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Albert Ayler: Testifying The Breaking Point

Albert Ayler's fiery saxophone influenced the late period compositions of John Coltrane.
Michael Ochs Archives
Getty Images
Albert Ayler's fiery saxophone influenced the late period compositions of John Coltrane.

No one in jazz was as far out and far in as tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler. Far out in terms of how he improvised. Far in, in terms of the songs he wrote to improvise on. They sounded like a jumble of bugle calls, national anthems, nursery rhymes and drinking songs.

Music ran in the family. As a boy, Ayler had studied music and listened to jazz with his father, and they also played saxophone duets in church. As a memento, Albert later recorded an album of spirituals called Goin' Home.

Gospel saxophonists typically use a wide vibrato to make their sound more voice-like and unworldly. Ayler took that lesson to heart. His exaggerated vibrato also echoes old New Orleans jazz musicians like soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet and clarinetist George Lewis. Ayler also liked slow-drag tempos, but he'd stretch time even further. He stretched everything: time, pitch, and the very fabric of a saxophone's sound.

Once Ayler had developed his unique sound, the problem was deciding what went with it — what context might be suitable for it. In Denmark in 1963, he made a memorable record of standards called My Name is Albert Ayler, with a straight local rhythm section, including future Oscar Peterson bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen. The results sounded like worlds in collision — but the record had its own perverse charm.

What Ayler needed was a band that could stretch time and tonality the same way he did. In 1964, he led a trio which remains one of the great radical jazz groups. Like their boss, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray stretched the roles of their instruments almost to the breaking point, in music with an intensity and fervor that are hard to match. But it had shape too, especially on the essential, 1964 album Spiritual Unity.

Ayler's folksy tunes and abstract improvising may seem contradictory, but you could trace both to his church upbringing. He always saw music as having a spiritual dimension. Think of his meandering solos on basic tunes as a kind of meditation on sacred texts or "speaking in tongues," to use an analogy writers invoked in the 1960s.

Ayler's spirituality was surely one thing that drew John Coltrane to his music. You can hear the influence of Ayler's composing on some later Coltrane albums, such as Meditations and Stellar Regions.

As for his plainspoken melodies, with titles like "Spirits Rejoice," "Holy Holy" and "A Little Prayer," it helps to remember that bugle calls, national anthems, nursery rhymes and drinking songs are all designed to bring people together. Praying and testifying foster a sense of community, which is also what Ayler's music is about. In that light, even his amusingly misguided jazz-rock records of the late 60s — such as New Grass or Music is the Healing Force of the Universe — make perfect sense, reflecting his ecumenical vision and will to reach everyone. Ayler's raucous sound and populist leanings may give cultural conservatives the blues but, ironically, his initiatives were always faith-based.

On Nov. 5, 1970, Ayler's body was dredged from New York's East River; the circumstances of his death have never been fully explained.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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