Kasper Collin's acclaimed jazz documentary My Name Is Albert Ayler opened this week in Los Angeles (in ONE rather hard-to-get-to movie theatre downtown). We caught Saturday's matinee -- yes, it was a beautiful day outside, but we like the dark.
Donald and Albert Ayler
Collin's film fills in some of the blanks for those whose interest in the out-out-OUT there free jazz saxophonist was piqued a few years ago by the Revenant label's monumental 10-disc retrospective Holy Ghost, which was quite the appropriate title. Ayler’s greatest compositions ("Spirits," "Witches and Devils," "Ghosts") were haunted by so many ghosts: children’s rhymes, army-band marches, Mexican folk songs, church hymnals, not to mention the deepest earth of the blues and the occasional set of bagpipes. (Seems fitting that Ghost should be packaged in a replica of a carved-wood spirit box, augmented by a mysterious smattering of dried flowers.)
Yet for all of the biographical details, the film itself remains mysterious. There are so few images of Ayler left that the filmmakers keep returning to a single one: B&W footage of a shirtless Ayler gazing into the camera, trademark tuft of white whiskers protruding from his chin-stache. Such a dearth of actual footage of Ayler leads the filmmakers to include a lot of grainy and surreal footage of New York and European streets. Ayler himself is a ghost that haunts even these frames. The result is something Erroll Morris might have made: lots of holes and spaces that come to represent a great, uncompromising musician nearly buried by Time. Case in point: the haunting opening, which reads over Ayler's 1970 death certificate after his body was found floating in New York's East River at age 34. Then, we see Ayler's soft-spoken father Edward -- who taught his eldest son the alto sax and often dueted with him at church functions -- walking aimlessly around a Cincinatti graveyard, trying to remember where his boy was buried. Later in the film, he can barely speak of his son without choking up.
There is much unutterable sadness in this film -- much of it from the overarching (and to jazz fans, familiar) theme of an artist so ahead of his time that he struggles and goes unheralded in his own country. (John Coltrane, a close friend and admirer, often gave Ayler money.) Once again, we are confronted with the shameful American habit of ignoring an art form that DEVELOPED IN IT'S OWN BACKYARD. It's not surprising here, as Ayler's monumental skronkfests are as unnerving as they are liberating. But filmmakers like Collins seem to be hinting at the corruption of the American soul in its assumed embracing of "all things free" while at the same time denying any artist who takes such concepts to their literal edge.
The biggest thrill is hearing Ayler's actual voice, culled from recorded interviews from the 1960s -- almost diametrically opposed to the epic reach of the man's music. Ayler's voice is high-toned and soft -- almost feminine. There he is in grainy home movie footage, wearing his trademark grey leather suit. There he is, playing in an European roller rink with his younger brother Donald, making fearsome sounds. And there is Donald Ayler, a trumpet player who nearly matched his brother in talent (he seemed to think he was better after a spell) before succumbing to mental illness during a disastrous European tour. There is the painful family dynamic as well: Ayler's invalid mother kept phoning her son in New York, blaming Donald's breakdown on Albert's ushering him into "the music business." (This guilt, some say, led to his mysterious suicide.) There is also footage of Ayler during his "rock and roll" phase, wearing a garish red satin shirt and wide-brimmed pimp hat, performing with his girlfriend, the much-maligned Mary Maria Parks. Ms. Parks, who was accused of "Yoko-ing" Ayler by freezing out his normal cadre of friends, appears in the film in voice only. (Hmmm, shades of Henry Grimes...) Our interest in this phase was that Ayler was incorporating not just the blues and church music but also R&B and rock music. (When he was 16, Ayler played in Little Walter's band.) Colored in this shade, Ayler's playing often reminds me of rock saxophonists like King Curtis or Bobby Keys. This man was a link to ALL worlds.
There are many great interviews in this film as well: Ayler's compadres Sunny Murray and Gary Peacock stand out in particular. The most unforgettable sequence is Ayler's performance at John Coltrane's 1967 funeral: only a few rough particulated B&W images and a muddy recording of the event survive, but they are powerful compliments to each other. The muddiness of the music only increases its power: Ayler's woeful wailing is almost too much to bear. And the film excels at another point: playing Ayler's early brass dirges -- sounding like the most soulful Salvation Army Band that ever existed -- over footage of worshipt in an African-American church. Tears and joy and spiritual rapture.
The line that stays with me is from an anecdote between Coltrane and Ayler. Trane made some sort of crack about his playing beginning to resemble Ayler's. Ayler's response: "You aren't playing like me; you're playing like you...You're just feeling what I feel."
I mean. Wow.