Friday, September 4, 2009

A concert of the year two thousand

George Stell sent me a copy of Michael Zwerin's review of the February 25th, 1967 concert by Albert Ayler and his group at the Village Theatre. The review is quite humorous and, in my opinion, more informative than other Ayler concert reviews of the period. It was quite possibly the source of the "Stell" misspelling as well (see previous post). Since I have been unable to find it posted elsewhere on the internet, I am providing it below.

Space Friends

---by Michael Zwerin---

the village VOICE, March 9th 1967

"Public relations has come to the avant-garde. Last week, I received two press releases in the mail. The first, under the letterhead, “The Ornette Coleman Trio—Ornette Coleman, violin, alto and tenor saxophone, trumpet; David Izenzon, bass; Charles Moffett, drums,” announced a “major presentation of the current season. The Ornette Coleman trio will appear in a joint concert with the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet…at the Village Theatre on March 17th.” The other proclaiming “For Immediate Release—from the New Music Feature Service,” invited me to a concert, also at the Village Theatre, on February 25. It was signed, via Xeroxography, “Albert Ayler.”

I went. Public relations, however, ended with the release because the concert looked like a total economic disaster. The theatre was maybe 10 percent filled and a good deal of those seemed to be the Ayler family. The 25th was a very cold night and the prices were an absolutely frigid $3, $4, and $5. There had been little advertising other than the posters in front of the theatre, which has a capacity of about 2500. Whoever booked it was an optimist with a poor memory because only two months ago, when Ayler played the Village Vanguard, even that little room was far from packed. Audiences seem to stay away from Albert Ayler—a shy, sad-looking little man who has something to say.

The Albert Ayler Octet—Albert Ayler, alto and tenor saxophone; Donald Ayler, trumpet; Michel Sampson, violin; Beaver Harris, drums; Bill Folwell and Alan Silva, basses; Joel Friedman, cello; and Call Cobbs, harpsichord. Beforehand, in the lobby, Cobbs said he wasn’t playing because he had just found out there was no harpsichord in the place. “The music wouldn’t sound right on a piano,” he explained. So strike him, and add George Steele on trombone.

Also add Mary Parks on MC—an avant-garde chick. “Good—evening—space friends,” she said, her golden gown sparkling reflections no doubt from Venus, “tonight—we—will—hear a—concent—of—music—of the—year two—thousand.” With free punctuation she got the concert started 45 minutes late, not apologizing for the delay either. I thought of John Cage’s line about “the importance of being on time for anyone involved with the art of music.” But there’s a logical unreality to Albert’s music—kind of like a Ray Bradbury story—which seems to penetrate people even before he starts playing and the waiting was perfectly okay with everybody.

The tunes, all written by Albert, have names like “Light in Darkness,” “Heavenly Home,” “Spirits Rebel,” and “Truth is Marching In.” They are fiercely tonal, resembling primitive marches or folk songs, and use only three chords, if that many. Improvisation is abstract, spaced by recapitulation of the theme, usually played Germanically by Don Ayler’s trumpet along with a Liszt – cadenza – gone-wild on Sampson’s fiddle. Albert solos most of the time—on some tunes the others do not play at all other than behind him or on the ensembles.

Scot LaFaro revolutionized the jazz bass before he was killed in an automobile accident in the late ‘50s. Instead of just walking , he played swift, complex, melodic obligatos and since then many bass players have delusions of violins. They began using the bow more often and, whether arco or pizzicato, forever lean way over the instrument, both hands near the bridge, eeking the most unlikely harmonies from their instrument. Truly astounding. The only trouble is that, with the increased importance of percussion in the new jazz, the audience usually can’t hear their cascades of notes. At the Village Theatre, though, the trouble was stupid balance, unfortunately common with the avant-garde, because Beaver Harris is one of the better free drummers, keeping a pulse, no matter how abstractly, and keeping it with sensible dynamics.

Anyway, Folwell and Silva made a hell of a visual impression, scooting all over their instruments. I’m pretty sure they were playing some impressive stuff. As a matter of fact, a couple of duets between them, with everybody else tacited, were very lovely and exciting. And one tune featured Albert plus only the cello and two basses. It was cloud-like and dewy music. Albert, who did not squeak on this one, was brilliant in his abstractions, instinct supplying all of the criteria needed. And the three strings were empathetic to perfection.

Now, about Albert’s squeaks…Squeaking is nothing new of course. Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips did that years ago. It’s a way of transmitting energy—but it’s too easy a way and I mistrust it. Besides, it hurts my ears. Albert’s squeaking is the low point of his playing. He starts doing it without continuity and stops abruptly without form—an insert, out of context. Few tenor players can get around up there as he can, but if he wants to hear those sounds, why not take up the piccolo or something.

Donald Ayler’s trumpet playing impresses me as being pure chance—no choice—a random combination of fast-flipping valves and embouchure adjustments. Every solo sounds alike. He rarely holds a sustained note. When he does, however, a pleasant sound comes out (I mean that as a compliment). More of that would be nice.

Albert’s music is strangely warm and loving. The freneticism I once minded so much seems less pronounced now than two years ago. Maybe I am better tuned to him—or possibly he has matured some. Either way, I was wrapped up in the music and stayed until the end of his concert, something I’ve never wanted to do before.

But without more artistic handling, Ayler will continue to be only the obscure underground hero he now is. That’s a shame too, because, given the chance to hear it, a lot of people could find his music important."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Science, jazz, and the “unknown” trombone player

I was an avid listener to an FM radio program that disk jockey Ed Beach had every morning.  I tuned in one morning in the middle of a Gary Peacock chorus, which caught my attention, and then Albert came in on the recording and it blew my mind.  Found out where he was playing and went there with my trombone, introduced myself, and sat in.”  - George Stell

And the rest was history.  Well, not exactly.  Pick up a copy of Albert Ayler's "Live in Greenwich Village" album or read a review of the February 25th, 1967 concert at the Village Theater and you will probably find “George Schnell" or "George Steele" credited as the trombone player.  Both are incorrect.  The trombonist was George Stell, now an emeritus professor of physics at Stony Brook University.  The errors appear to have originated in the initial reviews of the concert and have been repeated through the years; in fact, to my knowledge the misspelling has not been corrected on any release of the material.  However, Revenant did get the spelling correct in their "Sightings" section of the wonderfully researched book that was included in the Holy Ghost Box Set; so rest assured that the truth is slowly marching in....  

A few examples collected from reviews and comments on the Village Theater performance highlight the uncertainty that seems to have existed at the time regarding the mysterious trombone player:

  • “At the end was a piece involving all the afore-mentioned musicians plus an unannounced trombone player, whom I was not able to hear because of lack of amplification.” - Elisabeth van der Mei in Coda, May 1967, p. 28-30 (see entire review here)
  • “Two-thirds of the concert was actually performed by a septet. The harpsichord player, Call Cobbs, listed on the program, failed to appear. For the last three numbers, trombonist Steele joined the group.” - George Hoefer, Down Beat Vol. 34 No. 10, 1967 (see entire review here)
  • “The group, including a trombonist named either George Schnell or Steele (depending upon the source), Freedman sitting in for Sampson, and Alan Silva in for Grimes, also played the Village theater in February.” – Todd Jenkins, Free Jazz and Free Improvisation, 2004.

George Stell contacted me last week.  He thanked me for getting his name correct in my review of the Greenwich Village album.  Admittedly, I unknowingly got his name correct because I used the credits listed at the superb discography over at  Patrick Regan, the studious caretaker of that comprehensive web site, noted the incorrect spelling of George’s last name back in 2002 (follow this link and scroll down to August).  Below is a brief excerpt from an interview that George did with Ben Young at WKCR back in 2002, where Ben explains the mistake and then George and Steve Tintweiss go on to discuss another mislabeling problem common to Ayler's music - the taxonomy (to use an appropriately scientific term) of his songs.

George and I corresponded a bit via email last week, and he was nice enough to answer a few of my questions about his life story, his experiences with Albert, and his life before and since those interesting times in 1966-67.  I am fascinated by his story, as his life is an interesting mix of passions – including both jazz and science.  He has had a highly successful career as a theoretical physicist, educating students and performing pioneering research on the molecular structure and mechanics of fluids; in fact, the photograph at the top of the post is from an issue of the Journal of Statistical Physics that was dedicated to him back in 2000 (Journal of Statistical Physics, Vol. 100, Nos. 1/2, 2000).  
With his permission, I summarize and reproduce some of his responses to my questions below:
How did you meet Albert?  Care to share some memories of your time with him?
I was an avid listener to an FM radio program that disk jockey Ed Beach had every morning.  I tuned in one morning in the middle of a Gary Peacock chorus, which caught my attention, and then Albert came in on the recording and it blew my mind.  Found out where he was playing and went there with my trombone, introduced myself, and sat in. Perhaps it was at the Judson Memorial Church?  Probably.  I played with him there a couple of times – can’t quite recall.  Albert said he had a show coming up at the Village Theater that he would like me to play.  We ‘rehearsed’ in a nightclub in Brooklyn the day before the 2/25/67 show after meeting at Mark Parks’ apartment – Albert, Don, Alan Silva, Beaver Harris, and me.  We just blew freely for a couple of hours.”
“I have strong memories of Al’s conversations at that rehearsal.  He remarked that despite the very positive reception he had gotten in Europe, he felt he had to return to NYC to be at the center of things.”
I played the 2/25/67 Village Theater show, at which Al played magnificently, as you can hear on the recording.  For me it was a mixed bag.  I got to meet and talk with Joel Freedman, and chat more with Don, but there was no microphone set-up that I could use, and I felt ill at ease, standing between Sampson with his microphone and an adjacent microphone that someone else was using—I can’t recall whom.  You can tell by listening to the few tunes on which I was recorded that I am part of a rather muddy-sounding background rather than one of the well-recorded instruments.”
By the way, Don was reserved but very friendly.  I learned years later that he was said to have deep emotional problems, and that Al worried about him, etc., but that wasn’t at all apparent during the times in 1967 that I saw him
How many shows did you play with him?
“Probably a total of only 4 or 5 times.  I was teaching and doing research full time as a faculty member of the Physics Department at Brooklyn Polytech, and I had started making preparations for a year’s leave-of-absence as a visiting professor at the University of Paris during the 1967-68 academic year.  Busy, busy, busy.”
What did you do before and after your work with Albert?
“I left Ohio after graduating from Antioch College in 1955 to spend an academic year in Chicago teaching at the Chicago division of the University of Illinois.  I did that because I wanted to play jazz with Marty Grosz and Frank Chace there. In the summer of 1965 I came to NYC to begin my Ph.D. work in mathematics at NYU, where I graduated in 1961.  I hung around NYU as a staff mathematician for a couple of years, and then, in 1965, joined the faculty in Physics at Brooklyn Polytech.  In 1969, I became a faculty member at the state University at Stony Brook, where I taught engineering and chemistry.  I still have that affiliation, although I retired from classroom teaching a few years ago.”
Are you still making music?
“Yes, both free jazz and mainstream, but have no steady gig.  I sit in with friends in NYC groups to keep my chops up, drop in at “ABC No Rio”, played with Gene Janas for while, etc…”
While doing the research for this post, I stumbled on a portion of the 2002 WKCR interview that I excerpted above.  Much more information related to George's time with Ayler is discussed in this fantastic interview; hopefully WKCR will eventually post their archives online so that this becomes widely available.  However, until then, below are a couple of excerpts of George talking about how he played his trombone in the context of Albert's music.    
(direct link to audio files if above players do not work: file 1, file 2)
Of course, George's comments in the above interview prompted me to listen to "Universal Thoughts," from "Live at Greenwich Village"  several times this week - the one track on the album where George Stell was recorded.  Although the trombone is clearly part of the "muddy-sounding background," it is audible and George's contribution is undeniable.  A close listen (headphones recommended) even reveals the "chattering" sound that George discusses in the first clip from the WKRC interview above.  I certainly hope that I have the opportunity to hear more of George's playing in the future - perhaps the annual Vision Festival in New York should extend an invitation to him?  
The note from George also prompted me to spend some time this week digging a bit more into the history of Ayler's music, and the additional knowledge of the human elements and interactions that led to such powerfully emotive art lends an additional richness to the way I experience the music.  Interestingly, it also has led me to some introspective thinking about music and science, and general thoughts regarding the balancing and intermingling of multiple passions in one's life.  Finally, it caused me to revisit some of Ayler's music with fresh ears and come away with something new.   I sure am glad that I accidently spelled George Stell's name correctly....
"Music has always fascinated me.  On the one hand it is devoid of information in a certain sense.....of objective information.  Yet it carries this powerful, powerful message that is quite mysterious and wonderful." - George Stell

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spirits Rejoice Revisited

A couple months ago, I picked up the 2006 ESP remastered "Spirits Rejoice."

When I commented on this album previously, I noted that I had only heard MP3 files of an earlier release.  At that time, I mentioned that I was not that impressed with the sound quality.  Last week, while running along a forested trail in northern Wisconsin I finally had a chance to really listen to the 2006 release (on headphones).  Maybe it was the clean air, maybe it was the uplifting charge I get from running, maybe my spirit was rejoicing in the sounds and smells of spring in the forest of northern Wisconsin - most likely it was all of these things - but this album has never sounded better to me.  Truly transformative music.  The sound quality of the remaster is astoundingly better than the previous release.  Go buy it if you have never heard it.  If you have heard it, replace your old version.  Do it now. 

Monday, May 4, 2009


My 22-month old daughter has learned how to get a record onto the turntable and start it.  Of course, yesterday she tried to put a cassette tape on the turntable, so she still has plenty to learn.  I have a few old 45’s that are pretty beaten up, so I let her experiment with them.  Once the music starts, she quickly communicates her endorsement or critical disappointment, with the latter typically displayed by a guttural noise akin to a cat trying to hack up a hairball.  I blame her mother.  However, she expresses her approval by doing a strange dance – bending her arms at the elbows, swaying them, and bouncing around.  Again, I blame her mother.  Or at least I’d like to, but I am pretty sure she is doing a pretty spot-on portrayal of her dancing father.  And of course you can't help but dance around the room with her, imitating her dancing style, which likely results in a vicious positive-feedback loop.  But I guess middle-school dances are a long way off.

So far she has given the hair-ball-wretch review to singles by Crosby, Stills, and Nash (who can blame her really?), David Bowie, and Emerson Lake and Palmer.  However, she dances like crazy to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.”  Again, I blame her mother. 

A couple days ago, I put Charles Lloyd’s “Forest Flower” LP on the turntable.  I’ve listened to this album several times after picking it up in the used bin a couple years ago, finding it pleasant but not particularly moving.  However, I stumbled into a really positive review of it recently so I decided to give it another chance.  I was working on other things, so admittedly it didn’t have all of my focus, but I was really surprised at how much I was enjoying it.  I didn’t remember the driving energy and passion of this album!  How did I miss this!  Then the announcer came on at the end of the record, with a voice like Alvin the Chipmunk.  This time, I blame my daughter.  Yes, I played the entire record at 45 rpm instead of 33 rpm, because that is where the setting was left after the last "Black Dog" dancing session.  I listened to a bit more of the Charles Lloyd record at normal speed and it is much less exciting.  If you have a copy of this album, definitely give it a spin at 45 rpm. 

Anyway, I actually have been listening to quite a bit more than bad Crosby, Stills and Nash, vinyl-pop laden takes of “Black Dog,” and hopped-up Charles Lloyd.  Although I haven’t had time to post on this blog for a couple months, I have had plenty of time for free jazz, so that brings me back to Ayler….

In the fall of 2006 I noticed “Vibrations” available for download at the Itunes store for around 6 dollars.  The availability and price surprised me and given that the “money was (still) not strong enough,” for the real thing I purchased the download.  Albert Ayler, Gary Peacock, Sunny Murray, and Don Cherry….six dollars well spent.  Someday I’ll get the CD or the vinyl. 

Albert Ayler, Vibrations

Freedom (among others), 1964

Albert Ayler:  alto and tenor saxophones

Don Cherry:  trumpet

Gary Peacock:  bass

Sunny Murray:  drums

“Vibrations” was recorded in Denmark on September 14, 1964, about two months after “Spiritual Unity” and “New York Eye and Ear Control.”  Don Cherry joins the Spiritual Unity trio and the result is an exhilarating, fast-paced, free-for-all frolic, structured by the repetitive simple melodies so associated with Albert.  At least for me, the emotional feel of the album is not quite as varied as the previous albums of 1964, and I think this is mostly because Don Cherry’s trumpet adds a bright and upbeat quality to the music – even when Albert seems to be taking things to deeper and darker emotional places.  The album is must-have for any Ayler collection, and not a bad place for the uninitiated to begin.  Get it.  Play it.  Maybe even play at 45 rpm.  You can blame me.   

Buy it at Amazon

Monday, March 2, 2009

Music is the healing force of the universe

I picked up “Lorrach, Paris 1966” in a local CD shop during the spring of 2006 (which I now realize was lucky given that it is apparently out-of-print).  By early summer I was getting anxious to explore more of the man’s music.  I was particularly excited to sink my ears into some of the work he did with Don Cherry.  I had picked up a copy of Don Cherry’s “Symphony for Improvisers” when I lived in Madison, but after a few listens it just didn’t hold my interest; however, early that summer I gave it another try.  Perhaps my brain chemistry had been permanently altered by all the free jazz I had been listening to for the past couple years, but this time the album really resonated with me.  The disc remained in the player for much of the summer, oftentimes in rotation with "Lorrach, Paris," and even made several road trips with me.

But Don Cherry would have to wait.  My wife and I went to Borders bookstore one weekend, and I checked to see whether they happened to be carrying any Ayler.  Expecting to find nothing in such a mainstream place, I was surprised to find that they had a copy of “Music is the healing force of the universe.”   Given that I was holding this in my hands, I figured Albert's work with Don Cherry could wait.  I had some idea what I was getting into (I did own the Holy Ghost box set which contains several late-period Ayler selections).

Albert Ayler, Music is the Healing Force of the Universe

Impulse!, 1969

Albert Ayler:  tenor saxophone, vocals, bagpipes

Bobby Few:  piano

Stafford James:  bass

Bill Folwell:  bass, bass guitar

Muhammad Ali:  drums

Mary Maria Parks:  vocals

Henry Vestine:  electric guitar

Recorded in late August of 1969, “Music is the healing force of the universe” is quite a mixed bag.  Gone are the march-like themes and the oscillating energy of “Love Cry” and the staggering live work of 1966-67.  The first song on the album is the title track, and the music itself is fantastic.  Bobby Few’s distinctive style provides waves of tinkling piano and Albert’s playing is emotionally moving and at times raw.  He takes several trips into the upper register.  Muhammad Ali provides a spectacular underpinning for the music.  However, that said, Mary Maria’s vocals nearly ruin the piece.  What was Albert thinking?  Blinded by love?  I just can’t find anything enjoyable about her singing.

Some singers are really good at taking relatively shallow lyrics and make them sound important.  Take for example, the somewhat vacuous lyrics of “Tupelo Honey” by Van Morrison: “You can take all the tea in China.  Put it in a big brown bag for me.  Sail it right around the seven oceans.  Drop it smack dab in the middle of the deep blue sea.  Because she's as sweet as Tupelo honey.  She's an angel of the first degree.  She's as sweet as Tupelo honey.  Just like honey from the bee.”  Just like honey from the bee?  Seriously?  Yet when Van Morrison sings this stuff, he somehow makes it seem profound.  Mary Maria on the other hand, manages to take relatively shallow lyrics and make them even more empty.

Of the songs where Mary Maria sings, the title track is actually the most appealing; in fact, I can enjoy it if I tune her out (which is hard at first, but gets easier after repeated listening).  The two other tracks she sings on, “A man is like a tree,” and “Island Harvest” are downright awful.  On “Oh! Love of Life” Albert himself provides the vocals, and although I don’t find his undulating, wide vibrato, saxophone-like vocals offensive, I don’t find this song interesting or compelling either. 

The second track, “Masonic Inborn Part 1” is perhaps the reason that this album is worth owning.  “Masonic Inborn” finds Albert Ayler on bagpipe (!) (actually two bagpipes, overdubbed) with the ethereal accompaniment of Bobby Few’s piano and the free drumming of Muhammad Ali.  This is fantastic stuff – I would have been happy with a whole album of free-jazz bagpipe songs!!

The final track on the album, “Drudgery” features a straight-ahead blues chord progression and a steady rock beat.   Although it is fun to hear Albert play in this context, and he is quite competent in this setting and even stretches it out a bit toward the end of piece, I can’t get very excited about the music.  Coming after three miserable tracks, the piece doesn’t have to be very good to exceed expectations – and it does manage this.  However, after repeated listening it becomes increasingly tiresome.

Buy it at amazon

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lorrach, Paris 1966

“Red-dee…settt….go,” shouts my daughter as she leaps off the headboard above our bed and face-plants on the bed.  Good parenting, eh?  Watching her do this repeatedly, I am in awe of her fearlessness.  She could easily keep doing this for an hour, or at least until she makes a less-than-soft landing and needs kisses.  Each time she climbs back up on the headboard I tell her to be careful, and she repeats “ca-fulll” several times.  I can only assume she is mocking me, because she is anything but careful. 

It has been a very busy and stressful month, and the next few months don’t look like they will be much better.  It is only March (in a few hours) and my summer schedule is already rapidly filling up with commitments as well, which is rather depressing.  

Even though it has been busy,  I have managed to listen to some music over the past few weeks and this next album has been a real highlight.  “Lorrach, Paris” beautifully captures “the dynamite sound” of 1966, a time when Albert and his companions were literally exploding with creativity and passion.

Albert Ayler, Lorrach,Paris 1966
Hat Hut, 1966 
Albert Ayler:  tenor saxophone
Donald Ayler :  trumpet
Michel Sampson:  violin
Bill Folwell:  bass
Beaver Harris:  drums

"Lorrach, Paris 1966" represents selections from two concerts in November 1966 (Lorrach, Germany and Paris, France).  The music is similar to "Slug's" and "Greenwich Village."  It is oscillating, screaming, melodious, and fearless.  I really like the percussion of Beaver Harris; in my opinion he successfully drives this music forward in a very different way than Sunny Murray.  There are even some nice drum solos on this album, something I don't recall on the other 1966-67 releases.  I can't really say much more about this; the music speaks for itself.  This is a must-have disc for Ayler fans, and as good a place as any for an introduction.  

As I listen to this, I can't help but wonder what it would have been like to witness these shows in person, and particularly how I would have reacted if I had no experience with this sort of music (and I imagine that at least some in the audience were completely unaware of what they were getting into).  I like to to think I would have been like my daughter, jumping off the headboard and hoping for a soft landing.  More likely I would have been like her father, shocked by the craziness.  "Ca-full."     

I guess this might be out of print, which if true is a real travesty.  Looks like a few very pricey used CDs are available through amazon.