Sleeve notes by Joachim-Ernst Berendt:
It’s good they are still talking about Coltrane. But there is one tenor player who is just as great as Trane, and he is the other great tenor voice of the sixties, completely independent of Coltrane: Albert Ayler.
When I think of Trane and Albert the first thing which comes to my mind is that dream Coltrane had when he first heard Ayler in Copenhagen in 1962. That night Coltrane had dreamed he was playing like Ayler. The next day - and again and again during the next couple of weeks - he tried to, but he had to give up. “I just couldn’t do it,” he said.
Maybe we have to ask ourselves: Was Trane aiming at Ayler while everybody else was aiming at Trane? The question makes sense when one remembers how radically Trane changed in 1965. There are parts in “Ascension” (1965) where Coltrane has - almost! - an Ayler sound.
Today - with groups like Air, the World Saxophone Quartet and the Art Ensemble of Chicago - it’s common practice in jazz to play our music’s whole tradition - from New Orleans street parades and funerals through the twenties and thirties to now. Albert Ayler was the first musician to do exactly this. Everybody is considering him a revolutionary but it makes much more sense to see him as a conservative.
In Ayler’s music, people have heard marching bands and gospel songs, Johnny Dodds’ “Too Tight” and George Lewis’ “Burgundy Street Blues”, Sidney Bechet (whom he loved!) and Fats Waller and bluesman Little Walter (with whom he had played in his youth), circus music, waltzes, polkas, folk dances, dirges, Bubber Miley, Tricky Sam Nanton, Southern preachers and barroom blues shouters and subway singers, Charlie Barnet, Freddie Martin and even Mitch Miller... But, as Bernard Lairet pointed out, “his choice of March-like rhythms, simple folkloric melodies and sentimental refrains was not indicative of a certain primitive naiveté. Rather, such themes provided an unsophisticated, almost universal medium for immediate communication... The beauty of his music seemed a triumph of instinct over spirit, a heart-rending cry, exuding all the weaknesses, contradictions, joy and happiness of human beings - a kind of desperate God-seeking...” This is exactly what Albert himself felt: “The message I bring to you is one of spiritual love, peace and understanding.” In an age when everybody else was talking about hate and anger and protest, he said again and again: “I play peace... There must be peace and joy on Earth. I believe music can help bring that into being because music really is the healing force of the universe.”
In a way, Albert Ayler, in music, was what Henri Rousseau - the French called him the “douanier” - was in modern art and in painting. Remember those simple doll-like figures between trees and flowers or in front of rural farm houses for which Rousseau became famous? It looks like any child could paint them. But have your child try it and you’ll realise how difficult it is. The same with Albert Ayler’s music: You’d think anybody can play these folk-and child-like motifs and songs. But start playing them and you’ll understand why Ayler - in contrast to Coltrane - has hardly any followers and students. It just is too difficult to follow him.
You need a lot of sophistication to become “primitive” à la Rousseau - or, for that matter, à la Ayler. In fact, what in their cases seems to be “primitive” is more sophisticated than most more obvious kinds of sophistication.
Albert Ayler’s folk dances and circus tunes, marches and dirges and children’s songs are like sign posts in our modern chaos, reminding us, just like Rousseau’s figures and houses and trees: This is eternal, and what worries you is just a matter of the special time we live in; it might be - let’s hope so - forgotten tomorrow.
Yes, there’s hope in Ayler’s music - much more hope than in most modern art and contemporary music - and that’s how Ayler wanted it when he talked about joy and peace and love. He didn’t just talk about it the few times when he was explaining his records. He talked about it all his life - in his music. That’s what his playing is all about: hope and love and joy and peace.
Albert Ayler was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1936. “When he was about ten he played alto saxophone at funerals in Cleveland as a member of a band in which his father played the tenor saxophone. Later he used to perform at a music hall in his home town. When he was 16 he was on the road for four months with a rhythm and blues band led by harmonica player Little Walter. Around 1956 he switched to tenor and subsequently became associated with Cecil Taylor” (Erik Wiedemann).
Albert Ayler died in 1970 at the age of 34. His body was found in New York’s East River after he had been missing for twenty days. His death was even more mysterious than his life. It was, as Bernard Lairet pointed out, “a tragic absurdity placing him in the ranks of the many black artists who, since Bessie Smith, have become martyrs and/or saints of Black American History”.
When writing about Ayler I always feel I have to make up for a mistake. In 1962, when Ayler was playing with Cecil Taylor in Copenhagen, a friend sent me a tape: “You should record this man. He will be the next great thing”. “Are you kidding?” I answered.
I had gotten Ornette’s and Trane’s, Cecil Taylor’s and Don Cherry’s and all the others’ messages immediately when we first heard them, but I missed on Ayler’s. Of course, by 1966, when I recorded this music I knew better. I was director of the Berlin Jazz Festival then and, for months, I had tried to locate Albert. That was one of the few constant things in his life: He was always disappearing. That was part of his mystique. So, finally, I called George Wein and told him: “You must bring Albert Ayler.” Of course, George is the last man you’ld think of when looking for Albert but there was a kind of friendly blackmail going on between George and myself at that time: I bought his annual festival package under just one condition. He had to include one avant-garde group of my choice. The whole avant-garde of the sixties came to Europe that way, most of them wondering why George Wein - of all people - had contacted them. Albert Ayler had wondered, too. It became the biggest tour of his life: thirty days - from Italy to Scandinavia and from France to Eastern Europe.
I think the two outstanding concerts of this tour are the ones on this record: the Paris and the Lörrach ones. The former was part of the Paris Jazz Festival which, at that time, took place annually in conjunction with the Berlin Festival, in order to share in the great number of artists we flew to Berlin. The Lörrach concert was organized on the occasion of the 10th jubilee of this city’s jazz club. (Lörrach, by the way, is in Southern Germany, just across from Basel, Switzerland on the Rhine river.)
I have to be short about the musicians playing with Ayler on this record. Beaver Harris was new on the scene in 1966 (I remember cabling Albert, when I had received the list of his musicians: “Who is Beaver Harris?”). Today, since playing with Ayler and Archie Shepp (remember his beautiful playing on “Attica Blues”?), he can be considered the most important link in that special development which lead to the kind of drumming that enthuses so many people right now. I’m talking about Shannon Jackson, the drummer who “freed” funk the way Elvin “freed” Bebop. Harris stands in a similar relationship to Shannon as does Philly Joe Jones to Elvin.
William Folwell has played on quite a few Albert Ayler records (for instance on “New Grass”). There’s rock in his playing. Albert, for quite a few years, considered him his favourite bass player.
Brother Don, as a “free jazz trumpet player” (to hell with labels!) has always stood in the shadow of Don Cherry, but if you listen carefully you’ll find lots of “Aylerisms” (Albert, that is!) in his playing. They both have the same background: in band and brass music, in rhythm and blues and gospel (and in their father’s playing!). That’s why Don has that brassy, shiny trumpet sound which comes just as much from marches as from Satchmo.
Michel Samson, of course, is “something else” (in both senses of that expression). He is a classical violin virtuoso from Holland. He excels in the famous violin concertos - Beethoven’s, Mendelsohn’s, Tschaikowsky’s... Just before joining the Aylers, he came to Cleveland, Ohio on tour with the New York Philharmonic. By some strange accident, he heard Albert. As soon as he could, he left his well-to-do Philharmonic colleagues and shared the hard road life with the Ayler group. The surprising thing is that he achieved what most other “classical” players in jazz - the Guldas and Previns and so on - are only aiming at when playing with jazz musicians. He becomes “one” - almost one! - with his chosen jazz environment. Strangely enough, it was this classical player who - long before we’d hear Leroy Jenkins and all the others - gave us a first idea of how the new jazz should sound on a violin. So, Samson stands in one line with so many other European-born violin players who have been pathbreakers on their instrument in jazz - from Joe Venuti (who was born in Italy) through French Michel Warlop and Stephane Grappelli to Jean-Luc Ponty and up to Zbigniew Seifert and Didier Lockwood.
One word about the tunes. After the Lörrach concert, Albert was too tired to identify them. For many hours, I’ve compared the pieces with dozens of other Ayler tunes. I hope I didn’t make any mistakes. Albert was very free in his disposal of his own (and other people’s) compositions. He really had a command over lots of music - his own and anyone else’s. His message is as much in the titles as in his playing. You even could combine the titles in order to get (part of) the Ayler message: “Bells for Jesus - Our prayer to the Spirit and to the Holy Ghost!” All these tunes are what Don Cherry felt about Ayler’s “Ghosts”: They should become mankind’s National Anthem! In a way, they already are - unconsciously! That’s why it is so easy to recognize them - and to get them mixed up.
(Author of “The Jazz Book
- from New Orleans to
Fusion and Beyond”,
Hill & Co. Publ. New York)