Religious Imperatives, Boogaloo Rhythms: Taking Another Listen to Albert Ayler's New Grass

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Introduction

Albert Ayler (1) (1936-1970) was a jazz saxophonist who, along with Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and a handful of others, helped to start the free jazz movement in the early 1960s. His music was the most nakedly emotional of the first wave of free jazz musicians; his lines alternately sobbed and shrieked, conjuring up a strange other world in which folk melodies that seemed to be drawn from nineteenth-century America coexisted with manic "sheets of sound."

During his lifetime, Ayler had many detractors and also a few supporters who claimed that such albums as Spiritual Unity and Bells were powerful artistic statements, bold steps forward for jazz. His supporters have subsequently been vindicated: nowadays, few would deny the artistic value and the importance of his early music. But note the adjective; Ayler's later work--especially from 1968 on--is generally taken to be less powerful and less important than his early work.

The turning point for the Ayler narrative comes in 1968, with the release of the album New Grass. His earlier music had been instrumental and was usually extremely aggressive, with his ensembles brought together through energetic, spontaneous group interplay rather than playing set grooves or chord changes. New Grass, however, is very different. Its use of R & B rhythms, Ayler's gospel-influenced lead vocals, and the soul-style backing vocals; its propagandistic and apparently simplistic lyrics; and the relative lack of ecstatic improvisation in the soloing--all of these things led to its condemnation as an attempt to cash in by critics and public alike.

As Al Campbell summarized for Allmusic, it was "possibly the most notorious Albert Ayler release and universally misunderstood (i.e., hated) by fans and critics alike. When New Grass was released in 1968 it received a hostile outcry of 'sell-out.'" (2) Contemporary reviewer Larry Neal suggested that it was motivated by "the selfish desire for success in the american [sic] sense" (Neal 1969, 37). In his influential Free Jazz, for example, Ekkehard Jost argues that Ayler's later music was "mediocre" and says that "profit-minded producers bound Ayler to a kind of music that was easier for the public to understand" (Jost 1994, 132). John Litweiler writes that with New Grass Ayler "forsook his musical vision" (Litweiler 1984, 167) and says that its lyrics made it seem "to be an attempt to cash in on a fad"; however, he adds, significantly, that in fact "Albert Ayler had a message so important to him that he abandoned his most original ideas in order to communicate it" (1984, 168).

This orthodox reading of Ayler's career produces a comfortable and familiar narrative, one that even permits us to exonerate Ayler himself from the presumed failure of his music by arguing that he was obliged to sell out by the forces of the Establishment--as it is most explicitly presented in Jost's reading. I have been fascinated and thrilled by Albert Ayler's music for many years now, but in my listening I rarely ventured past Ayler's early period, choosing instead to disregard the later music as being artistically inferior (which I still believe) and crassly commercially motivated (which I no longer believe).

It was only when I began to seriously examine the interaction of spiritual aspirations and improvised music, at first in the context of my work on the Grateful Dead (some of which has been published in JRPC; Kaler 2011), that I began to wonder if there might be a more interesting, more nuanced, and more religiously significant story lying behind New Grass than the traditional narrative. Many of the early free jazz musicians used the language of spirituality to present or describe their music, and among this group Ayler was especially prominent, both for the radicality and beauty of the music he made and for the explicitly religious context that he constructed for it. Thus he was an obvious choice for this sort of investigation, both for my own personal reasons and for reasons related to his stature as a religious musician. …