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Saturday, April 29, 2023

Richard Koloda - Holy Ghost: The Life & Death of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler (Jawbone Press, 2022)

By Lee Rice Epstein

His name is Albert Ayler. His influence on modern and free jazz, globally, can possibly not be overstated. Probably the most obvious influences are seen in saxophonists like Amado, Brötzmann, Gayle, Gustafsson, Mateen, Murray, Rasmussen, Rempis, Vandermark, Ware, and Zorn, and guitarists like Chadbourne, Eisenberg, Lopes, Ribot, and Sharrock. His life, however, remains somewhat blurred by a mythology that has grown, and warped, fed by well-intentioned supposition and poetic embellishment.

What Koloda has accomplished is a major milestone in our collective study and understanding of Ayler’s life and music: this is the first substantial, detailed, and heavily researched volume to be published in English. To date, Franck Médioni’s oral history Albert Ayler: Témoignages Sur Un Holy Ghost has not yet been translated from French. Recently, Peter Niklas Wilson’s Spirits Rejoice: Albert Ayler und seine Botschaft did finally get translated from German to English in 2022, and it’s a welcome companion to Koloda’s book. Yet, Holy Ghost is, one hopes, just the beginning of what’s to come. For starters, nothing quite matches the in-depth research that brings Ayler’s life story into relief.

Over decades, Koloda befriended and interviews dozens of primary sources. Most notable, undeniably, are Ayler’s family, especially his brother Donald. As anyone who knows Ayler’s music would understand, this is probably as close as we can get to hearing from Albert himself; Donald performed with Ayler, wrote several of the key compositions that comprised the sound and style of the quartet and quintet, and remained close with his brother throughout his entire life. Through the words of family, friends, and fellow musicians, the fuzziness of the Ayler mythology gradually fades, and, like fog clearing to reveal a walking path, leaves behind it a truer story of, well, just a man. Granted, a man with radical ideas of jazz composition and improvisation, but a man nonetheless.

Among the early myths that disperse is the idea that Ayler arrived in New York unknown and more or less fully formed. Koloda writes a substanial amount of detail about Ayler’s time in the army, including several anecdotes about gigs and memories from other musicians whom he sat in with. He seemed to have left a strong impression on everyone, so that by the time he arrived in New York, there were already people who knew of and talked about this new saxophonist on the scene.

We also learn a lot more about Cleveland, about Donald and his path to the trumpet and to playing with Albert. And, crucially, Koloda spends multiple chapters with a number of players and writers retracing a detailed path Albert took from early blowing sessions to his landmark trio, to the transformative quintet that helped realize his grand vision: Albert and Donald on horns, Michel Samson on violin, first Mutawef Shaheed and Lewis Worrell on bass with Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, later replaced by Bill Folwell and Beaver Harris on the European tour. To me, this is the quintessential Ayler period, even more valuable than the 1964 sessions with Don Cherry, Gary Peacock, and Sunny Murray. By the 1966 quintet—heard on Slug’s Saloon, Holy Ghost: Rare and Unissued Recordings, and the recent ezz-thetics reissues Lost Performances 1966 Revisited, La Cave Live Cleveland 1966 Revisited, and Berlin, Lörrach, Paris & Stockholm Revisited—Ayler had put together a beast of a band, everyone tuned into the collective churn and universal hum. All the classics, “Bells,” “Ghosts,” “Our Prayer,” “Truth Is Marching In,” “Prophet,” “Spirits Rejoice,” get multiple readings, turned inside out, and even pass through one another, snippets of themes recurring in the midst of other themes, echoing in solos, rising just enough to hint before getting dropped for other themes and ideas. This group’s facility with the universal concepts demonstrates a deep commitment to Ayler’s vision. And yet, Koloda doesn’t allow himself, or the reader, to lapse into a rhapsodic trance reliving these moments. The chapter that kicks off this middle section, “La Cave,” opens with Sunny Murray learning he’d been fired from Ayler’s band upon seeing his replacement onstage. As the chapter goes on, Charles Tyler quits the band, Samson and/or Donald Ayler struggle with the music, and Ayler experiences intense visions of UFOs. On the eve of the European tour, everything is slightly fractured and cracks in the band, and in Ayler himself, are clearly showing. And yet, as Koloda documents, the press has, by this time, turned in favor of Ayler. His music and his band’s performances get positive reviews in every city, some critics having given poor reviews in the past reconsider their position.

Later, in his chapters on Albert’s relationship with Mary Parks, Koloda quotes from and picks up a crucial point made by Val Wilmer: that a great deal of the pushback against Mary was rooted in sexism, criticism of her role in Ayler’s late-stage music a sort of cover for men’s bias. Following last year’s incredible Revelations, these chapters build on that set’s demonstration of the late group’s strength. Listening to those concerts while reading and re-reading these chapters brings the past to thrilling life, but it also casts Ayler’s relationship with Parks in complex light. Ayler had not properly divorced his wife and had left his child to be with Parks, and she held a power over him that heavily influenced his later, lesser albums. Throughout, Koloda recounts Ayler’s increasingly disturbed mental state.

In the end, there are no easy answers, there is no neatly tied bow to bring it all together. There is, however, Albert Ayler, with all his brilliance, self-mythologizing, depression, and desperation. He believed in his role as Coltrane’s successor, he seemed destined to struggle in his lifelong mission to spread spirituality through his music. As with many recent releases, Koloda’s book tells Ayler’s story through Albert, Donald, and the many musicians they shared both stage and studio with, and through their voices, becomes an indispensable part of Ayler’s legacy.

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Richard J koloda said...

Thanks for your kind words --Richard j koloda

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing such a great book
It is so uplifting to read a book about this music that is not full of overacademical nonsense and race/social pinpoints.
You manage to keep the focus on the musical and human/spiritual aspect and include the race/social aspect with academic quality.
Some other writers seems more concerned with checking all the right boxes according to the current media trends.
Your book brings information and depth to aylers groundbreaking and fantastic music that should be heard by more people.
His music is more important now then ever considering all the hate, lack of tolerance, lack of open mindness and aggression that exist today,
Great work