Albert Ayler’s Free Pop Modernism

I think I first fell in love with Albert Ayler’s music after watching the 2005 documentary about his life, My Name is Albert Ayler, at a 2011 ATP Festival.

I’d heard his music before and enjoyed it but coming to learn the story of his life made his music all the more resonant for me. I didn’t listen to much else for a long time afterwards, much to the dismay of my girlfriend at the time.

I haven’t seen the documentary since but I remember gaining this new understanding with him after I learned that he played in military bands as a younger man. The sonic legacy of that experience never left his work, even at its most “free”.

I’d grown up playing the cornet in an old miner’s band myself and, at first, I’d loved the uniforms and the ceremony of the local gigs we’d play, even if it was just Christmas carols in the lobby of an old folks’ home. After a few years, however, I rebelled against it.

After a time, all I was listening to was the likes of John Coltrane and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I wished I could play like them but there was no such opportunity. I remember saying to my teacher at school that I didn’t want to play movie themes anymore. I wasn’t to play jazz. So he had me learn the theme to Pink Panther. Nothing felt more horrifically uncool than that, I thought, until I’d end up playing the theme from ‘Out of Africa’ for the hundredth time with a bunch of octogenarians. Then I knew there were still new lows I could descend to.

I gave up when I left home to go to university and never really looked back but when I first heard the story of Albert Ayler, I remembered feeling quite nostalgic for that time in the brass band. What I loved about Ayler was that he played free with a sonic language I was already familiar with. I didn’t know any music theory and could barely read sheet music — I only ever knew the fingerings — but, more important than that, I knew its boundaries and its standards and its palette and its expectations. And I loved how Ayler shattered all of them.

The latter half of that year’s Nightmare Before Christmas festivities, curated by Caribou and Battles, was insane. (Unfortunately, I found the first Les Savy Fav-curated day to be really dull.) ATP is synonymous, in many respects, with that “dragging bands out of retirement to play their classic albums” schtick that dominated the late 2000s. It was very easy to be cynical about after a point but those weekends were also the most incredible melting pots of acts that it’s hard to imagine playing on the same bill in any other context today.

That weekend, for instance, we’d watched Underground Resistance and Gary Numan share a stage.

Then, the next day, Pharoah Sanders played. The Sun Ra Arkestra, led by Marshall Allen, did their usual thing as ATP favourites, putting “Enlightenment” in everyone’s heads for the rest of the weekend. Later, Silver Apples took it in another direction entirely, with something that sounded somewhere in between the night before and what was to come…

After a full day of feeling like I’d seen all these artists that existed in some mythical time before I was born play like the last thirty or forty years had never happened, there were tripped-out euphoric sets from Factory Floor, Omar Souleyman and DJ Rashad & DJ Spinn, all of whom were riding the hype machine but hadn’t yet released an album yet — except Souleyman, of course, but his were also hard to come by.

I remember on the train home to Wales that next day, my body felt broken. I felt like I had cultural whiplash, going from this weird nostalgia for a time I was too young to know and then being jerked forwards into the future-shock of a footwork party two years before Rashad took over the world with Double Cup. Even after dancing to him for a few hours, I had any real conscious idea what footwork was. I hadn’t even heard the name. I’d heard him completely devoid of context.

That Albert Ayler documentary — his sound, his approach, his reception, his reputation — permeated it all.

I was thinking about Ayler for the first time in a long time the other day because he was the subject of a Bandcamp “Lifetime Achievement” overview, going over a bunch of his albums that are available through the platform.

It’s a nice overview, I think, that articulates the fascination that persists with his legacy, both within the jazz world and further afield.

Mark Richardson writes:

Albert Ayler’s music represents a union of opposites. The tenor saxophonist and bandleader wanted to reach the masses with songs anyone could hum, but he appended these tuneful melodies with ferocious, free improvisation that pushed the limits of what most people considered music. He felt his work expressed universal love, spiritualism, and joy, but its sheer intensity brought to mind danger, violence, and calamity. He was deeply versed in tradition and thought of what he did as a modern extension of the blues. But his innovations put him at the leading edge of the avant-garde, to the extent that many of his own peers said they couldn’t understand what he was doing. Because of the tension between Ayler’s stated aims and their sometimes-confusing realization, he’s remained a cult figure, especially admired by forward-thinking musicians but mostly ignored by the listening public. Sadly, we never got to hear the whole story, as he died in 1970 at age 34 under mysterious circumstances.

The way that Ayler moved, seemingly without friction, from traditional jazz standards to the bleeding edge of brass modernism, is a perfect example of a popular modernism that I’ve been trying to work my head around lately — this “anti-ego” approach to cultural production that is everywhere and supposedly nowhere, gone from the mainstream and the imaginations of a general public.

At CTM Festival, Dhanveer had challenged this section of Mark’s thought, arguing that just because there was a deluge of experimentation amongst rockists doesn’t mean this cultural mourning had to permeate everything. (I think Mark knew this very well but he just liked winding people up.) But there is still a sense, I think, that some of the players who were farthest out were tragically undervalued then and still are.

Ayler’s approach feels particularly poignant here. He was able to turn this schizo approach into a kind of “standard” all of his own. Take a track like “Ghosts”, for instance — its most famous variation appearing as the opening track on his 1964 album Spiritual Unity.

The first few notes sound like the slow reveal of a one-man orchestra warming up, becoming attuned to himself, before falling comfortably into a Dixieland number that swings only for a few moments before the rest of the band joins in. What results is not chaos, however. It is the spiritual unity of jazz standard and free intensity. Ghosts — plural — emerge in perfect disharmony, presenting a gospel that is truly pop and truly blue; both joyful and haunted.

It was his “hit”, in many ways, and he would play it live often throughout his career, as well as releasing numerous versions of it on his later albums. It is a track supposedly synonymous with free jazz today — a “cornerstone of the genre”, declared one YouTube video description I saw whilst trying to find the best version to embed — but it is also, paradoxically, a song from which a new tradition emerges. It is a free jazz standard — as if there could be such a thing — and this makes far more sense within the context of Ayler’s oeuvre than the variations of any other player that might have been referred to the same way in that moment.

Whilst the Bandcamp overview is nice, it is also eschews — as is common with appraisals of Ayler’s body of work — his later and most explicit pop moments. Free jazz undulating with the ghosts of jazz standards is one thing — something for the ‘heads to ponder wistfully today, perhaps — but less is said about Ayler’s forays into far more explicit funk and soul territory.

Although it was present, embryonically, on the funereal “Love Cry”, from the 1968 album of the same name, which appears to be a farewell best-of before he would turn his art on its head, this sentiment of imbuing the counterculture free-love moment of that time with the intensity of black unrest is present far more explicitly on his final and most underrated album, 1969’s New Grass.

Where Ayler would take this sound next is unknown. Within a year, he was dead, found drowned in the East River, like Rufus in James Baldwin’s Another Country. But there seemed to be no great existential crisis following this moment. Ayler was already lost.

Hated at the time of its release, no less admired today, New Grass nonetheless feels like a powerful attempt at a reinvention to me; an attempt to drag the future back, kick and sceaming, into the present. Once before Ayler had tried to lead his fellow countrymen out of a “standard”-ised jazz into new potentials, as a pied piper for the Outside — and he largely succeeded — but he did not rest on his laurels. He was looking for what came next, and found it.

Ayler had once counted John Coltrane amongst his peers, famously performing a cathartic rip of a set at his funeral. Having fans in high places, however, did not save him. Following the release of New Grass, which sold badly, he was dropped by his label. He was, at that time, playing as good as he ever had, but his relentless foray into a contemporary pop sound, laden with ear-splitting free solos, left him playing to the wind. There were reports of him being mentally unwell already by that point and, in 1970, he reportedly committed suicide (although the circumstances surrounding of his death left many unanswered questions.)

It is clear that something died that day but, in hearing the story of Ayler’s life, it is not clear that many are aware of what exactly that was. I have a theory though…

I’ve always found it interesting that Ayler was better received in Europe than in his native America. He toured extensively there and, for a time, considered moving to Scandinavia permanently, so he no longer had to put up with the misunderstandings that plagued him and his output back home.

I’ve always wondered if this foreign appreciation had something to do with the relationship between brass bands and politics that permeated out from the mining towns of Northern Europe. Even today, in the North of England, brass bands are synonymous with unionised labour.

Jeremy Deller famously tried to combine acid house with brass band culture a few years back and, obviously, a lot of people loved it, but all he succeeded in doing, to my ears, is producing something a bit like when the BBC Proms does Doctor Who.

I was reading what Mark had to say about all that the other day in his “Requiem for Popular Modernism”:

What a contrast with the lame, sub-John Williams syrup that the BBC ladles over the current Dr Who series. This shrill, postmodern confectionery couldn’t be less unheimlich. By firm contrast with the radiophonic’s anempathic sounds, which rendered even the most everyday scene weird and alienating, the new music Tells You Exactly What to Feel…

Deller’s fault seems to be that he does much the same thing in his work. By simply connecting the professionalism and discipline of the contemporary brass band with the Acid House of yesteryear he reveals how — woah! would you believe it! — there is proper musicality in rave after all. It becomes a novelty piece for boomers who never understood their Gen X kids. It removes the politics rather than updating them.

Evidently, Deller missed Ayler’s trans-Atlantic communions. He was well ahead of his time with all that. He brought the rave out of the brass band. He didn’t need to re-enlist and bring the free jazz to the military. His was a proper popular modernism, even if it wasn’t so popular back home.

Today, his “Ghosts” is as poignant for me as Japan’s “Ghosts” was for Mark — an atemporal eulogy, written ahead of time, for something that had not yet died but soon would. (Ayler would only get name-checked once by Mark but in a very suitable pop mod context.)

When Ayler died, a new era of jazz modernism went with him. It never recovered and canonising his early work hasn’t helped. Extending the trajectory found on New Grass, cut short by the refutations of his own audience, seems like an impossibility now. There are plenty of players pushing limits and cross-polinations — Matana Roberts once felt like Ayler’s true successor — but the Outsideness of free jazz lost its moment in the spotlight.

I wonder if things might have been different if Ayler had been able to persevere.

I’m not sure there’s an equivalent today of his supposedly tasteless extremes today…

If there is, it’s still as hard an uncool pill to swallow…

Clipse, Kanye and Kenny G, anyone?

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