A well-rounded portrait created by a doggedly determined filmmaker and the calm, detached audio of its deceased subject, "My Name is Albert Ayler" brings a sense of logic and humanity to a man whose music was as unsettling as it was untethered to the tenets of jazz.
A well-rounded portrait created by a doggedly determined filmmaker and the calm, detached audio of its deceased subject, “My Name is Albert Ayler” brings a sense of logic and humanity to a man whose music was as unsettling as it was untethered to the tenets of jazz. Ayler, who impressed, influenced and performed at the funeral of John Coltrane, used music as spiritual expression for much of the 1960s, and his impact on the musicians who performed with him is made visceral by filmmaker Kasper Collin, who films them listening to Ayler’s work and reaching melancholic or blissful states.
Already well-received in Europe, where it played fests and a few theaters last year, docu is on a U.S. tour, playing Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Philadelphia and then New York, where it had a short 2007 run. A DVD release is planned for later this year.
Ayler himself took a less than ordinary route, leaving his Cleveland home for the Army and then Sweden, where he believed his concept of free jazz would be better understood. He had to take some considerable chances, including a sneaky plan to begin blowing his tenor sax in the middle of a perf by Cecil Taylor’s trio. (By the end of the set, he had a fan in Taylor, then a leading light in the modern, improv-heavy jazz movement.)
In several ways it worked, as his arrival in New York led to Bernard Stollman creating ESP Disk specifically to record Ayler’s U.S. debut, the uncompromising masterpiece “Spiritual Unity.” Coltrane secured a deal for Ayler at ABC Impulse!, which kept him on the roster only because of Trane. But his resolve to never change his music meant lengthy periods of joblessness; within a year of being married, he had to send his wife and young son back to Cleveland, and frequently asked Coltrane to wire money to him and his mentally unstable brother, Donald.
Albert started attempting to fuse R&B elements in his music, using girlfriend Mary Maria Parks as a vocalist — a move that had little commercial potential but ruffled the feathers of longtime fans. Ayler’s body was found in the East River in November 1970, about three weeks after he disappeared from his Brooklyn home. He was 35.
Collin starts in his native Sweden and tracks down all the people close to Ayler in the U.S. and Europe (save for Bob Thiele, who signed Ayler to Impulse!), yielding new footage of Donald, Ayler’s father Edward, his former girlfriends and fellow musicians — most importantly, the drummer Sunny Murray, who was with Ayler almost constantly after he let the tenorman solo during the Cecil Taylor show. Murray’s observations and detailed anecdotes — from using Albert’s speaking style to attract women to events surrounding Donald’s breakdown — give the story an engrossing depth, especially at the end, when he comments, quite accurately, “You realize how clear (his playing) sounds. So many tenor players play it hard. Albert played it with love.”
It’s Ayler’s voice, though — culled from interviews between January 1963 and July 1970 –that provides the direction for “My Name Is.” Ayler lived in a state of hoped-for prescience, figuring his music was just a few years away from acceptance. He considered his favored style of improvisation “the only way left for musicians to play. All other ways have been explored.”
Vintage footage of Cleveland, New York and Sweden effectively frame the time and place, revealing how a jazz musician had to appear in 1965 and how radically different that was just five years later. Attempts to connect Ayler’s most rambunctious, angry work with civil-rights activism seem tenuous; Ayler himself even talks about how his music has nothing to do with protest and everything to do with a spiritual journey.