Friday 2 March 2007

My Name is Albert Ayler

There are a few memorable films about jazz musicians include Round Midnight, Jazz On a Summer's Day and this, My Name is Albert Ayler. At the ICA a few weeks' ago, Swedish director Kasper Collin introduced his seven year labour of love. The film started as a brief chronicle of Albert's time in Sweden but expanded into a full-scale biog. Albert's remarkable story as visionary musician on a world-changing crusade is told by Albert himself through an audio track taken from radio interviews, alongside interviews with family, friends and musicians. He talks about growing up in Cleveland, his army days and his decision to move to Sweden in pursuit of musical freedom in the early Sixties. His time in Sweden coincided with the opening in Copenhagen of The Golden Circle, the club that blazed a trail for free jazz and was the scene of famous live recordings by the likes of Ornette Coleman. Despite his unorthodox and sometimes challenging musical style (he would try and compress all the notes on the sax into a single shriek), Albert was an attractive figure - handsome, softly spoken, a fondness for leather suits. Back in the States Albert made an impression on the likes of John Coltrane, similarly pursuing musical freedom, but he lived in dire poverty, unable to get decent gigs, though able to undertake prestigious European concert tours with a band that included his brother Don on trumpet.

The film is beautifully made with an unforced, organic form. It reveals the arc of his short life (found in the East River at the age of 34, probably suicide) through a a number of interweaving strands (like musical counterpoint) - his troubled family life, his artistic life, his personal relationships. As well as his own voice, we have the voice of his father, brother, ex girlfriends, wife, fellow musicians. The film is roughly cut (reflecting Albert's music) but has a powerful emotional affect. The tragedy of such a short, and probably tortured, life, the sadness of brother Don's mental health, but also the uplifting Christian faith of his spritely ninety-year-old father, and the humour and humanity of drummer and musical partner Sunny Murray, who seems to put the whole thing in perspective.

One powerful and memorable device the director uses is putting a film on someone listening to Albert's music on headphones - the elderly Swede who played drums on his first album, Sunny Murray, Steve Swallow listening to sessions on which they played. You see the emotion ripple across their faces, while we also hear the same music. It adds an extra dimension to the sound and makes you want to feel that power and intensity yourself.

An interesting article on Albert Ayler in Europe: 1959-62

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