Friday, November 24, 2006

my name is albert ayler

My Name Is Albert Ayler (directed by kasper collin, 2005; 79 minutes) is worth seeing not only because it's the first documentary about this crucially important musician who helped revolutionize jazz in the 1960; it's also an incredibly moving piece of work that celebrates the joys and tragedies of visionary art.

growing up in a middle-class home in cleveland (just below shaker square, if i'm interpreting the reference to the family's home on "ripley" correctly), a good-looking guy with a taste for stylish clothes, soft-spoken but highly articulate, ayler had to go to sweden after a stint in the army to find an audience that appreciated his music. the stark economic and racial injustices that faced the creative musician back in america, however, clearly took a mental and emotional toll on ayler and his trumpet-playing brother donald. throughout, ayler remained committed to the rightness and necessity of his music.

collin draws heavily on recorded audio interviews ayler made 1963-1970 (the year of his untimely death by drowning in the east river of NYC), as well as surviving fellow musicians (like sunny murray), friends and family members (ayler's father and brother). there are some great anecdotes, like how when ayler first walked onto the stage to play with the cecil taylor unit, taylor literally jumped off his piano bench. there is some use made of live performance footage, though it is not extensive and it is often run slower than the corresponding audio; it's an interesting effect and though i'd rather seen more live performance footage and more in sync with the audio, the end result seems to de-emphasize and not fetishize performance and technique.

what comes through most clearly is ayler's passion for and committment to his singular vision for music and the world. it's something he knows won't be understood, and in the early stages of his career he himself clearly did not understand it. there's a brilliant moment when the film is covering, i think, the recording of the spiritual unity album, and it's the first time in the film where the viewer really hears an extended ayler tenor solo, and an ayler voiceover comes in insisting that the music is not trying to convey anger but peace, and wollin cuts shortly to footage of race riots in the american city streets. but through all the misunderstanding, the grinding poverty, and the tolls these take, ayler persevered, he endured. the film conveys this without mythologizing him, as the mysterious and still unresolved issues surrounding his death (and really the last few years of his life).

particularly haunting is the use of deep-green-tinted footage of a bare-shouldered ayler gazing quite directly into the camera -- a sequence which recurs like a leitmotif throughout, as if he's saying to us, now, 25 years after his death, that we need to start listening, as james baldwin put it with reference to the title character of his story "sonny's blues,"
with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.
there is an excellent review by jack gold at all about jazz. the film is scheduled to tour the united states in spring 2007.


Aldon Lynn Nielsen said...

I have a copy of this film and it is wonderful -- I hope it will be made available on DVD here in the States --

Mark Wallace said...

Tom, don't you think you should ask Al how to get a copy of his copy?