The Jubilant Glory of Albert Ayler’s “Revelations”

The music of Albert Ayler—who died in 1970, at the age of thirty-four—is the ne plus ultra of jazz. He did for music what Jackson Pollock did for painting and, like Pollock, he didn’t live long enough to show all he could do with the familiar forms gone. Ayler, whose recording career began in 1962, jettisoned foot-tapping rhythm, tonality, and chord structure; above all, however, he jettisoned moderation. His performances were of an unprecedented vehemence. Anyone can noodle without structure, but Ayler turned his whirlwind fervor into a form in itself. In the last few years of his life, he was searching for new styles, and his search, documented in a series of commercial releases from 1968 onward, has left a sense of frustration—of an unresolved and even desperate quest. The new release of Ayler’s “Revelations,” from Elemental Music (a four-CD set, also available on vinyl), featuring recordings of two concerts that he gave in France several months before his death, shows where that quest was leading; it’s a crowning, jubilant glory, albeit a sadly terminal one.

Throughout his career, Ayler’s improvisations, mostly on tenor sax, roared and shrieked and shredded the very notion of chords and notes to reach a realm of pure sound. But he never dispensed with melody; his wildest expatiations took off from his compositions, often brief and ditty-like, that had the overt, ingenuous, melodic candor of spirituals and marches, gospel shouts and folk songs. In his recordings from the mid-sixties—in such albums as “Spiritual Unity,” “Ghosts,” “Prophecy,” and “Bells”—his extended, furious solos meshed curiously well with these seemingly primeval conjurings. His groups also featured collective improvisations, fury with fury, in which Ayler was joined by other soloists, on trumpets and saxophones, who conjured the freewheeling ecstasies of New Orleans jazz but with jagged edges that seemed to link the heavens and the streets. For all their abrasiveness and clamor, these mid-sixties recordings have the feel of instant classicism; though lacking the underpinnings of pop-music forms, they have the inner logic of intellectual conviction and emotional necessity.

These recordings were instantly, vastly influential, as was Ayler himself. Born in Cleveland, in 1936, where he became a prominent musician while still a teen-ager, he joined the Army in 1958 and was assigned to perform in military bands while stationed in France. His first breakthrough came in performances with the pianist Cecil Taylor’s group, in Denmark, in 1962. He went to New York in 1963, and, with his wildly original styles and ideas, had trouble finding work. Other musicians recognized his importance, none more than John Coltrane, who avowed Ayler’s profound influence on him, and who brought Ayler to perform with him in a 1966 concert at Lincoln Center. (Coltrane, who recorded for the Impulse! label, also arranged for Ayler to get a recording contract there.) But, in finding his form so quickly, Ayler also reached an impasse quickly. Ayler’s record producers seem to have wanted him to rely on more commercial styles. Many of his late-sixties recordings featured vocals, electric instruments, and rock backbeats, but Ayler’s own improvisations didn’t mesh well with them. He seemed to cushion and contain his improvisations in a variety of pop-music styles that sounded borrowed rather than developed.

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These albums also featured lyrics and vocals by Mary Parks, a.k.a. Mary Maria—Ayler’s partner, his manager, and, ultimately, his spouse. In the somewhat jerry-rigged studio settings, they, too, seemed like grafts rather than essential elements of Ayler’s music. But the “Revelations” set proves that Parks’s work—not only her lyrics but her musical inventions—were vastly inspiring to Ayler. The studio context of commercial recordings didn’t favor their personal and musical connection, but the two concerts in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, in July, 1970—which were recorded for French radio—did so. The first of the two concerts, on the 25th, featured a quartet that included Ayler, Parks, the bassist Steve Tintweiss, and the drummer Allen Blairman. The pianist Call Cobbs missed his flight and was present only for the second date. As a result, the first July performance put Ayler and Parks together in the front line; this gave Parks’s compositions and her styles more prominence and offered the musical interaction between the two of them ample space and time. It showed that Ayler indeed had a new, late manner, undisplayed in his commercial releases, which brought together a wide range of influences and ideas, styles and methods, and of which Parks’s contributions were the core. The collaboration held great promise for a vast musical reimagination to come, but it also flourished, with irrepressible energy, in this pair of concerts (which the “Revelations” set presents as they were originally performed, in strict chronological order).

The opening number, “Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe,” starts with Ayler playing unaccompanied, adding his own cosmic vibrations to the raucous swagger of a bar-walking R. & B. saxophonist. Parks then recites, in a theatrical Sprechstimme, her lyrics (“Music causes all bad vibrations to fade away; it makes one want to love instead of hate”), joined by Ayler’s tender obbligatos. There was always an element of rapturous love in Ayler’s music, but, here, it has a direct, personal intimacy that’s manifest in its tone. He also offers some wondrously wild saxophone shrieking, and then Parks recites some more, but, when Ayler returns, it’s not with wildness but with a simple melody that he repeats and reworks with an obsessive, incantatory insistence.

The musical variety of the concert is astonishing. Parks sings in tongues, to Ayler’s accompaniment in the frenzied high register; Ayler sings in tongues and, building on the same melodies, solos on soprano sax with ferocious, frantic, sky-scaling shrieks. Parks sings to a catchy calypso in the vein of Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas.” She, too, plays soprano sax on many pieces with an altogether distinctive, deep, overtone-laden sound. Their saxophone duets are among the highlights of the set; Parks is a less experienced, less studied saxophonist, but her solos are both fiercely expressive on their own and part of a musical dialogue with Ayler that has a palpable unity of purpose. After one song by Parks, Ayler segues—with Blairman whipping up a bouncy storm behind him—into a high-stepping, fast-motion march; a ballad-like, preaching peroration; and a strutting, dance-like coda, sending a clear message to anyone who doubts what it means for free jazz to swing. Elsewhere, Ayler, playing tenor, and Parks, on soprano, play with such fury that Blairman and Tintweiss are yelling, and it seems as if the dome under which the show is performed will be blown apart by their energy.

Throughout these two concerts, Ayler gathers and transfigures a vast range of musical traditions that are foregrounded all the more prominently in the second concert, on July 27th. There, Cobbs, a far more traditional musician, collaborates with Ayler vigorously, and Parks’s contribution to the group is subordinated. Cobbs had a background in swing and a job playing in church (Ayler recorded an album of spirituals, “Goin’ Home,” with him in 1964). Popular moods and tones are more dominant on this recording, with Cobbs’s rolling chords meshing with a backbeat, a rollicking march, and jaunty blues. At times, Ayler shifts his melodic delight into whirling, obsessively repetitive, trance-like incantations, but, when he takes off into his most furious extremes, the pianist seems out of place. Nonetheless, Parks’s involvement is vital to this concert, too: on numbers she sings with Ayler’s obbligatos, the collaboration displays a tenderness recalling the duets of Billie Holiday and Lester Young. On the extraordinary “Holy Holy,” a speedy tune reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Impressions,” Parks’s soprano-sax solo has the resonant depth of a tenor; she and Ayler play together in furious, free-rhythm joint improvisations that resolve to something like bebop with a heavy blues edge.

In these recordings, the proximity of instrumental performance to singing and to speech, the kinship of musical fury to simple song, put Ayler’s already classic freestyles of the mid-sixties into context—into a frame. Ayler breaks into melody as if he can’t stay away—as if the free style that he’d brought to fruition is now more a choice than an imperative. That manner comes off, here, as only one of his many aspects of self-portraiture. These new explorations of Ayler’s many formative traditions—the great heritage of Black music, and also other forms, such as military marches and even “La Marseillaise”—were also modes of self-exploration. Yet this artistic introspection also connected him more surely with the wider world and with the times. His musical collaboration with Parks is the personal, passionate mainspring of that transformation.

Ayler suffered greatly from the isolation that he endured for his boldly original music, for the controversy that it sparked. The two concerts at the Maeght Foundation, a high-art venue, were something of a coronation ceremony. The crowds were large; Tintweiss estimated that the first concert had approximately a thousand spectators—the second, about fifteen hundred. The event was widely reported and acclaimed in the local press; Ayler and the band were received like celebrities. (In an interview in the copious booklet accompanying the CD set, Blairman cites his shock that a hundred or so people lined up to ask for the musicians’ autographs.) As joyous as the performances in “Revelations” are, perhaps the most thrilling sound is the audience’s ardent, unrelenting applause and cheering throughout, the concluding waves of rhythmic clapping for encore after encore, craving more, more, more. Ayler’s mysterious death—he disappeared for several weeks, and his body washed up in the East River, at a Brooklyn pier, on November 25, 1970—left them and the entire world of music in need.

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