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Albert Ayler: Free-Jazz Pioneer, Aware of His Legacy

SOURCE: Published: 2007-11-08
he Ohio-born tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler probably would have gotten a kick out of Kasper Collin's documentary about his life, “My Name Is Albert Ayler," which opens today at the Anthology Film Archives. Named after one of his albums and built around snippets of audio interviews with Mr. Ayler, it attempts and often achieves a fresh, playful style that's equally informed by jazz traditions and Mr. Ayler's urge to shatter them.

Mr. Ayler used marchlike structures as the foundation for multiple, chaotic improvisations by himself and his band mates. The solos on his landmark 1964 album “Spiritual Unity" are musical action paintings in which feeling dictates form.

Mr. Ayler's sound was formed during a rhythm-and-blues-influenced adolescence, a stint as an Army musician and a two-year sojourn in Northern Europe in the early '60s that included exposure to the music of the free-jazz innovator Cecil Taylor.

The attention-getting final stretch of Mr. Ayler's life started in 1963 in New York City (where he barged onstage with his sax during a John Coltrane performance and, to everyone's astonishment, earned himself a fan and a sometime patron) and ended in 1970, when he went missing for two and a half weeks, then turned up floating in the East River.

In his time Mr. Ayler was marginalized as a grandiose, spaced-out eccentric who played like Charlie Parker trapped under something heavy. As the bassist Gary Peacock, one of many former Ayler band mates interviewed by the director, puts it, people either loved or hated Mr. Ayler's music: “Nobody said, 'Ah, he has his good points.'" A straightforward, PBS-style documentary about Mr. Ayler would have seemed clueless. Thankfully, Mr. Collin hasn't made one.

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