Jawbone Press, London
Published November 2022
ISBN 9781911036937

I first heard of Albert Ayler when I was in my teens. In a full length feature in the NME, sometime between the release of Little Johnny Jewel and Marquee Moon, I read that Tom Verlaine practiced guitar by playing along to either Pablo Casals’ recording of the Bach cello suites, or to records by Albert Ayler.

I first heard Albert Ayler when I was at university. In those days, style tips and cultural references took time to follow up, or track down. I was able to pick up copies first of Witches and Devils, and then Spiritual Unity, and was able to read some of Leroi Jones’ early reviews. Casals was left for later life.

Spiritual Unity was a touchstone for years. Every time I moved, it would be the first record I played in a new house or flat. No other recording leapt from the speakers like that – the first bark of the tenor, Gary Peacock’s bass tolling like a bell, and the patter of Sunny Murray’s cymbals. It was a ritual – part cleansing of the space, part territorial scent marking, and a very practical measure for determining how much racket my new neighbours would be able to tolerate.

Ayler’s tone was remarkable – he was often quoted saying he wanted to get beyond playing notes on the saxophone to playing sound – partly explainable by his choice of an open mouthpiece and a hard reed. This drive to abstraction was anchored by tunes that seemed to evoke marching bands and spirituals – simple melodies that were worked over endlessly in the course of a piece.

Murray and Peacock weren’t really a rhythm section any more. As Murray told Val Wilmer  “I work for natural sounds rather than trying to sound like drums. Sometimes I try to sound like car motors or the continuous crackling of glass… not just the sound of drums but the sound of the crashing of cars and the upheaval of a volcano and the thunder of the skies.”

The visceral shock of Spiritual Unity makes it one of the best places to start listening to Ayler’s body of work, and helps you to understand how he stood out from the rest of the “new thing” in jazz in the early sixties. His style influenced John Coltrane’s direction in his last years.

Koloda’s book is trailed by the publisher as “the first extended study” of Ayler. Although, it must be said, other extended studies are available. Peter Niklas Wilson’s 1997 study was finally translated from German and published in English this year. Typical, you wait ages and then two come along.

Koloda has spent twenty years researching and writing his book. He isn’t a flashy writer and the book escapes the twin pitfalls of a lot of jazz writing – it isn’t a rehashed PhD or a written to order potboiler from a music journalist

I haven’t read Wilson’s book yet, but Koloda’s book does have some advantages that might put it on top. Koloda had an extended friendship with Albert’s brother Donald so had more opportunity to consult him over the years. The book does much to restore Donald’s reputation, and there were times when I wondered whether the book might have been better as a study of both brothers.

Koloda is eloquent but not intrusive in detailing the legacy of their upbringing on the mental health of the two brothers, but also able to show the importance of religion and the culture of the church in shaping their approach to music.

Koloda also scores because of the amount of archival research he has undertaken, particularly around the circumstances of Ayler’s death. His preface sets out his claim to correct the historical record around Ayler’s life and career – a claim which seems justified. Perhaps with the proviso however, that there is much about Ayler that is unknowable.

Friends and acquaintances contradict each other in their recollections, and there is little extant record of Ayler’s own voice and views. His recorded legacy shows very rapid stylistic development. This is described by some as patchy and inconsistent, and his music is often described as primitive. This deficit based default has some roots in racism, and the overall lack of seriousness in much jazz criticism.

Ayler’s upbringing was middle class and he was well educated. All the accounts which Koloda gathers demonstrate Ayler’s technical skills and his ability to play conventionally – contradicting the narratives of Ayler’s life which have portrayed him as some sort of outsider artist.

Nonetheless, Koloda doesn’t gloss over some of the shortcomings – the personality issues and pragmatism which led to him recording whenever he was able, rather than being able to plan and curate his work. His green leather suit was his calling card and brand identity, but he never enjoyed a sufficiently settled domestic or financial situation to take a more considered approach to how his music was presented.

The book is structured rather conventionally with early chapters on Youth, The Army, and Scandinavia, but thereafter proceeding album by album. This isn’t the disadvantage it might seem, as Ayler’s albums have had a chequered history of being renamed and reissued – often with inaccurate track titles. Instead, you are able to follow his development chronologically and contextually – what, when and who. Koloda isn’t given to opinionating and is able to use contemporary critical debates to help us understand the reception of Ayler’s music and its burgeoning cultural significance.

The broad arc of Ayler’s life and work was well summarised in twenty or so pages by Val Wilmer in As Serious As Your Life. Although in some ways Koloda cannot add to this narrative, the care and seriousness with which he has approached this biography means that it will repay reading and provides a useful and comprehensive reference work. The bibliography and end notes are exhaustive, but it is a real shame that the book is not indexed.

Ayler’s work is still emerging in some senses – Revelations was released this year and contained previously unissued work, and ezzthetics are busily making unissued and previously unofficial releases available again with the cooperation the Ayler family and estate. While a discography might have been a useful resource in this book, it might have dated sooner than the rest of the book will.


Stuart Riddle

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    1. Thank you so much –Richard J Koloda

      Comment by Richard James Koloda on 8 January, 2023 at 4:28 pm

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