets of recordings that I have been dealing with in this article six have at least one white musician involved might be surprised to learn that these musicians are merely expressing their hatred for the white man. I must confess that this is one point that I don’t have the answer to, and those doubtful readers would probably do best to write to Stanley Dance, who must have the answer. So one would assume, at least, from his not infrequent remarks on the subject in his Jazz Journal column. Take for example his thoughts for 1966 from the edition of February of that year, where he gives us all the usual stuff about musicians who express “hate and contempt in their music”, and for our further edification goes on to speculate as to whether jazz musicians of the past could ever have harboured any nasty angry feelings. According to Mr. Dance “. . . it is hard to tell how angry Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges, and Harry Carney were in the 1920’s”. This doesn’t prevent Stanley from indulging in a little speculation on their behalf:
“Perhaps they were not too angry then. Perhaps they saw doors opening and a golden future ahead.”
At this stage Mr. Dance is evidently becoming a little carried away with their golden future, so perhaps we ought to interrupt him to make one or two points of our own. First of all, it is quite true that it is hard to tell how angry Earl Hines etc., etc., . . . but I cannot help feeling that Mr. Dance has been, well, rather fortunate in his choice of examples. We do know how angry Billie Holiday was, because we have her Autobiography, which leaves us in little doubt.
We also have some insight into how Roy Eldridge felt. Eldridge of course was always sure that he could tell a white musician from a negro, which we could always regard as a pretty racialist sort of attitude if we had Mr. Dance’s talent for simplifying anything. As it is, we are prepared to suppose that Eldridge’s attitude was more a matter of the reasonable indignation at the insults heaped upon him due to his colour which we find in his piece in “Hear me talkin’ to ya”, a piece which opens with the memorable sentence:
“One thing you can be sure of, as long as I’m in America, I’ll never in my life work with a white band again!”
Anyone who imagines that the further you go back into jazz history the more of an “Uncle Tom” attitude you will find might be surprised at the following quote attributed to Bunk Johnson:
“. . . I’ve played music for white people all over the world and many of my best friends are white. But there’s always somebody who’ll come up and say to you, ‘Hey, nigger, play this’.”
Well, I should think that even Stanley Dance will have got the point by now. Because some (and only some) of today’s musicians are rightly angry about their situation is no reason for them to be caricatured as racialist fanatics, or for their music to be dismissed as outbursts of hatred.
In the course of this article I have offered a view of the New Thing which differs substantially from the usual picture which readers are given of the nature of the movement. I cannot help feeling that this is not so much because my listening experience has been different but because many other critics have been excessively influenced in their attitude towards the New Thing by preconceived ideas. It must be admitted that many remarkably perceptive comments have been made on the music without their authors having been prepared to grasp their full significance. Thus a commentator such as Charles Fox can say of Ornette Coleman that his music is far less adventurous rhythmically than that of Charlie Parker without realising that this represents the best possible justification of his art; Ornette Coleman is not interested in performing any elaborate rhythmic exercises, but in phrasing his ideas in the most expressive and meaningful way. Similarly Max Harrison remarked of a set of New Thing recordings that they almost seemed at times like exercises in “anti-modernist dicta” while remaining apparently oblivious to the implications of this remark. Maybe those “anti- modernist dicta” were not so misguided after all! I have spent some time discussing Ayler’s use of the system of motivic evolution but this is what Michael James must have been referring to when he complained of the Ayler brothers’ failure to vary the content of their phrases. This is true enough: one can only quarrel with the assumption that a jazz performance should consist of the maximum number of ideas strung together, a point of view which seems fairly current in modernist circles, and certainly seems to be the guiding principle behind most modern improvising.
It does appear that many critics find it remarkably easy to confuse the mechanics of a style with its real musical essence. The “soul” movement, in offering up those work-song and gospel clichés merely offered a travesty of those forms, as is generally recognized. Even today however a musician such as Shepp can be absurdly over-praised because of one or two rather obvious references to Ben Webster, while the melodic originality of an Ayler can lead very easily to accusations of deserting the jazz tradition, as if it consisted of a set of familiar phrases.
There may of course be even more sinister implications behind the failure of many critics to appreciate the quality of this music. It is difficult at times not to suspect that critics have become so accustomed to the improvised background music so often offered as jazz that they now find it difficult to recognise the real thing when they hear it. Far from being any sort of avant-garde manifestation, the music of Albert Ayler reaffirms so clearly the most fundamental jazz values that it enables us to raise the question of whether much post-bop jazz does not represent a dilution of those values.
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