Friday, January 16, 2009

Albert Ayler, "Summertime" (1965)




In the pantheon of free-jazz saxophonists, Coltrane had the vision and earth-and-metal genius; Eric Dolphy had the astonishing technical facility and ability to render sound from physical form and the reverse; Archie Shepp was funky, witty, righteous; but Albert Ayler had something that was not only possessed by none of his contemporaries but was in fact basically unprecedented by his forebears and in large degree went to the grave (or, as the case may be, the bottom of the East River) with him. Like Coltrane, he came out of bar-walking, sandpaper-toned R&B honking, but where the former streamlined his sound to an unrivaled purity and intensity and began developing the melodic line into self-reflexive and ultimately exponential territory, Ayler widened his vibrato to a frequency that approximated a particularly weathered female voice and stripped down what Coltrane built up, past Charlie Parker's eloquence and theoretical mastery, past New Orleans riffing and Louis Armstrong song-lines, back to a telluric shamanism ("primitive" only in terms of Westernized timelines, for how much more subtle in his way is Robert Johnson than J.S. Bach, how much more nuanced an understanding of timbre and rhythm did he possess?) that dealt with improvisation as chant, as mourning cry, as invocation and self-devouring play of mantric sound. Here he cuts through the thousand hackneyed renditions of "Summertime" that had piled up by 1965 (to say nothing of the transatlantic storehouses such readings could fill today) and locates its power in the lowest rumbling regions of the throat, gateway between the stomach which digests and the mouth which enunciates.

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