There is something about the creative spirit that drives the most gifted beyond their own limitations, often exposing flawed human traits and inexplicable behaviour. There is a common acceptance of the notion that the dividing line between genius and madness is indeed a slim one. Vincent van Gogh, Antonin Artaud, Edgar Allen Poe, all highly creative individuals, contributing an illustrious body of work, yet considered a little off the wall. Jackson Pollock had the dubious double of being artistically castigated and considered beyond the offbeat. Free jazz musician Albert Ayler was another such person and his story is revealed in Kasper Collin's highly regarded film essay.
I was lucky enough to grow up alongside the creative development of modern jazz. In the early fifties Charlie Parker was the shining genius to some, the wrecker of jazz music to others. Then came Coltrane, with his powerful tone and free-flowing ideas. Many jazzers found him scary. Ornette Coleman was described by Johnny Dankworth as "not playing jazz but making noise" when he emerged on the scene. As a young lad of 17, I got the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet album, with Coleman's quartet in the left speaker and Eric Dolphy's in the right. These two ensembles played freely, independently and simultaneously and it was great! On the cover of the album was a large picture by Jackson Pollock and it all made sense. Where Pollock was claiming nothing more for his painting than what it was paint on canvas so the free musicians were stripping away all attributes of their music we were to appreciate just the sounds. When I took A Level Art I did a project linking music to painting and used the abstract expressionism of Pollock to illustrate my case. I got an A+. And I guess I was then ready for Albert Ayler.
The first Ayler album I acquired was called "May Name is Albert Ayler" and I played it until the grooves bled. More recently I was gifted by a dear friend a box set truly a beautiful box with all manner of Ayler memorabilia inside photos, posters, facsimile articles, petals from his favourite flowers and nine CDs of unreleased material. Watching Kasper Collin's film, also called My Name is Albert Ayler, in the Shetland Museum on Saturday night, I was reminded of this box set. Collin's film is a bit like this box a collection of fragments taken from here and there interviews old and new, photos, the little archive footage that exists, contemporary source material. It is all put together to gradually uncover a feeling for a man who was driven by a passion for his music and a determination to pursue his chosen musical path against all odds. You come away from this film with a feeling that you have just had an intimate conversation with a close friend, where he has revealed his innermost personal thoughts.
It is not an easy film, but Albert Ayler was far from an easy subject. Best of all was to discover that John Coltrane suggested that Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman should play at his funeral. Bet that was some gig. Coltrane and Coleman are now considered inspirational sources for modern jazz players, but Ayler still remains largely unknown and enigmatic. Yet those who came into contact with him, as this film shows, were full of admiration for him and his music, full of love for the man, however weird he appeared. There is joy and there is sadness. I will long remember the film's opening and closing images of Albert Ayler's father searching for his own son's final resting place amongst rows of impersonal grave-markers and having great difficulty finding it.
Kasper Collin has presented us with another splendid reason to be passionate about the forgotten genius of jazz, whose true legacy is only now becoming appreciated nearly forty years after he died. - Jeff Merrifield 2010
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