Albert Ayler / Call Cobbs / Bill Folwell / Mary Maria ParksFebruary 13, 2006
Weirdest of all of saxophonist Albert Ayler’s 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 Hendrix’s ELECTRIC LADYLAND, The Grateful Dead’s ANTHEM OF THE SUN and the Mothers of Invention’s WE’RE 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 Maria’s simple lyrics and overdubbing a studio horn section over Call Cobb’s raunchy keyboards and Bill Folwell’s electric bass – not to mention Purdie’s 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 couldn’t sing and he didn’t 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 Gayle’s work today. There was no sex in Albert Ayler’s 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 aren’t 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 music’s hegemony, appeared on the scene.
Historically fascinating, NEW GRASS is also a heck of a lot of big-beat fun. Ayler’s 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. Everybody’s 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)