Righteous wail

New doc raises the ghost of Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler is finally screaming his anthems in Detroit. He's finally taking his searing classic "Ghosts" to San Francisco and "Bells" to Portland and "Love Cry" to Athens, Ga. With good-to-rave reviews, the documentary of his life is touring and getting around in a way that Ayler himself never could.

A quick Ayler history lesson: In the early '60s, he went from being a nobody expatriate saxophonist to a jazz-world sensation. In 1970, his body was found floating in the East River. In the brief in-between he challenged conventions of musical beauty and order. Yet what he played seemed rooted in something old. Folk tunes, spirituals, marches, blues? The roots seemed so old that it was hard to figure out exactly what they were — or were supposed to be. To those who heard him, he conveyed a terrible beauty. To others he was just terrible. There was no in-between, one bandmate recalls.

Now first-time Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collins has stitched together the scant film and video of Ayler performances, snippets of silent movies, abundant audio interviews, still photos, period atmosphere shots and memories of a handful of Ayler friends and acquaintances. In My Name is Albert Ayler, he's made a documentary as compelling as it is sparse, expansive in effect where its means are limited.

Some of those silent snippets, for instance, recur as if haunting the film. Having Ayler's voice on tape, but no film or video of him actually speaking, likewise, disembodies his presence. He's like one of the spirits or ghosts that recur in his titles and his aphoristic talk about his music. He's sure his sound is the sound of the future; he's like Picasso and he's a prophet. Yet he sometimes admits to having cried when people didn't understand his music.

Other than opening with Ayler's death certificate and a gravesite visit, Collins doesn't foreshadow much of what's ahead for the soft-spoken but beguilingly self-confident African-American who arrived in Sweden in 1962. He was pursuing a freedom he'd never felt at home. In tandem, he freed something musical inside of himself, something he admits to not quite understanding at first.

Back in the States, Ayler found notoriety and kindred musicians — no less than John Coltrane was a booster — but being a sensation and being a success are two different things. The band members talk about the pursuit of musical freedom on empty stomachs.

Collins never tries to neatly explain Ayler — or his unraveling. Back in Ayler's hometown of Cleveland we're introduced to his father, a source of Ayler's musical and religious yearnings. The elder Ayler, Albert says, inspired his drive "to be known all over the world." His mother was clearly doting, in some ways, controlling, and far from understanding her son or his milieu. And then there's his younger brother, trumpeter Donald, whose madness and breakdown figure heavily into Albert's later years.

Other than a brief acknowledgement that Ayler was elected to Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1983, Collins doesn't delve into his legacy. The music justifies itself throughout, and there's footage of Ayler's contemporaries listening to his music in headphones and reliving its glories.

Still, someone who doesn't follow jazz might wonder whether Ayler is a forgotten voice being resurrected or whether he's honored as the prophet he thought he was. It's the latter, at least in some circles. In the last few years alone there've been reissues and a nine-CD set of previously unreleased material; there've been tribute bands and discs. And it's a sign of the esteem in which Ayler's held that his Detroit debut isn't just the showing of a film, but an event.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward, Detroit; 313-832-6622, at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 14, and Saturday, March 15. Friday's showing includes 7 p.m. music (Ayleresque, we might expect) from saxophonists Skeeter Shelton and Michael Carey, plus an introduction and Q&A with filmmaker Kasper Collins. Admission is $8 on Friday, $6 on Saturday.

W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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