Healing Force: The Songs Of Albert Ayler


Though his music is still not as widely known nor as critically celebrated as the innovations of the other two major figures of (so-called) Free Jazz of the 60s - their names being John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, of course - it can be said that Albert Ayler is by now a well-recognized part of the "tradition" of modern jazz; a musician who, at the time when his major innovations were taking place, was considered to be quite controversial (but all innovators are bound to be considered controversial, right? - at least, during those times when these kinds of issues get more attention than your classic "storm in a teacup"), but whose innovations are by now long-accepted by those musicians that can be filed under "avant-garde". Sure, the very concept of a "tradition of the avant-garde" sounds quite paradoxical; but this is what happens at a time when the "mainstream" has absolutely no use anymore for the daring products of the avant-garde.

(What about Cecil Taylor? Well, after thinking for a moment or two about the different impact saxophone players have, when compared to piano players, I think it could be said that those early intuitions formulated by Taylor in the 50s and early 60s still wait to be developed.)

Ayler's influence is obviously enormous - just consider the fact that he also influenced the later production of his antecedents Coltrane and Coleman (it's not a one-way process, of course: just listen to those famous sax/trumpet duets of Coleman and Don Cherry side-by-side with those by Albert and Don Ayler). Also a big influence on a lot of players from the "European Free " - just think of Peter Brötzmann.

(I'll be brief.) Ayler's music presents a timbral widening of the possibilities when it comes to the sound of the saxophone (especially the tenor); a great independence in the playing role of drummers like the unforgettable Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, and Beaver Harris; an original role for the double bass (an instrument that is often played by two musicians at the same time) by innovators such as Gary Peacock, Henry Grimes, and Alan Silva; a highly personal stylistic approach when it comes to his themes, which often remind one of those Marchin' Bands in New Orleans, of Folk Music from all over the world, and of marches played by the Salvation Army.

While it once was in a sad state of disarray, Albert Ayler's discography is by now well-served. While the most representative titles from his "classic" period can be said to be Witches And Devils, Bells, Prophecy and Spiritual Unity, I have to confess my personal predilection for the complete and quite varied Live In Greenwich Village: a double CD set presenting both the classic album from 1967 titled In Greenwich Village and The Village Concerts, a double vinyl album released in 1978. I think it's quite stimulating to compare the liner notes written "in real time" by Nat Hentoff for the former album to those written by Robert Palmer for the latter; whereas Palmer tries to put the "religious" element of Ayler's music in its cultural context, while at the same time trying to refute the notion of Ayler's music as being mere "energy music", as stated by another great innovator like Anthony Braxton.

Originally released in 1967, the above-mentioned In Greenwich Village was the first album recorded by Ayler for the label Impulse!. Though the instrumental colours featured on the album are really beautiful (especially the fine percussion work of Milford Graves), Love Cry (also released in 1967) had many listeners puzzled, due to the now "self-sufficient" value given to the themes appearing on Side One. Puzzlement only grew with those later releases, New Grass (1968) and Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe (1969): while the former appeared to go back to Ayler's old R&B roots, the latter appeared to lose the plot completely, and both featured the voice and the lyrics (in a "peace & love" style, as was the vogue at the time) of Mary Parks, who at the time was Ayler's love interest. The fact that Ayler died in 1970 (in what by now appears beyond any reasonable doubt to have been a suicide by drowning) didn't exactly induce people to a new, different hearing of this material.

So it's the first-period Ayler the one that's treasured by the avant-garde. And so, while some of his themes from that period have been covered a few times (especially Ghosts), his last two albums have long languished in limbo. Whether he had gone out of his head due to ingestion of LSD, or had miscalculated about his real chances of commercial success, or had attempted a daring mixture of styles without having acquired the necessary skills to drive the process, it's an open issue. We also have to remind ourselves of the fact that the figure of the musician with a composite background, while relatively common today, was in those days quite rare: we can say that nowadays Ayler would surely manage to find more malleable human material to make his visions come true.

So I was quite puzzled when I was told - last year, during an interview I was doing with Mike Keneally - that an album-homage to Albert Ayler had just been recorded - and that the album was bound to feature only music from his last three albums (with only Universal Indians coming from Love Cry, the rest of the CD featuring pieces from his last two albums). The line-up looked varied and somewhat bizarre to me, and the enthusiasm on the part of the players was quite palpable, so I decided to listen to the material immediately. And though in this case "immediately" meant that more than one year has passed (yep, times have really changed...), I'm happy I can say the music was worth the wait.

OK now, what about the line-up? Both Henry Kaiser and Mike Keneally need no introduction, of course; while it's by now a well-know fact that Kaiser is notoriously versatile on guitar, it has to be said that here Keneally plays most of the time - but not exclusively: there are a few nice moments on the electric guitar, and some vocals - the piano; which to me sounds quite strange, the piano not being the first instrument that comes to one's mind when one thinks of Albert Ayler, but this gave me the chance to listen to Keneally's piano in a different framework than usual. Joe Morris is a guitar player (here he also plays the double bass) of some renown. A modern giant of wind instruments, Vinny Golia has a big part to play in order to make the whole thing work.

I have to admit that I had never previously listened to the work of double bass player Damon Smith and of vocalist Aurora Josephson, both presenting good performances on this album. On drums we have Weasel Walter, (un)known to most as the leader of the US collective of variable line-ups called The Flying Luttenbachers: a group whose "post-Ayler-like" connotation by their vociferous fans had always looked to me as representing more the goodwill on the part of the musicians involved (also the "selective knowledge" on the part of their fans) than the quality of the results; here the drummer plays really well, confirming the good impression I had a few years ago, when I caught a trio version of The Flying Luttenbachers live in concert; a strange concert, by the way: an excellent double bass player (both pizzicato and arco), and a saxophone player with a lot of intonation problems.

Quite easy to imagine just from looking at the list of the featured musicians, the album's poly-stylism jumps immediately out of the grooves (so to speak). I would have greatly preferred a booklet which listed each player's instrumental standing with a minimum of precision, but here opinions are bound to differ. Sure, critics must know all... but what about the listener that (I hope!) bought the CD? Nice recording, with a live feel which doesn't rule out overdubbing.

The album opens with a medley of New New Grass - featuring what to me sound like two overdubbed saxophones (tenor and bass) and two double basses (two players) - and Message From Albert, with vocals by Keneally and Josephson, and a nice piano-guitar thematic unison.

Over twenty minutes long, Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe appears as a summary (!) of the spirit of the album. A nice intro by the tenor sax (which to me sounds halfway between Ayler and early-period Gato Barbieri, the one that appears on Liberation Music Orchestra by Charlie Haden and Escalator Over The Hill by Carla Bley), drums played with brushes, piano, double bass, vocal melody. Excellent saxophone solo with the piano acting as a background, vocals, nice Joe Morris solo at 4' 28", another vocal interlude, saxophone again, naked vocals; at 11' 09" a very nice solo by Kaiser with appropriate backing by piano, saxophone, drums and double bass; vocals again, then, at 14' 10" a guitar solo (overdubbed) by Keneally. Theme, end.

The third track is a medley of Japan and Universal Indians. It starts with an "oriental" scale performed by the voice, with backing by piano, double bass and drums; a nice theme played by Golia on tenor, an excellent saxophone solo (actually, to me it sounds like two saxophones playing here), with two acoustic guitars in a "subliminal" role; vocals again, then the acoustics are back, followed by electric guitars playing the role of  "jungle cicadas" (best I can do). In closing, an emphatic theme, played "tutti".

A Man Is Like A Tree starts with a "pedal" of saxophone and double bass, "ethnic" slide guitars by Kaiser, then a slow melody, with lyrics, sung by the voices; then, an explosive "multiple" solo by Kaiser, at 2' 29". The theme again, and again the "pedal", performed by the group.

The long Oh! Love Of Life has a nice attack from the drums, "heavy and staccato", then guitar, soprano sax, female vocals, and "explosive" guitars. A quite peculiar atmosphere appears when the voice says "Do You Hear Me Calling": just adding some filter modulations on a couple of VCS3 would be enough to make the whole thing sound like Gong! At 2' 40" we have a solo by Keneally with backing by the drums that to me sounded quite similar to a guitar solo that Frank Zappa played in Rome in 1988, in a duo with Chad Wackerman's drums; compared to that, Walter has a bit less fire, but it's a nice performance all the same. After a long feedback we have vocals, soprano sax and guitar, then at 4' 28" we have another guitar solo - judging from the vibrato to me it sounds like Kaiser. At about 9' we have a "solo" moment from the drums, with a nice rhythmic subdivision, and then the vocals are back - and with such a frantic backing, for a moment the vocals reminded me of Haco and After Dinner.

Thank God For Women has a "noisy" start, then a piano arpeggio and an atmosphere that reminded me of "musical comedy" introduce a light little song sung by the two vocalists - a song that wouldn't have been out of place on an album by Keneally like hat..

Heart Love has a very strange attack, dark and mysterious (this reminded me of something, but I couldn't find it in my memory bank). We have a theme sung by the female vocalist with an atmosphere suggesting a lullaby. Then we have a "swing" moment, with the flute sounding halfway between Eric Dophy and Roland Kirk, then it's the dark piece again, then the lullaby again; at 4' 40" the drums introduce another "swing" moment, this time with a guitar solo by Joe Morris. The end. But to me this piece appeared too fragmented to sound really convincing.

New Generation has a nice start on the piano, then drums, guitar, and double bass... It's Beefheart! Really good soprano sax solo. Then, at 1' 16", there's a cadenza and it's... Kim Gordon on vocals! Not really her, mind you, but it really sounds like Sonic Youth. A "musical joke" that to me already sounded tired on first listening. A nice tenor sax follows, then at 4' 27" it's "Beefheart" again, then another nice sax solo. I really don't know what it all means!

In closing (after 79' - it's a long CD), a nice medley of New Ghosts and New Message. It starts with a nice guitar arpeggio that reminded me a bit of Derek Bailey, then a theme sung by the female vocalist, to nice effect. A beautiful interlude follows, with soprano sax and double basses. At about 4' it's back to the acoustic guitars, and the vocals.

In closing, two points.

This CD obviously features high-quality music, quite stimulating even in those parts that didn't sound quite convincing to me. Given the "instant" type of preparation Keneally told me about, the music that came out of the session is of a quality that's nowadays quite uncommon. I have to admit that those moments where the "spiritual" message comes to the fore left me quite cold, or worse. But this is all part of the project's coordinates, so it's take it or leave it, I think.

The other motive of puzzlement looks more serious to me. An album like this, which is already on the difficult side when it comes to locating all the musical genres that are referred to in the pieces, revisits a period of Ayler's discography that is already considered to be controversial. I found it quite strange that the CD offered no material about the whole thing. Maybe it has been assumed that the music will suffice in having the listener being "enlightened" (ouch!)? The issue appears even stranger when one thinks about the fact that it will be those who will buy the CD who will be left with no resources; while it's obvious that those who will listen to this album in a "professional" guise (whatever the term "professional" means nowadays) will have received - together with a promotional copy of the CD - quite a few pages of press stuff to consult "in case of necessity".

Having said this: This is a stimulating CD, well worth a listen.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2007

CloudsandClocks.net | Nov. 2, 2007