Thursday, January 29, 2004

Albert Ayler’s final recordings showed him making a fascinating turn from the frenetic free-jazz that had marked his career up to that point to a renewed interest in the rhythm and blues music with which he began his career. In 1967, Ayler signed with the Impulse! label which had begun to sign many luminaries of the 1960’s avant-garde. His first record for that label contained some of the best music he ever made – live concert recordings from the Village Vanguard featuring the intense and amazing “marching band from hell” improvisations of “The Truth is Marching In” and the elegiac and beautiful “For John Coltrane.” The most recent re-issue of this material is a two-disc set entitled The Village Concerts.

His first studio record for Impulse was the equally impressive and intense Love Cry, released in 1967. Hooking up with Call Cobbs, Alan Silva, his brother Donald and others, Ayler revisits his classic compositions “Ghosts” and “Bells” and also introduces new compositions, some of which feature Cobbs on harpsichord rather than piano.

Things really begin to change with Ayler’s next studio recording, New Grass. This record (still not re-issued on compact disc) features Ayler singing and playing in a very rock and r&b influenced context. New Grass begins with “Message From Albert” as he tries to explain this radical shift in direction. The music of the record itself is an uncomfortable mix of gospel, r&b and free jazz. Ayler sings songs of spiritual enlightenment and universal brotherhood in a very high-pitched voice. These are themes that he had explored throughout his musical career to this point, and it’s a matter of debate whether he was truly “selling out” in order to look for a larger audience or if he had decided that this was the way he needed to present his message.

Much like Miles Davis’ radical change to electrical music during this period, Ayler’s change was equally abrupt. But just as Davis’ 20 minute jams from Bitches Brew had little chance of being played on the radio, Ayler’s gospel r&b wasn’t going to make a dent in anything other then free-form college radio so it’s hard to believe a selling out strategy. Ayler’s earliest roots were in gospel and r&b and he had become involved in different ecstatic religious movements in his search for meaning and peace in the universe so this may have been another path he was set on exploring.

To be continued…

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