Into The Mystic With Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler's Live in Greenwich Village Captures Spirit Of Jazz

People tend to talk about Albert Ayler's music as though it were truly

exotic: the screeches, the guttural moans, the rampant cacophony, the

dueling basses and free-for-all solos. Slightly to the left of Ornette

Coleman's free jazz work, reminiscent of John Coltrane's sessions with

Pharaoh Sanders, Ayler's seminal '60's compositions often are referred to

as difficult, experimental, edgy or even indulgent.

So who, then, is Impulse! hoping to attract with its recent reissue of two

discs worth of material culled from a series of Ayler's gigs in 1966 and

'67? The jazz intelligentsia? Downtown aficionados who might otherwise be

shopping for John Zorn's latest releases?

Surely the same audience who has made Joshua Redman an international star

-- while his father Dewey Redman, Ayler's musical compatriot and Impulse!

labelmate still labors on the fringes of the scene -- is not interested in

more than two hours of uncompromising, unceasingly intense group

improvisation?

Probably true. And that's a shame. Because Live in Greenwich

Village is one of Ayler's best. These performances -- in which Ayler is

joined by his brother, Don Ayler, on trumpet and two bassists, among others

-- should not be listened to as some sort of heady, avant-garde exercise.

They should be considered more as spiritual invocations, gospel-tinged

cries for release and redemption.

In the liner notes to this album, Don Ayler says people should not "focus

on the notes and stuff like that. Instead, try to move your imagination

toward the sound. It's a matter of following the sound." That is good

advice: Forget about modal shifts and rhythmic changes and follow the

sound, which, on these recordings, harks back to gospel celebrations, blues

lamentations and the call-and-response traditions of black churches. Don't

get caught up on this or that particular, but let the music envelop and

transport you. The spirituality in Ayler's music is present in the song

titles ("Light In Darkness," "Heavenly Home," "Spiritual Rebirth") and in

the effort to grasp something just out of reach, in the desire to

communicate with the spirit world.

The best example of this is the arresting "Truth is Marching In," beginning

with floating lines from Albert's tenor sax and Don's trumpet, which state

and restate the theme in a series of escalating, mournful lines. "Truth is

Marching In" is reminiscent of both a Dixie march and a slowed-down

variation of Coleman's classic "Ramblin'."

A driving rhythm is the cornerstone of Ayler's work; Beaver Harris on drums

and Bill Folwell and Henry Grimes on bass lay down a churning, propulsive

carpet over which Ayler and violinist Michael Sampson build to a climactic

pitch that is as grounded in lyricism as it is in the post-bop desire to

speak in tongues. That phrase was Nat Hentoff's accurate description of the

music of this period, and it is an effect Coltrane equaled in his best

work. "Truth is Marching In" moans; it reaches up and then falls down,

exhausted, only to summon another transcendent burst of energy and passion.

The set's second disc features a series of tracks in which Ayler uses a

cello and violin to brilliant effect. Playing both melody and rhythm lines

-- often, the cello mimics Ayler's callings, while the violin serves as a

high-pitched counterpart to the basses -- these tracks maintain an energy

and effusiveness that is at once both otherworldly and deeply grounded.

This recording is all the more evocative, mysterious and moving because of

the tragic fates that befell both Ayler brothers: Albert was found floating

in New York's East River in 1970. His apparent murder is still unsolved

and has only served to add to Ayler's legend. Don ended up in a mental

institution, where he resides to this day. Coltrane, another of the great

religious experimenters of the '60s, did not survive the decade. Never

again has music so moving and uncompromising captured the ear of the

mainstream listener.

Indeed, it may be Zorn who comes closest to carrying on this tradition

today, and that is highly fitting. With his "Jewish Roots" outfit, Masada,

and with his Radical Jewish Music festivals, Zorn also is trying to further

a spiritual and religious musical tradition with unflinching work that is

often deemed "difficult."

As with Ayler, "difficult" isn't the best word to describe Zorn: He's

intense, he's real, he's committed and unrepentant. He wants to use his

music to reach a higher plane.

It's just too bad there aren't more people willing to go along for the ride.