Saturday, June 22, 2019

Recent Releases from Ayler Records

By Nick Ostrum

There have been signs for some time now that Ayler Records was winding down its activities. With the three albums reviewed here, it seems the label will be ending its 20-year run. Originally a Swedish imprint specializing in live American and Scandinavian releases in the classic, clunky free jazz tradition (early releases were also graced with the mesmerizing abstract expressionist artwork of Åke Bjurhamn), it relocated to France and the very capable hands of Stéphane Berland in 2009, who reinvigorated the label with a newfound, largely (but hardly exclusively) Franco-centric eclecticism. Over the course of its existence, Ayler Records produced my first Peter Brötzmann album, my second Albert Ayler and Joelle Leandre, my first Arthur Doyle, Henry Grimes, Axel Dörner, Assif Tsahar, Charles Gayle, Arthur Rhames, Jimmy Lyons, Martin Küchen, and so many others. Maybe I came to this music relatively late, but Ayler Records was nevertheless my entrepôt. And, I imagine I am not the only listener with such fond, formative associations with the label.

Ok, enough with the flowery eulogy. It is high time to delve into the label’s final three releases.

Bernado/Rinaudo/Mayot - Ikui Doki (Ayler, 2019) ****



As testament to Berland’s propensity to explore of the lesser known crevices of the avant-garde world, Ayler has brought us the curious Ikui Doki. Composed of twelve chamber pieces, this album is exploratory, yet deeply rooted in the more melodic strands of contemporary classical music. Songs are generally short; most fall well below the five-minute mark. They are also surprisingly varied. This album has lively ditties such as “Jingle #1” and “Jingle #2,” ethereal meditations such as “Pemayangste” and “Chant Pastoral,” hauntingly mellifluous pieces such as “Tiger” (a fittingly whimsical and mysterious version of William Blake’s “Tyger”) and “Cats and Dogs” and compositions dedicated to Claude Debussy and Steve Reich.

Sophie Bernado (bassoon and vocals), Rafaelle Rinaudo (harp and effects), and Hughes Mayot (reeds) play masterfully on these twelve disparate yet somehow coherent tracks. Many are based on repeating rhythmic melodies. The heavy use of the bassoon overlaying an unconventional background frequently evokes simultaneously Stravinsky and Reichian phasing. Although a few pieces display their energy up front, most subdue that energy under the soft compositional structures, frequently accompanied by distant bucolic woodwind and harp melodies and, on two tracks (“Tiger” and the deeply intimate British folk cum tempered prog-rock “Secretly in Silence”), supple vocals and poetry. This album is a departure for Ayler Records, and a particularly welcome one at that.

Scott Fields Ensemble – Barclay (Ayler, 2019) ****



On Barclay, the third in a series of Scott Fields releases inspired by Samuel Becket, guitarist and composer Fields is joined by Matthias Schubert (tenor saxophone), Scott Roller (cello), and Dominik Mahnig (percussion). The result is a fine and playful take on contemporary free jazz. In ways, it evokes the abstract and fragmented marches of Anthony Braxton and his prodigy. In other ways, it is more melodic, less densely layered, and more rooted in a jazz vernacular, and, in that sense, fits right in with some of the label’s recent ensemble releases from Marc Ducret and Joelle Leandre.

Fields and co. do not shy from rests and silence. Rather, they effectively integrate frequent stops and starts, unpredictable wends and wafts into their compositions. Barclay’s three tracks are composed of brief phrases, woven together into calico tapestries of sharp, syncopated bursts of energy and harmony. Rather than flowing smoothly, the first track, “Krapp’s Last Take,” sounds as if the musicians are carving their song out of a craggy medium rather than constructing it from the inside out. Track two, “…but the clouds…” develops more organically around a series of guitar and saxophone melodies, but nevertheless remains stilted and jarring. The closer, “Catastrophe,” similarly grows around a series of truncated melodic runs overlaid with ambient clicks, whistles, and percussive fluttering, though to a slightly smoother effect. This is complex and exciting music. It is, as the third title indicates, a catastrophe, but in the word’s older sense of sudden, unexpected twists and turns. A fitting homage to Beckett and a fine addition to the Ayler catalogue.

Killing Spree – Boko Boko Tour (Ayler, 2019) ***



Consisting of Sylvain Daniel (electric bass and effects), Gregoire Galichet (drums), and Matthieu Metzger (alto saxophone and electronics), Killing Spree released just one self-titled album (also on Ayler). Thre years later, they embarked on a tour through Japan. The results of this tour are captured on Boko Boko. All except one track on this album was recorded in studio on their debut. And, although this album otherwise follows similar patterns and trajectories as the studio release (this shines little “new light on the band’s compositions and improvisations” as the tag on the website claims), the rawness of the liver performance and recording does make some difference.

Killing Spree has been described as “avant-jazz-metal,” a label that points to their affinities for electric bass, intermittent growled vocals, and hard, dynamic sounds. For Killing Spree, this agglomeration of styles melds well. The metal elements are evident, but not contrived. One can say the same for the free jazz. Metzger can be a beast on the sax, but he also knows how rein himself in and forge looping melodies and atmospheric breakdowns out of his waves of controlled aggression. Daniel meanwhile lays heavy, chug-a-lug vamps and Geezer Butler-worthy strides. That is, when is not filling the role of the absent rhythm guitar or adding dense kindling to the frequent outbursts of collective improv conflagration. For his part, Galichet lends his sludgy blast-beat ballistics to help mire the group’s free jazz proclivities in a metal aesthetic. (It took me a few lessons to latch onto Galichet. The closer I listened, however, the more impressed I was with his drumming and, really, this entire trio.) This album is a wild ride, even if it is so similar to the trio’s other output. Play it loud.

These albums are available in CD and digital format and can be found on the label’s website, http://www.ayler.com/.

It is sad to see Ayler Records go. That said, this diverse round of releases bids a fitting adieu for one of the most reliably exciting free jazz labels of the last two decades.

9 comments:

  1. As you say Nick, a great pity to see the end of the label. Releases have been of a consistently high quality, including some classics. Looking over the catalogue the following are among my favourites:

    Didier Lasserre Trio - Live at l'Atelier Tampon
    Free Unfold Trio – Ballades
    Zero Point – Plays Albert Ayler
    Marc Ducret – Tower 1 – 4
    Dennis Gonzalez Yells at Eels – all of them
    bdelhaï Bennani Trio ‎– There Starts the Future
    Brötzmann / Uuskyla / Friis Nielsen ‎– Live at Nefertiti
    Charles Gayle Trio – Live at Glenn Miller Café
    By Any Means – Live at Crescendo
    Albert Ayler – The Copenhagen Tapes
    Jimmy Lyons – The Box Set

    In the words of Mrs. Doyle, I could go on, go on, go on…unfortunately, Ayler Records will not.

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  2. I agree. What a list, and that is just a representatively diverse fraction of the catalog. Ayler struck an impeccable balance between reliably challenging contemporary releases (Doyle-Murray-Nordstrom comes immediately to mind as one of the most challenging, perplexing, and rewarding among the bunch) and lost musical gems often from underappreciated artists (Per Henrik Wallin, Nordstrom, Lars-Goeran Ulander, Mongezi Feza with Bernt Rosengren and Okay Temiz). I am not sure if this was the original purpose, but it certainly is a rare achievement in itself.
    Anyway, I am glad there are others who were sad to see the label close its doors.

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  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you Nick!
    You made my (our) day.
    Thank you also, Colin, for the additional kind words.

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  4. The co founder of Ayler Records, Jan Ström, used to comment at a now defunct site, Jazz Corner, where I learned more about this type of music than any other source, including interactions with some commenters here. I met him at the 2005 Vision Fest where he came off as a very unassuming person with a deep passion for the music. Plus I exchanged emails with him every now and then. I first experienced Exploding Customer through his label and he released the outstanding Fred Anderson and Harrison Bankhead 2004 Vision Fest performance (maybe in 2005 he finalized the agreement with Fred since that festival honored him). Anyway, Jan's death was a loss to everyone enjoying this music and I figured the countdown for the label's demise started then.

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  5. I'll join in the praise for this label under both the Swedish and French guises. I disagree with the estimable Captain above that the demise set in with the geographical switch certainly from my perspective asIi probably purchased more of the releases from France.

    Colin's list is great, some I'd add

    Nuts - Symphony For Old And New Dimensions. I'm sure I purchased this after reading a Stef review
    William Parker - And William Danced
    Exploding Customer - both Live At Glenn Miller and Live at Tampere
    Alexandra Grimal - Andromeda
    Joelle Leandre - 3
    Joelle - Last Seen Headed, Live At Son D'Hiver
    Daunik Lazro - Some Other Zongs

    and the Jimmy Lyons boxset is an absolute treasure.

    Thanks to everyone involved in keeping the label running for as long as it did - an achievement in itself

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  6. To be clear, I meant no disrespect to Stephane and his efforts to keep the label going. Labels like this are a labor of love where making money is a tertiary concept at best. Look at the twists and turns that kept FMP going, which arguably lost a major part of its original raison d'etre with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The sole purpose of my earlier comment was to provide a personal historical perspective on the early phase of Ayler Records.

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  7. No disrespect taken, Captain.
    However, our beloved and missed Jan's passing happened in 2017. The label had been relocated to France for 8 years at the time. Just so that history is accurate.

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  8. My apology on that misinformation, Stephane. Don't know how I screwed that up but I sure did. And kudos for keeping the flame burning as long as you did.

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  9. An absolute treasure of a label. I'd be remiss not to call out Noah Howard Quartet's Live at Unity Temple, especially since my wife and I were married in that same space. Also, some fine albums from Frode Gjerstad, including The Other Side, with Parker and Drake.

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