Spirit’s Rejoice! Albert Ayler and His His Message by Peter Niklas Wilson
(Wolke PBK 176 pp. Book review by Andy Hamilton)
The late Peter Niklas Wilson was a sober, insightful commentator who wrote superb musical biographies of Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. His superb short biography of the prophet of the New Thing has now appeared in an excellent English translation.
Wilson spent six months in the USA following in Ayler’s footsteps. He had numerous conversations with contemporary witnesses, including Ayler’s father and brother, drummers Sunny Murray and Milford Graves, violinist Michael Samson, multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson, and bassist Gary Peacock. His biographical account is followed by compelling analysis of Ayler’s style, and his published and unpublished recordings.
Wilson shows how Ayler was always unconventional. An early friend, pianist Bobby Few, reported that he refused to tune his saxophone to the piano, because he was sure the instrument would find the right tuning by itself! Remarkably, Ayler had an early and successful career as a golfer, and won trophies that can be seen in one of the book’s illustrations – a greater contrast with the career of a free jazz pioneer could hardly be imagined.
Ayler’s motto was “escaping from notes to sounds”. Army colleague Tony Viscomi reports that “He always had this tone that sounded like a cacophony of howling voices”. Yet he didn’t hear the music of Coleman, Taylor or Coltrane till 1961, Viscomi claimed. In his military service, he was particularly taken with the march tunes. From the start of his career, many musicians thought him a charlatan. “I get thrown out everywhere – I don’t miss a single chord change but they just don’t understand me”, he complained.
The book outlines his recording career, most importantly with ESP. One of his most sympathetic partners was bassist Gary Peacock, who gave up working with Bill Evans in order to join him. As Wilson puts it, somewhat tendentiously, “after meeting Ayler [he] could not imagine getting seriously involved in Evans’ project of densely structured and precisely crafted jazz chamber music”. (Note that Peacock later was a musical partner of Keith Jarrett.) Peacock regarded Ayler’s playing as a “celebration of existence”, while Ayler believed that Peacock was “the best bass player that I ever met”. Ayler had a charismatic effect on more than one fellow musician. Another musical partner, cellist Joel Freedman – Wilson tells us that this is the correct spelling – reported that after a gig at the Village Gate, “When we stopped playing, I felt that my life had changed completely and irrevocably for the better”.
Free jazz is often associated with civil rights activism, but Ayler was not the most political of free jazz players. John Tchicai commented that “I’m sure Albert was concerned about the situation of the blacks in the 1960s. But as far as I know, he didn’t take part in any kind of political activity beyond his music”.
Stylistically, Wilson analyses Ayler’s love of folk song and march, his furious instrumental glossolalia and his pathos-freighted ballads. This was one of the great free jazz expressionists, perhaps the most influential and radical. Wilson explains the profound change in Ayler’s music around 1965 – he said “I’m trying to get more form in the free form”, making his music more accessible. He also argues that Ayler’s final period, 1968-70, should not be limited to the music of the much-contested album New Grass. Wilson’s opinions are always thoughtful and persuasive, and his book is highly recommended.
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