Book reviews

Richard Koloda – ‘Holy Ghost: The Life And Death Of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler’

Richard KolodaHoly Ghost: The Life And Death Of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler
(Jawbone Press. 312pp. Book review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

There seems to be increased interest in the music of Albert Ayler. Ayler was undoubtedly, alongside John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders, one the pioneers of the free jazz movement in the US in the 1960s, but has not really received the recognition that the others have had. Ayler’s music in his various ensembles was different in many aspects from that of these other pioneers, but Ayler saw himself as the Holy Ghost alongside Coltrane as the Father and Pharoah Sanders as the Son.

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Recently there have been a number of reissues of Ayler’s sessions, notably the La Cave in Cleveland sessions on Exx-thetic Records, the excellent box set of unissued recordings brought out in 2004 by the Revenant label. The book Spirits Rejoice by Peter Niklas Wilson was published in German in 1996, but only made available in Jane White’s English translation in 2022, and now the very comprehensive Holy Ghost book is published.

I fear nonetheless that the aspect of Ayler’s life  that most people remember is that he almost certainly committed suicide, and was found in the Hudson River, and that the BBC decided against broadcasting a recording of the band made in London and wiped the tape. His music has often been forgotten.

Richard Koloda’s biography goes a long way towards to putting this right. There are detailed descriptions of all of Ayler’s key recordings, from the early recordings in Scandinavia through to the late recordings at the Nuits de la Fondation Maeght (4-CD set, review link below).  These descriptions are accompanied by detailed quotes from critics’ reviews of the time, both positive and negative, so that one is made aware of the controversy surrounding Ayler’s music. Certainly these descriptions make one return to and listen again to the original recordings with fresh insight.

Ayler was brought up in a religious family in Cleveland, and was taught to play the saxophone by his father who insisted on complete dedication to music and constant practice. In his youth he played in school orchestras and marching bands, and toured with blues harmonica player Little Walter. After a spell as a musician in the US Army, he settled in Europe feeling that it provided a more welcoming environment for his music than the US. In that period Ayler made recordings with Finnish, Swedish and Danish groups, and Koloda provides an illuminating analysis of Ayler’s solo on a version of Summertime on the My Name Is Albert Ayler album recorded in Copenhagen.

On his return to the US Ayler played with Cecil Taylor and recorded the iconic Spiritual Unity album with bass player Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. His next project was the expanded group with his brother Don Ayler on trumpet and classical violinist Michel Sansom. This group toured and was recorded live in France, Germany and Sweden; Ayler’s music at this stage was built around marches, spirituals and collective improvisation that had some of the essence of early New Orleans jazz. John Szwed is quoted on the cover as suggesting that Ayler’s music could be seen as an early form of Afrofuturism in its use of the past to create a new future.

Subsequently Ayler, supported by his partner Mary Parks and record producer Bob Thiele, attempted to build a larger audience for his music by incorporating into his music elements of commercial rock and soul.  It appears that the record company hoped to build on the success of Miles Davis’ blending of jazz and rock in Bitches Brew.  This did not happen for Ayler, and Koloda in the final chapters describes how lack of recognition and commercial success plus troubles with his brother Don, who suffered from mental illness, led to Ayler becoming increasingly depressed and isolated. All this is extremely well documented by Koloda and his description of the period of depression and isolation which led to Ayler’s suicide goes a long way to answering questions about that final episode of his life.

This is an important book that comes at a time when many listeners and critics are rediscovering Ayler’s work. It combines analysis of the recordings and description of Ayler’s short life very effectively, and makes one keen to return to listen to his music.     

LINKS: Buy Holy Ghost from Presto Music

More about Holy Ghost at Jawbone Press

Jon Turney’s review of the 1970 Fondation Maaeght set

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