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Albert Ayler's Fiery Sax, Now on Film

Albert Ayler was a renegade — even for the 1960s.

He was a modest man with a wild saxophone style that exploded children's songs, march melodies and gospel hymns into dense improvisations that foresaw the hardcore, noise, and experimental rock styles of today. In fact, a new generation of primarily rock fans is discovering Ayler's music, thanks in large part to reissues of his original recordings, as well as several tribute albums and a recent documentary.

Ayler's 1963 debut album is titled My Name Is Albert Ayler. It's also the title of a recent Swedish documentary on the firebrand saxophonist.

From My Name Is Albert Ayler: Albert Ayler (tenor sax), Niels Bronsted (piano), Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (bass), Ronnie Gardiner (drums)

The film's director, Kasper Collin, thought there was a good story in the black American's apprenticeship touring Sweden with conventional dance bands in 1962, the confusion his intense originality prompted from musicians and listeners alike, and his triumphant return as a headliner with the touring Newport Jazz Festival in 1966.

But Collin was unsure of how to create a portrait of a musician found floating in New York's East River, evidently a suicide, just four years later. Then he discovered some extraordinary footage.

Burning Eyes

"That is the beautiful shot of Albert naked from his chest and up — it's like a 30-40 seconds long shot, but he's just looking into the camera, and he has beautiful, burning eyes," Collin says. "It was very, very moving. So I kind of decided then, if this is the only footage, we [can] try to make at least a small film."

Instead of a small film, Collin persisted in his research and came up with a 79-minute movie. He interviewed Ayler's Swedish colleagues and girlfriend; he tracked down his American collaborators, including drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Gary Peacock; and he eventually traveled to Cleveland to meet Ayler's then-89-year-old father and his surviving brother.

The film My Name Is Albert Ayler depicts a man of pure vision and aesthetic daring. Mostly misunderstood in the jazz world, he evoked both pride and despair in his family and friends.

"I was living pure frustration, like a madman, like a madman," Ayler once said. "I was up in my room when I went to Cleveland, playing, and I was beating like this on the floor. Then I go downstairs; my mother said to me, 'I don't think you're my child. When I was in the hospital, the man must have made a mistake and given me the wrong baby.' Made me cry. I cried, but I thought, I said, 'Hmm. Nobody understands what music — what I'm trying to do,' and I'm trying to understand it and it was, like, [a] very shaky situation."

Paying Tribute

Ayler's mix of ingenuous simplicity and improvisational fervor has found a large corps of devoted fans. Marc Ribot, one of the most acclaimed progressive guitarists on the New York scene, comes out of a rock, rhythm-and-blues, and "no wave" background. He asserts that Ayler's language is a jazz beyond jazz.

"The chord language of his compositions goes between the tonal language of spirituals, of military marches and occasionally the blues," Ribot says. "It goes between there and pretty dense atonality without ever stopping in between at bebop, let's say."

Ribot put together a band called Spiritual Unity — named after one of Ayler's albums — to celebrate and transform Ayler's music. Vinny Golia, a composer and multi-instrumentalist at the hub of the Los Angeles post-jazz scene, is one of the voices on another tribute album, Healing Force: The Songs of Albert Ayler.

Golia was a painter, not a musician, when he first heard Albert Ayler in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s. He, too, says that Ayler's music has the energy of punk and gospel.

"That just sweeps over you, that energy," Golia says. "You don't care if they're playing two chords or what; you know, it's just the energy and commitment to playing that way.

Albert Ayler's energy and commitment are not easy listening, but Golia says a little effort yields rewards.

"That music can lift you up, but there's a point where you become fatigued, and if you can break through that little wall, your listening opens up into this other level, and it really becomes quite astounding," Golia says. "You start to hear the logic, just the intent of the person playing. And so that lifts you to this other place, which I find is ... man, you know, it's quite exhilarating."

The New Blues

For most of his career, Ayler was shunned, ridiculed, or ignored by the general public. But, as he says in a 1964 interview, he was certain about what he was doing.

"The music that we're playing now is just a different kind of blues," Ayler said. "It's the real blues, it's the new blues, and the people must listen to this music, because they'll be hearing it all the time. Because if it's not me, it'll be somebody else that's playing it. Because this is the only way that's left for the musicians to play. All the other ways have been explored."

Collin says that Ayler's ambitions may be closer to realization now.

"Maybe he did not really succeed in the way he wanted when he was living," Collin says. "But the interest in his music now is much, much bigger today. I think there's a lot of people coming to this music from more alternative, rock music. It's not really a jazz thing, really. But I think there's a lot more open-minded people today."

Collin's belief echoes Ayler's own. "One day, everything will be as it should be," Ayler says at the end of his spoken introduction to the album My Name Is Albert Ayler.

Until then, the film My Name Is Albert Ayler is showing at art houses across the country, tribute projects are proliferating, and many of Ayler's own recordings are being reissued.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Albert Ayler was a renegade even for the 1960s, a modest man with a wild saxophone style that exploded into dense jazz improvisations. His playing foresaw the hardcore punk and alternative rock styles of more recent times. In fact, the new generation of mostly rock fans is discovering Ayler's music thanks to the reissue of the original recordings, several tribute CDs, and a new documentary. Howard Mandel prepared this report.

(Soundbite of documentary film "My Name is Albert Ayler")

Mr. ALBERT AYLER (Jazz Saxaphonist): My name is Albert Ayler. I played back when I was about eight years old. My father, he made me play the saxophone and so forth.

(Soundbite of saxophone music)

HOWARD MANDEL: These words open Albert Ayler's 1963 debut, "My Name is Albert Ayler." They're also in the new Swedish documentary of the same title.

(Soundbite of documentary film "My Name is Albert Ayler")

Mr. AYLER: I'd always wanted to come to the Scandinavian countries. I'd heard a lot about Scandinavian people.

MANDEL: The film's director, Kasper Collin, thought there was a good story in the black American's apprenticeship, touring Sweden with dance bands in 1962. The confusion his intense originality prompted from musicians and listeners alike and his triumphant return to northern Europe as a headliner with the touring Newport Jazz Festival in 1966. Kasper Collin was unsure, though, of how to create a portrait of this musician found floating in New York's East River, evidently a suicide, just four years later. Then he discovered some extraordinary footage.

Mr. KASPER COLLIN (Director, "My Name is Albert Ayler"): That is the beautiful shot of Albert naked from his chest and up. It's like a 30 or 40-seconds-long shot, but he's just looking into the camera. And he has beautiful, burning eyes. This was in 1998, and I strongly remember when seeing this for the first time. You know, I had been listening to his music for quite a long time. And then seeing him looking at you, it was very, very moving. So I kind of decided then, if this is the only footage, we try to make at least a small film.

MANDEL: Instead of a small film, Collin persisted in his research and came up with a 79-minute movie. He interviewed Ayler's Swedish colleagues and girlfriend, his American collaborators, including drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Gary Peacock, and eventually traveled to Cleveland to meet Ayler's then-89-year-old father and his surviving brother. The film, "My Name is Albert Ayler," depicts a man of pure vision and aesthetic daring, mostly misunderstood in the jazz world, the pride and despair of his family and friends.

(Soundbite of documentary film "My Name is Albert Ayler")

Mr. AYLER: I was living pure frustration, like a madman, like a madman. I was up in my room when I went to Cleveland, playing. And I was beating like this on the floor. Then I'd go downstairs. My mother said to me, I don't think you're my child. When I was in the hospital, the man must have made a mistake and given me the wrong baby. Made me cry. I cried. But I thought, I said, nobody understands what music what I'm trying to do, and I'm trying to understand it. And it was, like, very shaky situation.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: Ayler's mix of ingenuous simplicity and improvisational fervor has found a hardcore of fans. Marc Ribot, one of the most acclaimed progressive guitarists on the New York scene, comes out of a rock, rhythm-and-blues, and new wave background, and asserts that Ayler's language is a jazz beyond jazz.

Mr. MARC RIBOT (Guitarist): The chord language of his compositions goes between the tonal language of spirituals, of military marches, and occasionally of blues. It goes between there and pretty dense atonality without ever stopping in between at bebop, let's say.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: Marc Ribot put together this band called Spiritual Unity to celebrate and transform Ayler's music. Vinny Golia, a composer and multi-instrumentalist at the center of the Los Angeles post-jazz scene, is one of the voices on another tribute album, "Healing Force: The Songs of Albert Ayler."

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: Vinny Golia was a painter, not a musician when he first heard Albert Ayler in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s. He, too, says that Ayler's music has the energy of punk and gospel.

Mr. VINNY GOLIA (Composer; Multi-Instrumentalist): That just sweeps over you, that energy. You don't care if they're playing two chords or what, you know. It's just the energy and the commitment to playing that way.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: Albert Ayler's voracity and commitment do not make for easy listening. But Vinny Golia says a little effort can open your ears.

Mr. GOLIA: That music can lift you up. But there's a point where you become fatigued. And if you can break through that little wall, your listening opens up into this other level. And it really becomes quite astounding. You start to hear the logic, just the intent of how the person is playing. And so that lifts you to this other place, which I find is - man, you know, it's quite exhilarating, you know. And you want to stay there, not only as a player, but as a listener.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Oh! Let it come in! Oh! Let it come in!

MANDEL: For most of his career, Albert Ayler was shunned, ridiculed, or ignored. Yet by the time of this 1964 interview, he'd become certain about what he was doing.

(Soundbite of documentary film "My Name is Albert Ayler")

Mr. AYLER: The music that we're playing now is just a different kind of blues. It's the real blues. It's the new blues. And the people must listen to this music because they'll be hearing it all the time. Because if it's not me, it'll be someone else that's playing it because this is the only way that's left for the musicians to play. All the other ways have been explored.

MANDEL: Ayler's ambitions may be a little closer to realization, says filmmaker Kasper Collin.

Mr. COLLIN: Maybe he did not really succeed in the way he wanted when he was living. But the interest in his music is much, much bigger today. I think there's a lot of people coming to this kind of music from more alternative rock music. It's not really a jazz thing, really. But I think that there's a lot more open-minded people today.

MANDEL: Collin's faith echoes Ayler's own.

(Soundbite of documentary film "My Name is Albert Ayler")

Mr. AYLER: One day, everything will be as it should be.

MANDEL: Until then, the film "My Name is Albert Ayler" is showing at art houses across the country, tribute projects proliferate, and Ayler's own recordings have been reissued. For NPR News, I'm Howard Mandel in New York.

SIMON: And you can hear full songs from Albert Ayler and more in the music section of our Web site, npr.org. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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