Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Ghost in the Room of Modern Jazz

If I had to pick one jazz man who stands, or hovers, as the perfect spirit of avant garde jazz, it would be Albert Ayler.  The spirit that Ayler expressed so well was much larger than he, and it haunted jazz for a good decade between the mid-fifties and mid-sixties.  Maybe it never goes away.  It was a frustration with the limits of musical forms.  

Ayler said in an interview that the music he played was unavoidable and inevitable.  From an NPR film review by Howard Mandel, there is this Ayler quote:
"The music that we're playing now is just a different kind of blues," Ayler said. "It's the real blues, it's the new blues, and the people must listen to this music, because they'll be hearing it all the time. Because if it's not me, it'll be somebody else that's playing it. Because this is the only way that's left for the musicians to play. All the other ways have been explored."
That was nonsense, of course; but it expresses the frustrated spirit that possessed a lot of avant garde geniuses.  The brilliance of hard bop created an unquenchable hunger.  There just had to be something more out there.   Maybe there just wasn't.  

But for Ayler, this hunger was a personal tragedy.  He never could, because he could never, persuade enough listeners to build a sustainable audience.  He never could, because he could never, let go of the spirit that haunted him.  He lived as a man permanently alienated from everyone he loved in this world.  
"I was living pure frustration, like a madman, like a madman," Ayler once said. "I was up in my room when I went to Cleveland, playing, and I was beating like this on the floor. Then I go downstairs; my mother said to me, 'I don't think you're my child. When I was in the hospital, the man must have made a mistake and given me the wrong baby.' Made me cry. I cried, but I thought, I said, 'Hmm. Nobody understands what music — what I'm trying to do,' and I'm trying to understand it and it was, like, [a] very shaky situation."
This alienation surely contributed to his suicide in 1970.  Beware of great art.  It can kill.  

It is no wonder, then, that Ayler's music is so haunted.  His magnum opus is Spiritual Unity (1964), with the great Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on drums.  Another document, recorded live earlier in that year at "The Cellar Cafe" in New York, has the same trio doing the same material.

If "material " is the right word.  The cuts have titles like 'Ghosts', 'Spirits,' 'Wizard', and 'Prophecy.'  The Bells/Prophecy recordings are quite literally haunted.  There is a constant, ghostly moan, barely perceptible, but always present in the background.  I am not sure how it was produced.  It did rather give me the shivers.  

Here is a sample.  Listen for the moan. 
Albert Ayler/Prophecy/Spirits
If Ayler's music never went mainstream, he surely had a great influence on jazz and maybe even converted a few disciples to his dark church.  Guitarist Marc Ribot recorded an album entitled Spiritual Unity.  It has Ayler's frequent bass player Henry Grimes, with Roy Campbell on trumpet and Chad Taylor on drums.  Here is a cut for comparison:
Marc Ribot/Spirits/Spiritual Unity
It falls well short of the agony of Ayler's recordings, but the commentary is interesting nonetheless.  Ayler's music is very challenging.  It is worth meeting that challenge, for there is a spooky longing haunting nearly all of modern jazz.  In Ayler, the ghost is in the room. 

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