Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Richard Koloda - Holy Ghost: The Life And Death Of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler (Jawbone Press, 2022)

Who was Albert Ayler? That is a question that fans and musicians have struggled with for years, through generations of CDs falling in and out of print, limited edition boxes and ephemeral downloads and streams. The author does his best to provide factual and verifiable information about Ayler's life and music, beginning with his upbringing in a very religious and fraught family unit which Koloda believes left an indelible imprint upon him. Ayler was a talented if sheltered saxophone player who got important real world experience playing for two summers in the band of the blues great Little Walter. Ostensibly to skip out on an unplanned fatherhood and marriage, he joined the army, gathering further experience and opportunities to network with future collaborators. The author follows Ayler who after discharge makes his way through Scandinavia, playing wherever he gets the chance, notably with Cecil Taylor, and also making his first record, containing a version of "Summertime" which was quite controversial. Making the move to New York City, Ayler signs with the fledgling ESP-Disk against the advice of several fellow musicians, and here he would arguably reach his peak recording the classic trio alum Spiritual Unity along with Bells, Prophecy, Spirits Rejoice and the fully improvised film soundtrack New York Eye and Ear Control. Koloda splits the difference, providing evidence of the power and positive influence that Ayler was having on the jazz scene while also quoting from jazz journals that found Ayler's music wanting. Live recordings would dominate the mid-1960's, concerts that would only become fully realized deep into the CD era. His tour of Europe is a triumph in retrospect, but cracks were beginning to form, and the glorious music that was recorded in late 1966 / early 1967 was the end of his musical relationship with his brother Don and Dutch violinist Michael Samson. Ayler was now on Coltrane's label Impulse, but Corlrane was dead, and the author implies that pressure from the label led Ayler to make drastic changes. A snapshot of the live recordings, Albert Ayler In Greenwich Village, was glorious but didn't sell. Donald's last record with his brother is the underrated Love Cry, and while the tracks are much shorter and the harpsichord sounds out of place, Albert's saxophone is as ferocious as ever. But the knives would really come out for his final Impulse LPs. New Grass and Music is the Healing Force of the Universe pushed Ayler into a more rhythm and blues direction, which was at odds with his still vibrant saxophone playing. The lyrics and singing of his new girlfriend Mary Maria Parks was particularly controversial with quotes from Ayler's contemporaries disparaging her, and critics savaging her performances. Mental illness ran in the Ayler family, and Koloda quotes Ayler's slide into deep depression continued as the calendar turned into 1970. The one lifeline came from the French Foundation Maeght which hired Alyer for two well received concerts during the summer. But back in the States, in Cleveland or New York City, performance opportunities were drying up. Ayler's depression deepened and he spoke of apocalyptic religious ideas and a tour of Japan that may have been a delusion. Ayler's body was pulled from New York's East River in November of 1970. Although the author quotes some musicians that suspect foul play or an accident, most accept the coroners finding of suicide. It could be that Albert Ayler is fated to always be a mystery to us, and perhaps that is for the best. While Koloda develops an excellent annotated timeline of Ayler's life and his book is a fine collection of the responses of critics and fellow musicians to Ayler's music in real time as it developed, the essence will always be in the music itself, in the grooves, digits and streams. He transcends format to ensure that the Truth is Marching In. Holy Ghost: The Life And Death Of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler - amazon.com

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