Tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler was one of the most mysterious and powerful forces in the free jazz movement of the ‘60s, once summing up his place in the scene by stating “Trane was the father, Pharoah was the son, and I am the Holy Ghost.” Ayler’s tone was raw and his compositions were eruptive; in just a few short years, he moved from relatively restrained playing to albums of chaotic emotional upheaval. This style crested with albums on ESP-Disk and Impulse!, like 1965’s Spirits Rejoice or 1967’s blistering live set In Greenwich Village, documents that showcased Ayler’s strange mix of fiery group improvisation and melodic themes that simultaneously recalled and disassembled children’s nursery rhymes and New Orleans-style brass band funeral marches. In his time, Ayler was adored by some critics but never reached any level of commercial success. Ongoing struggles with financial security and mental health might have motivated the unpredictable turn Ayler’s output took toward a bizarre version of soul-funk on later albums like 1969’s New Grass, but even when pursuing pop crossover success, Ayler’s music retained both its raw immediacy and full-force spiritual themes. Ayler was found dead in November of 1970, drowned in New York’s East River under circumstances that were never officially illuminated. The attention and fame that eluded him while he was alive grew substantially after his death, with new generations of improvisers discovering Ayler’s ungovernable sounds perennially and turning him into one of free jazz’s key influential figures over time. Different media focusing on Ayler’s life and artistry eventually surfaced, as did a wealth of posthumously released recordings, including 2004’s massive ten-disc box set Holy Ghost: Rare & Unissued Recordings (1962-70) and 2022’s Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondations Maeght Recordings, an extensive compilation of some of Ayler’s final concert performances.
Albert Ayler was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1936 and grew up in the Shaker Heights neighborhood. He first played saxophone as a child, getting lessons from his father and playing duets with him in their church. Ayler was gigging professionally as early as age 16, playing sax in R&B performer Little Walter’s touring band. After some time in the military he relocated to Sweden in 1962. There he led some bands of his own and also jammed on occasion with Cecil Taylor, finding his voice as he strayed from the more traditional playing of his upbringing toward more avant-garde ideas. In 1963 he returned to the U.S., living in New York and immersing himself in the burgeoning free jazz scene there. 1963 also saw the release of his debut album, My Name Is Albert Ayler, which presented a more subdued reading of his quickly evolving style. He hit a stride in terms of both artistry and momentum in 1964, working with ESP-Disk on what would be the label’s first jazz record, Spirits Rejoice, as well as recording multiple studio and live dates that would eventually be released as albums like Prophecy, Spiritual Unity, and New York Eye and Ear Control, a dense collective improvisation with Don Cherry, Sonny Murray, John Tchicai, Gary Peacock, and Roswell Rudd. Around 1965, Ayler’s younger brother Donald Ayler joined his band on trumpet. Donald’s unschooled technique and visceral playing heightened the already transcendent sound his brother was achieving, and the Aylers began playing frequently with a revolving cast of like-minded improvisers. In 1966, Impulse! Records offered Ayler a recording contract at the urging of John Coltrane, who was the label’s main attraction at that time. Impulse! would release some of Ayler’s most groundbreaking material over the next few years, including 1967’s In Greenwich Village, 1968’s hippie-geared and harpsichord-heavy Love Cry, and the confusing 1969 release New Grass, which found Ayler and his girlfriend Mary Maria Parks singing high-energy pop songs that still fit uncontainable free sax solos over their more their more traditional structures. By the end of 1967, Donald Ayler had stopped playing music after suffering a mental and emotional breakdown, and Ayler struggled with the guilt of feeling responsible for dragging his brother into an unhealthy lifestyle. His struggle was compounded as he continued to face commercial failure, even with the prestigious Impulse! in his corner. 1969 recording sessions would result in the music that became 1970’s Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe and 1971’s The Last Album (both released on Impulse!) but it would also be his last time in the studio. Following a tour of France in July of 1970, Ayler returned to New York. He went missing in early November of that year, and on November 25, 1970, his body was found floating in the East River. The circumstances surrounding his death have never been brought to light publicly, but many close to him suspected suicide.
In the years that followed his death, Ayler’s legacy and influence grew exponentially. His unbridled playing style and emotional reaching inspired subsequent waves of avant-garde improvisers, but his boundless approach to creativity and the parameters of sound would also resonate with those in noise, hardcore punk, and other experimental circles. In 2005, Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin released his documentary film My Name Is Albert Ayler, telling the musician’s life story through archival footage, and a host of interviews. As the decades went on, Ayler’s work would ironically become some of the best-selling music within the free jazz genre, and unreleased material would periodically be culled from the archives. Among the more impressive posthumous releases of Ayler’s music is 2004’s exhaustive box set Holy Ghost: Rare & Unissued Recordings (1962-70), a collection of material that includes never-before-heard rehearsal tapes, live recordings, interviews, and even audio of Ayler playing at Coltrane’s funeral. Other notable Ayler collections released after his death include 1978’s The Village Concerts, which drew its material from the same live dates that yielded In Greenwich Village, 2002’s The Copenhagen Tapes, which gathered live material and studio broadcasts from a stint in Denmark circa 1964, and the 2022 release Revelations: The Complete ORTF 1970 Fondations Maeght Recordings, which presented multiple nights from Ayler’s final performances in France. ~ Fred Thomas