Reissue Of The Week: Albert Ayler’s Revelations

Daniel Spicer gets to grips with the newly minted five LP set, Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondation Maeght Recordings, and finds the crowning triumph of Albert Ayler's career as a live performer

Recorded at two high-profile concerts given on July 25th and 27th 1970 at the Fondation Maeght, a prestigious cultural institution in southern France, the music contained on the new multi-disc set Revelations represents the crowning triumph of saxophonist Albert Ayler’s career as a live performer. Playing in a specially constructed geodesic dome (a year ahead of Don Cherry’s famous residency in a similar structure at Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art), Ayler captivates over a thousand French youngsters, for whom he embodies a kind of shamanic sorcerer. The audience roars its approval of every tune. Familiar themes from Ayler’s canon are welcomed like greatest hits with delirious enthusiasm. Encores are demanded with boisterous clapping and stamping.

It’s a far cry from the last time Ayler had performed in France, just a few years earlier in November 1966, when fights broke out between a small group of admirers and a much larger cohort of audience-members angered by his barrages of sound-energy and stratospheric altissimo squeals. Writing in 2004, Daniel Caux, the journalist who organised the 1970 gigs, explained: “With the student riots of May 1968, a lot of things changed in France as regards the perception of new artistic forms. In its extreme radicalism and its blatant rejection of show business, the ‘free jazz’ played by African-Americans became a musical banner for young French protestors almost overnight. This is the reason why Albert Ayler – to his big surprise – was welcomed as a hero by the public who came to see him at the Maeght Foundation in 1970.”

For Ayler, it must have seemed like a tantalising vision of an alternate reality. Back home in the US – and despite having signed to the Impulse! label thanks to an endorsement from John Coltrane – he was still living in poverty and relative obscurity, struggling to break out of the seedy clubs of the Lower East Side and be heard by a wider audience. Writing in the Village Voice in 1967, Mike Zwerin predicted that “without more… artistic handling, Albert will continue to be only the obscure underground hero he is now. That’s a shame too, because, given the chance to hear it, a lot of people could find his music important”. Certainly, Ayler himself was convinced that his art would somehow, one day, find a way of speaking to the world. “If people don’t like my music now, they will,” he promised. “Appreciation is a matter of time.”

Yet, during his lifetime – and notwithstanding the triumph at Fondation Maeght – the recognition and connection Ayler craved largely eluded him. He remained an outsider. And, of course, a large part of that was due to the challenging music he made. For one thing, Ayler was never really a jazz musician. Sure, as a teenager in Cleveland in the 1950s, he played bebop and bar-walking R&B, both to a high standard, but these were merely the idioms he grew up in, the vocabularies with which he first learned to express himself. One only has to listen to his extravagantly unorthodox solos on standards such as ‘I’ll Remember April’ and ‘On Green Dolphin Street,’ cut for his early-60s recording debuts Something Different!!!!! and My Name Is Albert Ayler, to get an idea of just how little he cared about the rules of jazz. From the start, he was straining to break free, to take risks in the pursuit of his own idiosyncratic musical vision.

By the same token, while Ayler is universally credited as being a key early architect of free jazz, there’s a very real sense that, rather than seeking to develop or evolve jazz, he (like other pioneers such as Cecil Taylor) was consciously transcending its limitations in order to work out his own conception, using jazz as a springboard from which to articulate daring new ideas. In precisely the same way that jazz was originally created by newly emancipated ex-slaves using the cast-off, marching band instruments that were readily to hand, Ayler used jazz instrumentation and arrangements because these were the raw materials available to him. As his art coalesced into a coherent, highly personalised form in the mid-60s, it drew just as much on Christian spirituals and the European and Scandinavian folk tunes and marches he’d heard while stationed overseas in the army as it did on the collective improvisation of early New Orleans jazz.

In fact, Ayler’s impetus was to return to an idealised form of pure, spiritual music that he felt had been embodied in these earliest forms of jazz. In 1966, he told journalist Gudrun Endress: “The true spirit was in New Orleans jazz, that’s what I’m trying to bring back into music, the true spiritual feeling or jubilation, a prayer to God… The artists who play this music are beyond the civilization that exists today.” This prelapsarian urge, in itself, was just one facet of a deeply felt spiritual impulse that bordered on apocalyptic mysticism, conveyed through album and track titles such as ‘Holy Ghost,’ ‘Spirits Rejoice’ and Spiritual Unity, and the lofty religious pronouncements Ayler was fond of making. In 1965, he told French publication Jazz Magazine: “The music we are playing today will help people to know themselves better and to find inner peace more easily… The music we play is a prayer, a message coming from God… For me, the only way I can thank God for His ever-present creation, is to offer Him a new music imprinted with beauty that no one, before, had heard.”

Despite it’s Christian overtones, it’s easy to see how this kind of sentiment overlapped with the LSD-fuelled hippie mysticism of the day (in fact, Ayler’s 1967 album In Greenwich Village sported a psychedelic cover conspicuously designed to resemble a poster for an acid-rock show). But was Ayler himself psychedelically informed? Opinion seems to be divided on the subject. Bassist Gary Peacock told French jazz journalist Laurent Goddet that, back in 1964 when he was playing in the saxophonist’s trio, Ayler was a sober, serious young man: “He didn’t drink, he didn’t take drugs.” Fast forward to 1970 and bassist Steve Tintweiss, in the liner notes to Revelations, describes Ayler walking around the grounds of the Fondation Maeght “with a joint in his hand.” One thing we do know is that many of the early free jazz players on the so-called New York New Thing scene were enthusiastic users of LSD. In his highly entertaining memoir, The Traveller, clarinettist Perry Robinson talks candidly about tripping regularly with drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Henry Grimes, both of whom worked closely with Ayler.

While we can’t be sure if Ayler partook in psychedelics, the fact that he performed at Fondation Maeght on 25 July wearing an ankle length white robe with golden trim and a full-brimmed cowboy hat perched on the back of his head seems to suggest he’d experienced a certain loosening of conventions by the beginning of the 70s. Moreover, he had, for some time, been accessing profound hallucinatory states through the vibrations of his music. Speaking of a 1964 recording session with Ayler and Grimes, Murray recalled: “We felt like we were on LSD. We weren’t taking LSD, but we were having spiritual hallucinations. I was seeing weird things in the air, Albert was talking to himself – we were out there, man.”

Clearly, there was a lot more to Ayler’s music than just blowing jazz changes. In fact, he rarely used the word “jazz” to describe the art he made, preferring instead to call it “free spiritual music” or “universal music.” By the time of the gigs at Fondation Maeght this music was driven by an overwhelming urge to communicate his redemptive ecstatic revelations. He was on a personal crusade to heal a world torn apart by war, racism and the socio-political turmoil of the 1960s – to return humankind to a kind of Edenic innocence and spiritual completeness – and he genuinely believed that music held the key.

In an attempt to spread this message as far as possible, he took drastic aesthetic measures. In 1968 he released the controversial album, New Grass, which featured up-tempo, gospel-tinged R&B tunes with electric bass, soul horns, the great drummer Bernard Purdie holding down a tight back-beat and – for the first time – Ayler’s wavering vocals delivering impassioned sermons concerned with unity, evolution and love. It was derided by fans and critics alike, who suspected Ayler had been coerced into selling out by Impulse! records attempting to recoup some of their investment. But, for Ayler, the change in direction was primarily a wide-eyed, idealistic attempt to reach a bigger audience and had little to do with financial gain.

The following year, he followed this with the release of one his defining statements, Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe, which largely turned away from the pop sensibility of New Grass to deliver one of his most mystifying albums. Free jazz is, once again, the presiding energy, with Ayler blowing both tenor sax and bagpipes, but there’s also a somewhat stodgy electric blues jam featuring Henry Vestine of psychedelic blues band, Canned Heat: a musical misfire that was a clear attempt to connect with white hippie youth. The album also introduced the vocals of Mary Parks, a singer and songwriter known professionally as Mary Maria, whom Ayler married in 1969. Parks became an increasingly pivotal figure during the last years of Ayler’s life, handling his artistic management and influencing the direction his music took, and she’s still viewed by many with a misogynistic mistrust similar to that aimed at Yoko Ono. Yet, it’s clear that Ayler valued her vocal and lyrical contributions on philosophical meditations such as ‘A Man Is Like A Tree’ as another important way of making his message of spiritual transformation more accessible.

On Revelations, we get the clearest picture yet of where Ayler’s art was heading at the turn of the 1970s as he assimilated all these impulses and continued to extend his reach. Heavily edited selections from the Fondation Maeght gigs have previously appeared on a handful of bootleg albums – Nuits De La Fondation Maeght Volumes 1 & 2 on the French Shandar label in 1971, and Live On The Riviera on ESP-Disk in 2005 – but this is the first time both concerts have been presented in full, sourced from pristine recordings made by Radio France, with all tracks included in the order in which they were performed. What’s revealed is Ayler leading a band that is more powerful, dynamic and versatile than the previous snippets have suggested.

Mary Parks is a major presence throughout, with her clear, strident vocals lending a certain authority to the spoken sermonising of ‘Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe’ and the folksy calypso of ‘Island Harvest.’ On ‘Heart Love,’ her vocal duet with Ayler transforms the song from the bubblegum toe-tapper heard on New Grass into something far more haunting and elegiac. But the biggest surprise is her previously unheard prowess on soprano saxophone: on ‘Revelations 2’ she blows up a fierce storm, coiled around Ayler’s wailing bagpipe reaching upward for altissimo in extremis. In fact, it’s the six numbered group improvisations entitled ‘Revelations’ that form the heart of these sessions, giving the young rhythm section of bassist Steve Tintweiss and drummer Allen Blarman room to really stretch out beyond Ayler’s stiff marches and indulge in wild stridulations and unexpected, driving swing. Their contributions may lack the subtlety of the diaphanous webs spun by Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray in Ayler’s early days, but they impart a ragged and infectious energy that’s hard to resist.

On the second concert, the group is joined by keyboardist Call Cobbs – a mysterious figure, 25 years older than Ayler, who had worked with him on and off since 1964, adding harpsichord flourishes to albums such as Spirits Rejoice and Love Cry. Here, playing piano, his stolidly unadventurous chordal approach reins in the free improvisations but adds a stately grandeur to themes such as ‘Truth Is Marching In,’ summoning a heartfelt, almost melancholic sincerity from Ayler. For his part, Ayler plays with enormous power and gravity throughout both shows, investing yearning themes such as ‘Ghosts’ with new depths of feeling.

It’s all rapturously received by the French audience, with an ecstatic fervour that sometimes feels more akin to a religious event than a jazz gig. There’s even a track – the last piece performed on 25 July – called ‘Speaking In Tongues,’ on which Ayler and Parks indulge in unabashed Pentecostal vocal glossolalia. There’s a joyfulness at play, for sure, but also a sense of apocalyptic urgency, a need to get the message out while there’s still time. Indeed, for Ayler, the end times were not far off. Four months later, after a period of worsening emotional and psychological instability, his body was recovered from the East River in New York City. He was just 34 years old.

We’ll never know where his music might have gone, what he might have achieved had he lived. But it’s perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that his death was potentially as much of a loss to the counterculture as Jimi Hendrix’s had been just two months earlier. Like Hendrix, he was using his music to break across racial boundaries with an inclusive message of love – a message that was just beginning to be heard when it was abruptly and tragically curtailed. It’s a message that’s still needed. Now more than ever.

Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondation Maeght Recordings is out now

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