|J A Z Z W O R D R E V I E W S
|Reviews that mention Albert Ayler
Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America
Jason Weiss (Wesleyan University Press)
By Ken Waxman
Visionary, charlatan, crook, naïf – these are just a few of the epitaphs applied to Bernard Stollman who founded the legendary ESP-Disk record label in the early 1960s. Interviewing Stollman and almost three dozen ESP artists, Jason Weiss tries to make sense of its history.
An attorney with aspirations towards art and entrepreneurship, Stollman made ESP a full-fledged imprint after hearing tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler. By chance he had stumbled upon a fertile jazz scene, rife with players who lacked recording opportunities. Soon ESP provided many of the era’s most important musical innovators with the freedom to record without interference. ESP jazz artists included Ayler, Burton Greene, Milford Graves, Paul Bley and Sun Ra plus rockers such as The Fugs and Pearls Before Swine.
Then problems arose. Most musicians insist they never received royalties for sessions which were subsequently licensed around the world. Some are sanguine. “If nobody was going to record you then where would you be if it wasn’t for ESP … putting you out there?” asks drummer Graves. Others are harsher. Pianist Greene: “Nobody expected anybody to get money out of the deal … [but] every time I heard he leased stuff … I said ‘What’s going on?’ He said ‘They burned me’… I said ‘Look Bernard you weren’t born yesterday.”
In essence the truth about ESP Disk and Stollman is revealed by inference. Despite the label’s and its artists’ subsequent fame, contemporary radio programmers, record stores and the general public didn’t buy in, or buy in great quantities. Plus, while Stollman loved signing new acts and releasing records, he ignored day-to-day business dealings. A first-class talent scout, by leaving the minutiae to others he was ultimately the author of his own – and the label’s – checkered reputation.
As today a resuscitated ESP-Disk repackages its past as it tries to rectify its spotted history, Weiss` volume captures its initial impact on the nascent experimental scheme in its participants own words.
--For The New York City Jazz Record April 2013
April 6, 2013
Music in My Soul
Noah Howard (Buddy’s Knife)
By Ken Waxman
Metaphorically, alto saxophonist Noah Howard’s musical life mirrored the history of jazz. Born April 6, 1943 in New Orleans, the music’s purported cradle, before his death on Sept. 3, 2010 in Belgium, Howard had travelled to San Francisco and New York, recorded for small labels like ESP-Disk, expatriated overseas, toured Europe, Africa and India, while developing ties with emerging local players. Completed just days before his death from a cerebral hemorrhage, Music in My Soul is written in the artless but competent prose of a constantly working musician with some haziness in chronology, spelling and details.
Still as reminisces about the changes which took place in jazz following the advances of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman from someone who seemed to be present every step of the way, the book is doubly valuable. Personal reminiscences from musicians who worked with or knew the alto saxophonist over the years are intermingled among the chapters, further elucidating Howard’s journey.
Following military service in the American South, where he experienced pre-Civil Rights era racism, a stint on the West Coast exposed Howard to mind-altering drugs and finally guidance into experimental sounds from trumpeter Dewey Johnson, who later played on Ascension. In New York, Howard’s addition of New Orleans-style rhythm to cerebral sound searching had him recording at 21. Gigging often at the Lower East Side’s legendary Slug’s Saloon, frequently as part of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, which he would sometimes rejoin in Europe, Howard befriended major figures such as Charles Mingus and Albert Ayler, who got him his first international job – in Montreal in winter – and formed lasting alliances with other New Thingers including tenor saxophonist Frank Wright, pianist Bobby Few and drummer Muhammad Ali – eventually forming a co-op working group in Europe.
From that point on Howard reveals his amateur author status. Although he devotes some paragraphs to the factors that influence his compositions and improvisations, most of the volume becomes a recitation of gigs and recording sessions done, musicians and friends met and recalled, plus near-tourist brochure reminiscences of countries in Africa and Asia visited. Finally comfortably settled with his wife of 30 years, a medical doctor, and helming his own AltSax label, Howard begins playing regularly in the US again in the ‘90s, scotching rumours that he was another deceased Free Jazzer. A presence at the Vision Festival, the saxman put out exceptional new CDs with the likes of poet Eve Packer and similarly grizzled drummer Bobby Kapp.
Now Music in My Soul will remain his legacy. Interesting in itself for some of its woollier tales about bringing experimental music to the hinterlands,
--For New York City Jazz Record August 2012
August 6, 2012
Weirdest of all of saxophonist Albert Aylers bizarre recording sessions, NEW GRASS has been infamous since it was first issued in 1968 as the disc that unsuccessfully tried to turn the avant-garde avatar into a pop star.
Even with the steady beat of drummer Pretty Purdie who by his own count has been on literally thousands of pop records simple songs plus a female chorus, if the people at Impulse! Records thought this CD would turn Ayler (1936-1970) into a pop star you wonder what they were smoking. The answer may be in the album title.
In hindsight things might have seemed different in 1968, the peak of acid rock experimentation, with LPs such as Jimi Hendrixs ELECTRIC LADYLAND, The Grateful Deads ANTHEM OF THE SUN and the Mothers of Inventions WERE ONLY IT FOR THE MONEY on the charts. Anyone or was it everyone could be a pop star, it seemed and when even Black Nationalist Archie Shepp began recording R&B-styled number, they must have reasoned that the charismatic Ayler could be a pop star too. Surely getting Ayler to sing his partner Mary Marias simple lyrics and overdubbing a studio horn section over Call Cobbs raunchy keyboards and Bill Folwells electric bass not to mention Purdies best-selling beat could turn the bearded saxophonist into another Hendrix. Well, not really.
Problem was that Ayler, who had been demolishing jazz conventions since his first ESP-Disk was cut in 1964, was a little too idiosyncratic to be properly molded. For a start, unlike other rock heroes, he was a saxophonist not a guitarist. While his solos show a tough King Curtis-like burr, the stuttering resonance on these short numbers was still an odd sound for rockers committed to lengthy, guitar-driven super sessions. Second, Ayler really couldnt sing and he didnt come with the comedy trapping of other non-singers such as those in the Fugs or the Mothers. Finally, as you hear on Message from Albert, he was so sincere in his hope for universal love that he probably made the average listener nervous.
Ayler was never the drug-addled hedonistic many people imagined him to be. His art as you can note from his song titles was strongly rooted in the tradition of messianic Christianity that also features in fellow saxophonist Charles Gayles work today. There was no sex in Albert Aylers love.
Still this LP-length reissue is fascinating in itself. When was the last time you heard a chorus sing Sock it to me or Keep the faith in all seriousness, or followed a simple blues progression played on the first generation of early electric instruments sweetened by a studio horn section? While some of saxophone solos venture into Boots Randolph territory, Ayler was such a masterful stylist that he created memorable, non-commercial music almost in spite of himself. The beat may have been all-powerful, but the glossolalia and altissimo squeals that were his stock in trade still materialized in the midst of these psychedelic jams like ham hocks incongruously peaking out of a Big Mac.
When the vocal and instrumental add-ons arent present as Sun Watcher, there are points when it appears that Ayler and band could have created a legitimate punk-jazz fusion. Instead, that had to wait almost 40 years, when saxophonists like Ken Vandermnark and Mats Gustafsson, both of whom were born after rock musics hegemony, appeared on the scene.
Historically fascinating, NEW GRASS is also a heck of a lot of big-beat fun. Aylers naiveté is much more endearing than the sort of condescending hit-mongering players like trumpeter Donald Byrd and saxophonist Eddie Harris indulged in to sell records a little later on. No major statement, this is still Albert Ayler.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. New Grass/Message From Albert 2. New Generation* 3. Sun Watcher 4. New Ghosts 5. Heart Love* 6. Everybodys Movin* 7. Free At Last*
Personnel: Albert Ayler (tenor saxophone, whistling, recitation and vocals); Call Cobbs (piano, electric harpsichord, organ); Bill Folwell (bass guitar); Pretty Purdie (drums). The Soul Singers [Mary Maria Parks and Rose Marie McCoy]* (vocals); plus [all tracks but 3, 4] Joe Newman, Burt Collins (trumpet); Garnett Brown (trombone); Seldon Powell (flute, tenor saxophone); Buddy Lucas (baritone saxophone)
February 13, 2006
Impulse! AS-9222 024 654 414-2
Music Is The Healing Force of the Universe
Impulse! AS-9191 440 065 383-2
What youre hearing on these two LP-length CD reissues, recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is the metaphoric death throes of the New Thing as a popular music.
But wait, you say, didnt the angry unmelodic, experimental New Thing itself murder jazzs popularity when it hijacked the music and drove large audiences away? Not really. Like other pieces of revisionist history perpetuated by the neo-cons this tale has been blown out of proportion to make more miraculous the trad revival of the 1990s.
For a start, plenty of other jazz existed even at the height of the New Things influence. Plus the genre wasnt all that unpopular. Musicians who recorded for Impulse!, for one, which was a large company with wide distribution, werent out to alienate anyone but poseurs, and some New Thingers even created good selling discs.
All of John Coltranes LPs were wildly popular and Pharoah Sanders had hit records as well. Even people like Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler represented here, at least sold to the jazz audience, as did LPs by Sam Rivers, Sun Ra and a more experimental-than-today Keith Jarrett.
However when MUSIC IS THE HEALING FORCE and ATTICA BLUES were recorded, no one in the music business appeared to be satisfied with jazz audience sales. Million sellers were the norm for top rock and R&B bands, so why couldnt jazzers do the same? Thus electric guitars, simple songs and other pop paraphernalia entered the jazz word and it hasnt recovered yet. Trouble was that these neither fish nor fowl jazz-rock discs didnt sell very well either and as the pressure mounted to become more pop oriented many musicians either watered down their ideas or gave up recording in the U.S.
That was in the future, however, and, despite their faults, both these CDs have much to recommend them. People aim for popularity in different ways and for different reasons and thats what happened with tenor saxophonists Ayler and Shepp.
Ayler, despite his revolutionary creations, was still poverty-stricken by the end of the 1960s. He likely felt that by making his music even simpler he might finally make a decent living. Still, the point is moot. He continued playing outside sounds in live performances and by the end of 1970, he was dead, probably a suicide. Of course, why Ayler and his producer thought that this disc featuring him singing (sic) on one track and playing overdubbed bagpipe parts on another would propel him to Easy Street is another question.
Shepps motives were different. As sociologically sophisticated as Ayler was naïve, the leftist Black Nationalist was bothered by the fact that his politics and music were treated with equal indifference by the non-jazz part of the Black population. Shepp had tried to reach them as early as 1966 with tunes like the James Brown-influenced Mama Too Tight. Now this session adapted the funky beats and vocal exhortations of Soul music to try to create genuine popular songs about such subjects as the police riot at Attica prison.
Parts of this strategy worked quite well. The title tune and Ballad for a Child utilize the instrumental talent of top studio cats like guitarist Cornell Dupree to lay down the funk, while the words were expressed by Henry Hull in vocal cadenzas that sound midway between Little Jimmy Scotts and Al Greens delivery, backed by female harmony singers who could have worked for Stax-Volt. Strings -- including proto-avant-gardist Leroy Jenkins on violin -- dont sweeten, but advance the tunes soulfulness, just as they would for James Brown and later Philly International sessions. Shepp, playing soprano on Child and tenor saxophone on other numbers creates smooth and well-modulated solos that still have the characteristic sharp bite of his earlier work. These may be his last truly great sax solos.
Sadly, though, the background overwhelms the message. We can hear the exceptional solos and razor-sharp arrangements now, but whether any members of the Black underclass was moved to check out the work of activist George Jackson -- another Shepp dedicatee -- is another matter. Weak too are the mini-narrations provided by radical lawyer William Kunstler. Politically they may have meant something to Shepp and his political cohorts like flugelhornist Cal Massey, but the point is lost on the listeners then and now.
Massey, whose compositions were also recorded by Coltrane and Lee Morgan, is responsible for Good Bye Sweet Pops, a vamping, big band number, obviously meant to honor the recently deceased Louis Armstrong. Here, as Shepp erupts from the band like a younger Johnny Hodges with Duke Ellington, Masseys vamp even gets the strings to swing. Another of the discs missteps can be attributed to Massey as well though. Quiet Dawn with its message of self-reliance features strong instrumental outings by Massey, trumpeter Charles McGhee and Shepp. But the lyrics are sung -- actually more descriptively mumbled -- into the mike by the untrained voice of Masseys then seven-year-old daughter. Nearly masked by the instruments, shes no young Gladys Knight. Thats the CDs low point.
Joe Lee Wilson, the other singer featured on two of the tunes is one of the highpoints, though. With a delivery reminiscent of Johnny Hartmans with Trane, his rendition of Shepps Steam, a tune that would later become a tenor tour-de-force, is treated as a real pop ballad, emphasizing the sibilant properties of the title. Meanwhile Shepps pinched soprano tone floats over string cadenzas, saxophone section obbligatos and a ringing electric piano backing played by Dave Burrell.
Invocation to Mr. Parker, written by Shepp, even manages to integrate bassist Jimmy Garrisons avant-flamenco solo with Marion Browns log drums, an ancient-to-modern fusion that few others then attempted and fewer still pulled off.
Using the hardest possible reed, Ayler had the tone and vibrato that made Shepp sound as if he was Kenny G. From the very first -- and title tune -- the disconnect in his session is evident though. Vocalist Mary Maria is harmonizing on simplistic lyrics hymning universal love, while the saxman, the two bassists -- Bill Folwell and Stafford James --and drummer Muhammad Ali produce a tough, street-smart tone. Maybe at three minutes though, instead of 8½, the piece could have been a hit. Stranger things have happened.
There was no chance of that happening with Masonic Inborn (Part 1), where Ayler squeezes wild tones from two keening bagpipes for more than 12 minutes, having overdubbed one line on top of the other. Using the same sort of repetitive rhymes he always played, complete with mini-honklets and sliding tones, the saxman sounds perfectly at home spewing out neo-Celtic sounds. He even manages to get a piccolo tone from the chanter. In between his nasal and (no-doubt purposely) off-key echoes and reverberations you can hear a tinny snatch of Bobby Few whaling the piano keys.
Drudgery -- a strange, if perhaps symbolic title for a tune here -- is the other noteworthy track. A mid tempo shuffle featuring Canned Heats Henry Vestine playing a pseudo B.B. King-style guitar lead, all exaggerated sharps and runs, it also highlights Folwells electric bass playing and Aylers screaming vibrato-heavy notes. Clucking out notes as if he was rock saxist King Curtis, the simple tune probably reminded Ayler of his stint backing up bluesman Little Walter early in his career.
That Aylers career had made many twists and turns since then, is made clear on Island Harvest, where his distinctive marching band rhythm is straightjacketed into following a calypso beat. Sung in a lilting patois by Maria, this child-like tune was recorded too late for Harry Belefonte fans and too early for the film A Mighty Wind. Finally, Oh! Love of Life, is a rare example of Ayler singing, praising universal love and the sound of angels singing while he wrenches grating below ground tones from his horn.
Fascinating as a reflection of jazz in those particular times, both CDs are a lot better than their notoriety would have you believe. Neither is a master work, but each deserves exposure to anyone interested in either of these musicians.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Attica: Blues 2. Invocation: Attica Blues 3. Steam (Part 1) 4. Invocation to Mr. Parker 5. Steam (Part 2) 6. Blues for Brother George Jackson 7. Invocation: Ballad for a Child 8. Ballad for a Child 9. Good Bye Sweet Pops 10. Quiet Dawn
Personnel: Attica: Roy Burrows, Michael Ridley, Charles McGhee (trumpets); Cal Massey (flugelhorn); Clifford Thornton (cornet); Charles Stephens, Kiane Zawadi, Charles Greenlee (trombones); Hakim Jami (euphonium); Marion Brown (alto saxophone, flute, percussion); Clarence White (alto saxophone); Billy Robinson, Roland Alexander (tenor saxophones) Archie Shepp (tenor and soprano saxophones); James Ware (baritone saxophone); Leroy Jenkins, John Blake, Lakshminarayana Shankar (violins); Roland Lipscomb, Calo Scott (cellos); Walter Davis Jr. (piano, electric piano); Dave Burrell (electric piano); Cornell Dupree (guitar); Jimmy Garrison (bass); Roland Wilson and Gerald Jemmott (electric basses); Beaver Harris or Billy Higgins (drums); Ollie Anderson, Juma Sutan, Nene DeFense (percussion); Romulus Franceschini (conductor); Henry Hull or Joe Lee Wilson or Waheeda Massey (lead vocals); Joshie Armstead, Albertine Robinson (background vocals); William Kunstler, Bartholomew Gray (naration)
Track Listing: Music: 1. Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe 2. Masonic Inborn (Part 1) 3. A Man Is Like a Tree 4. Oh! Love of Life 5. Island Harvest 6. Drudgery
Personnel: Music: Albert Ayler (tenor saxophone, bagpipes, vocal); Bobby Few (piano); Henry Vestine (guitar); Bill Folwell (bass, bass guitar); Stafford James (bass); Muhammad Ali (drums); Mary Maria (vocal)
June 30, 2003
The Copenhagen tapes
Almost 33 years after his death in New Yorks East River, an apparent suicide, the stature of tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler as a major musical force keeps growing. His redefinition of horn playing away from empty technique and towards emotional vulnerability, and his insistence on articulating simple themes that easily became vehicles for improvisation, has been acknowledged by everyone short of the most reactionary jazz neo-con.
Today with indie rock stars looking for street cred and exploratory contemporary classical composers joining jazzers in placing the saxophonist in the pantheon that includes Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, it seems that his influence is everywhere. Some commentators even call this musical time the Post-Ayler epoch.
With a recording career that almost exactly paralleled in brevity that of cornettist Bix Biederbecke, another innovator with a truncated career, most of Aylers work has been issued and reissued many times. Yet these exceptional 10 tracks are for many new discoveries. Not 1964s justly celebrated studio session issued on various labels, these more than 68 minutes of prime Ayler come from earlier live and studio dates recorded during that same trip to Copenhagen.
Exhibiting the saxophonists superhighway-wide vibrato and unique sense of timing and intonation, the tunes also feature Aylers most cohesive rhythm section and an exceptional front line partner. Drummer Sunny Murray, who would go on to play with avant-garde ensembles of varying quality in the following decades, had already codified his unique metric sense here. Sloppy as the sound of trash men tossing garbage can lids -- and a perfect foil for the saxophonists extended glossolalia -- precise as microsurgery elsewhere, Murray may not emphasize the beat like a bopper, but his rolls and sudden flams definitely keeps the tunes moving. Bassist Gary Peacocks trajectory started with the likes of flutist Bud Shank and pianist Bill Evans before this and appears to have reached its zenith with his present fame as one-third of pianist Keith Jarretts standards trio. He was actually no more experimental with Ayler than with his other employers. Yet his burnished arco slides and solid pizzicato timekeeping made a perfect foil to Murrays percussion explorations.
Over and above all this is the presence of trumpeter Don Cherry, probably the most cohesive and erudite brassman who ever worked with the saxophonist. Anomalous when compared to the style of the saxophonists most consistent playing partner, his brother, trumpeter Don Ayler, Cherrys scope is far different. In truth, Don Ayler was for all intents and purposes an apprentice, transferring Albert Ayler concepts to the valve instrument; Cherry was a mature stylist on his own.
He was already an apprentice hard bopper who had converted to the New Thing when he met Coleman. From that point on, the trumpeter showed then, and in his later creation of a variant of nascent so-called World Music, that he was easily able to mix the brassy showiness and rhythmic intensity of pre-Free Jazz soloists with a propitious inquisitiveness. By 1964 Cherry had not only played alongside Coleman for years in that saxophonists most significant combo, but worked with both Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Thus, throughout the disc, rather than guiding a proselyte, Ayler faces a foil who can match his intensity and emotion every step of the way. Furthermore the trumpeters capricious sincerity gives these mostly familiar tunes an added fillip and adds an astringent condiment to the saxophonists sometime mawkish, over-the-top presentation.
Recorded at Copenhagens Café Montmarte and a Danish radio studio, the CD includes announcements and asides by Ayler, an explanation of and introduction of the music and musicians by a local announcer and a brief, biographical statement by the saxophonist. He says that he had wanted to go to Scandinavia for some time because --over here I feel quite free. Subsequent performances would suggest that much of his freest playing was indeed done in Europe.
Lax in naming his compositions, this session features versions of tunes like Saints. Mothers, Vibrations and Mothers, which may or may not have been record under those names later on. There are multiple versions of some of the titles here as well. Yet Ayler was proof of drummer Shelly Mannes definition of jazz musicians: we never play anything the same way once.
Ayler fans and anyone interested in a well-recorded document of one of jazzs justified legends would be wise to pick up this disc.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Spirits 2. Vibrations 3. Saints 4. Mothers 5. Children 6. Spirits 7. Introduction 8. Vibrations 9. Saints 10. Spirits
Personnel: Albert Ayler (tenor saxophone); Don Cherry (pocket trumpet); Gary Peacock (bass); Sunny Murray (drums)
February 17, 2003