Thursday, 17 May 2007

Albert Ayler - a sell-out?

Impulse, 1969

Albert Ayler (tenor sax, bagpipes, vocals)
Mary Maria (Mary Parks) (vocals)
Bobby Few (piano)
Henry Vestine (guitar on ‘Drudgery’)
Bill Folwell (bass and Fender bass)
Stafford James (bass)
Muhammad Ali (drums)

Free jazz legend Ayler’s last record, apart from the posthumously released ‘Last Album’, which still awaits a re-issue. Along with ‘New Grass’, which saw him performing with backing singers and funk drumming, this saw him move into a more commercial (though still deeply weird) context, and many Ayler fans feel that he was selling out in order to reach a wider audience. Sure, in comparison to, say, ‘New York Eye and Ear Control’, this is practically easy listening, and it isn’t a particularly good record overall – unfocussed, a bit of an uneasy mix of styles, and with some truly embarrassing hippie lyrics from Ayler’s girlfriend/collaborator Mary Maria. But there are plus points – the title track, which sees Ayler’s playing of a yearning figure on tenor sax juxtaposed with Maria’s swelling vocals, is surprisingly effective, and the lyrics aren’t too bad either (though some may disagree – “music is the healing force of the universe. It calls all bad vibrations to fade…sometimes we are in need of spiritual renewal”). You can’t really call this free jazz, though Ayler’s tenor is a bit rougher sounding than on the version recorded in 1970 that came out on ‘Nuits de La Foundation Maeght, Vol. 1’, but it’s still got an utterly unique feel to it, and Ayler’s massive, soulful vibrato is immensely attractive whether he’s moving into the realms of pure sound or sticking to conventional melodic lines.

‘Masonic Inborn (Part 1)’ COULD be called free jazz, but it’s nowhere near as convincing as Ayler’s classic performances in this vein – for one thing, he chooses to play on bagpipes (overdubbed), and, like Ornette Coleman on violin or trumpet, doesn’t really seem to know how to PLAY the damn things! He’s not Rufus Harley, that’s for sure. That said, Bobby Few does get in some nice piano work, and the moment, about half-way through the track, when someone, or something starts making weird high-pitched sounds between a whistle and a vocal and a flute, is worth hearing just for the sheer weirdness of it all.

The remaining tracks (what was the second side of the record) are three more Maria songs and a blues jam to conclude. ‘A Man is a Like a Tree’ picks up the lyricism of the title track, but with a more serene feel to it. It’s pleasant enough, but the lyrics are pretty meaningless (“a man is like a tree. A tree is like a man. They both die and then are born again” – what?), and it’s fairly forgettable stuff, not like the best Ayler moments, where his playing seems to tap into something incredibly raw, and the emotion comes through his horn in such an extraordinarily direct way that it sends a shiver up your spine. The vocals on ‘Oh! Love of Life’ are actually by Ayler – he sings in a high-pitched, quavering voice which, to be honest, doesn’t sound very good, but the intensity he conveys is quite frightening – you can understand the sort of psychology that lead him to kill himself (if that’s what happened). A tormented individual, it seems, turning out something too eccentric and bizarre to reach the wider audience he was presumably seeking. ‘Island Harvest’ is pretty abysmal, to be honest – Maria puts on some embarrassing fake accent and sings some more meandering lyrics, while Ayler flits around behind her.

So far, it’s not looking too good, but the final track saves the record – called ‘Drudgery’, it harks back to Ayler’s earlier blues/R’n’B days, as he blasts away over some mean guitar from Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine: not the most obvious choice of collaborator, to be sure – did the label heads force that one on him, or was it his own decision? – but it works. Ayler seems to be enjoying getting right down into some gritty, earthy honking and blowing, as well as nodding to the free jazz elements with some marvellous high-register semi-screaming towards the end of his solo. Bobby Few’s piano work is excellent, Vestine is on top form, and overall it’s actually a really successful track. A tantalising taster perhaps, of what would have happened if there’d been an ‘Ayler plays the Blues’ album, which might have been a better idea than the mish-mash that this record turned out to be. Still, though my critical judgement tells me that I should discard this one (I only really LIKE two of the six tracks, and some of the others are just inept), there’s something about it that still appeals – perhaps just the sheer weirdness of it all. Not really a good introduction to Ayler, nor representative of his output, nor very successful – but an intriguing listen nonetheless.


fairest said...

ha, thats funny about ornette and the trumpet.

what a great cover this record has. i agree with the lyrics, too!

Anonymous said...

a stupid question but important to me...
i own this cd in the recent digipack version that is slightly bigger than average disks.,...
it is made as the original double album, with liner notes on the inside, but THERE'S NO BOOKLET with supplementary informations...