Graded on a Curve:
Albert Ayler,
New Grass

Although some have managed to expand upon his groundbreaking intensity and flights of abstraction, Albert Ayler is one of the few sui generis figures in the history of jazz. An uncompromising player with only a small following in his lifetime in music, he cut a record in 1968 that initially seemed to satisfy nobody except for (perhaps) Ayler himself. That LP was New Grass, lambasted as a sell-out by those who favored his prior work, while less adventurous listeners weren’t buying. The album has been reevaluated since however, and Third Man has given it a vinyl reissue that’s available now. In the label’s storefronts and select indie shops it can even be found on coke bottle clear 180-gram wax with opaque green wisps.

I’ve been contributing to this column for over eight years, but until this piece, I haven’t delivered a full review of a record by Albert Ayler, who’s one of my favorite jazzmen, though I have included him in this site’s New In Stores column and in at least one group review. As this omission is remedied, I feel it should be immediately qualified that the term jazzman isn’t necessarily a tidy fit for Ayler’s brilliance.

Albert Ayler was certainly a man whose work falls inside the boundaries of jazz, so calling him a jazzman isn’t in error, but it still might give those unfamiliar with his work the false impression of a figure, sharply decked-out in a classic tailored suit maybe, who excelled at extending, through live gigs and studio sessions, the core tenets of Modern Jazz.

While innovators are surely jazzmen and vice versa, Ayler remains one of the ever-evolving form’s major freedom-seeking iconoclasts. In short, he’s best placed in the avant-jazz category, which means that for long stretches after his death in November 1970 (presumably by suicide, as his body was discovered in the East River of NYC) his music was difficult to obtain. This was especially true at the end of the 1980s, which is when I first learnt of his existence.

At the time, Impulse had freshly reissued In Greenwich Village on CD. I was able to score that and a special order of GRP Crescendo’s The First Recordings on wax (which was one of numerous reissues of Something Different!!!!!!, a ’63 album on the Swedish label Bird Notes), but nothing from his massive run of albums for ESP Disk was in print, and neither was Love Cry, his second album for Impulse.

Whenever I hit record shops with significant jazz bins on visits to bigger cities, I’d check for Ayler records and would always come up empty. And when I asked seasoned non-moldy fig jazz heads (mostly store workers/ owners/ dwellers) for recommendations, I received solid advice: Spiritual Unity, Spirits aka Witches & Devils, “Bells” (a 20-minute live track on one-sided clear vinyl), New York Eye & Ear Control, Prophecy, Love Cry. The only record I was told to avoid is the one under review here.

“Message From Albert / New Grass” opens the LP, bursting forth with blowing that’s quite ferocious in tandem with the bass of Bill Folwell, before transitioning into the saxophonist’s spoken introduction, where he explains his new stylistic direction to follow and relates it to the spiritual dimension, which the list of titles in the preceding paragraph should clarify was always a major component in Ayler’s life and music.

As the track unwinds, Ayler’s sax drops out and is replaced first by Sheldon Powell’s flute and then Garnett Brown’s trombone, Buddy Lucas’ baritone sax, and Joe Newman’s trumpet, a horn section of inviting warmth and beauty. A striking departure for lovers of his earlier work, it’s over rather quickly, with the next cut, “New Generation” frequently the dealbreaker, as it’s an unabashed R&B revue-styled number complete with the drumming of Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and enthusiastic singing from Rose Marie McCoy (who’s best known as a songwriter).

“New Generation” has been described as a rewrite of “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” and that’s about right. It also has a “Sock it to ‘em” backing vocal midsection, electric harpsichord from Call Cobbs (notably, the only contributor to New Grass from any of Ayler’s prior bands; he also plays piano, harp and organ here) and ample post-barwalking horn action, though it must be noted that Ayler can’t resist blowing free in the tune’s latter moments.

I’ll admit that upon first hearing it in the mid-’00s, I was taken aback by “New Generation,” but Ayler’s soloing in the track and his opening melodic lines (and subsequent motions) in “Sun Watcher” helped to drive home a carryover of identity from his prior material which ultimately deflated accusations of New Grass being a craven sell-out attempt, at least for me.

Over the years, there have been attempts to paint the album as a return by Ayler to his teenage years playing in the band of bluesman Little Walter, but for much of this record, as he sails atop the R&B grooves, the scenario is nearer to some of his pre-ESP Disk material, a small batch of records cut in Europe which paired him with Modern Jazz backdrops rather than the interacting improvisors who helped elevate him to legendary status. While Ayler doesn’t clash with the band on New Grass, it’s still clear that he’s, to borrow the album title above, still onto something different.

It’s “New Ghosts” that finds him in deepest synch with the band, which is unsurprising as it’s a streamlining of a cornerstone Ayler standard, one that over the decades has substantiated his deftness with hummable melodies. Still, this version begins with rippling echoing vocal weirdness further vindicating New Grass from the allegation that it was a pure marketplace move. That Ayler was trying to reach more people is impossible to deny.

From there, “Heart Love” has horn arrangements, credited to Bert de Coteaux, with raw baritone sax tones reminding me just a bit of something David Shire might’ve knocked out for an action film score in the midst of the 1970s. Largely though, the track takes another deep drink from the R&B well, which is also true of “Everybody’s Movin’.” McCoy sings on this track and closer “Free At Last,” having helped to write both. Additionally, Ayler’s partner Mary Maria Parks had a hand in writing five of the seven.

Ayler’s next two records for Impulse, 1970’s Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe and ’71’s The Last Album, both retain elements of this detour into soul and R&B, but they also feature Ayler on bagpipes, include Parks on vocals, and substantially magnify what was already apparent on New Grass; that the saxophonist was unable to abstain from his pioneering avant-freeform style for very long.

The two volumes of Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, recorded live in France just months before his death, reinforce this reality. Universe and The Last Album are both uneven but hold sustained moments of greatness (they each also have Henry Vestine from Canned Heat on guitar), enough so that any Ayler fan is going to want to have them around. This is even more true of the Fondation Maeght albums, which firmly refute claims of diminishing returns.

Like his fellow avant-jazz trailblazers, Ayler’s reputation has risen considerably over time. For starters, his ESP Disks became much easier to obtain through reissues, which was crucial to his reappraisal (they are the core of any Ayler collection), and in 2004 the Revenant label released Holy Ghost; Rare & Unissued Recordings (1962–70), a 10CD box set as extended career overview. The next year, Kasper Collin’s documentary My Name Is Albert Ayler appeared (it borrowed its title from the saxophonist’s 1964 album, issued in the US by the Fantasy label).

It was the Holy Ghost box, which includes a demo excursion into “New Ghosts” as part of its deep dive celebration of Ayler’s magnificence, that provided a spark of encouragement that grew into a full-on reassessment of what was once considered the man’s artistic nadir. New Grass is still my least favorite of his records, but what is screamingly clear with time spent is that it is an Albert Ayler album through and through.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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