"Albert Did It With Love"

Jazz was my first musical love and remains my primary musical love. My parents both were serious big band fans when they were in their teens and twenties and they carried that love with them through my childhood and adolescence. Of course, ever the wise guy, when I started to stake out my own musical turf I gravitated towards – of all things – free jazz and what we didn’t yet call post-bop. I was listening to John Coltrane in 9th grade and after, and only came to rock in my later teens when I began to hear music that I could identify as jazz- and blues-influenced. (Please, no comments or e-mails stating the obvious. I was a stubborn kid and wore my mulishness with pride. Obviously, that hasn’t changed.)

But I have to admit that while my affinity for ‘Trane and his growing stable of acolytes on the Impulse! label, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry was largely instinctive rather than intellectual, I missed the boat on Albert Ayler. I owned a copy of New York Eye and Ear Control because it had Cherry and John Tchicai and the latter had played on Coltrane’s Ascension. (By the way, here’s a bizarre jazz trivia question: who is the only musician to play on both Ascension and Free Jazz, two keystone recordings of group free improvisation? Answer below.) At the time, I had no idea that NYEEC was a Michael Snow soundtrack; I doubt if I knew who Michael Snow was. Of course the multiple irony of that fact is that it was long after I became familiar with his work as a filmmaker that I found out that he had also recorded free jazz.

Yeah, Ayler eluded me for a long time. I think what I didn’t hear were two things that were strongly interrelated in his music. First, I had no concept of spirituality and was disdainful of the whole subject. Anyone who has read Essential Judaism knows that when I first returned to synagogue in the 1980s, I thought I was seeking a political community and only realized later that it was a spiritual center for my life that I had been needing. So Ayler’s intensely – INTENSELY – spiritual music zipped over my head. Second, what I responded to in free jazz was the sense of anger and danger. Somehow I instinctively understood that this was not a component of Albert Ayler’s music.

No, as the great Sunny Murray, who played drums with Ayler for much of the tenor man’s all-too-brief career, says at the end of My Name Is Albert Ayler, a Swedish docu about his music, “Albert played it with love.”

Kasper Collin’s film, which opens today (November 8) at Anthology Film Archives for a week-long run, is a very handsome valentine to Ayler’s music. Make no mistake about it, the focus of the film is very much on the music, although it is impossible to talk about his art without delving into some of Ayler’s life. He and younger brother Donald were born in Cleveland in what looks like a fairly middle-class home. His mother was apparently a semi-invalid, his father a part-time musician who taught Sunday school and who is the very embodiment of dignity. Albert began playing sax as a child. He encouraged his brother to play trumpet and would eventually bring him to New York to join his quixotic musical crusade.

As the film makes abundantly clear, the happiest times of his professional life came in Europe, mainly Sweden, where his undeniably difficult but very beautiful music found a responsive audience. Back in the States he won some acceptance from Coltrane and Ornette but audiences booed him off the bandstand on more than one occasion. Eventually Donald succumbed to mental illness and was sent back to Cleveland and institutionalized (although, as the film notes, he came out of retirement in the ‘80s briefly for a successful Italian tour). Albert experimented disastrously with rock music, possibly under the baleful influence of one of his many girlfriends. Then the 34-year-old Ayler disappeared one November morning from his Brooklyn home. On November 25, 1970 his body was found in the East River.

Unlike Coltrane, but with some affinity with Coleman and Steve Lacy, Ayler's compositions are fairly simple. As Margo observed while we were watching the film, they have an almost folksong-like quality and structure. And his improvising, while intense and densely layered, feels more like a cry of joy to the Creator than a scream of pain or rage. I hear a lot less of the split tones and the multiphonics they create in the playing of Coltrane and his followers; as Murray says, "his playing was so clean." But I won't lie -- it would be unfair to tell a first-time listener that this "easy" music, anymore than Michael Snow's films could be called easy.

When Collin began work on My Name Is Albert Ayler in 1998 he must have known that there wasn’t much footage of Ayler playing. He would have to build the film around interview material, some scratchy home movies and occasional newsreel footage to establish period, a process that took seven years. But Collin has brilliantly transformed an obstacle into an inspiration. The film is a superbly crafted visual fugue, utilizing repetitions on both soundtrack and image track to create a cinematic equivalent of musical motifs, all of which come together movingly in the film’s final dozen or so images, ending with Sunny Murray sagely observing that while contemporary tenor players are frequently brilliant, “They play so hard. Albert played it with love.”

The result is a deeply beautiful film that manages the rare feat – even more so these days – of being tragic without resorting to sentimentality, honest but deeply caring. It’s sort of like Albert Ayler’s music. I didn’t get that in 1970. I get it now.

*The only instrumentalist to play on both Ascension and Free Jazz is -- brace yourself -- Freddie Hubbard. Hard to believe if you're primary acquaintance with Hub is his work for Creed Taylor.