Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Name of Ayler

In many ways, Albert Ayler flew in the face of preconceived notions of the avant-garde. Where some practitioners of the “New Thing” were as fiery in their words as in their music, Ayler was soft-spoken, the model of a sensitive artist. It is that aspect of Ayler Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin focuses on in his documentary treatment of the jazz artist, My Name is Albert Ayler.

Name achieves intimacy in its portrait of the artist through the close cooperation of Ayler’s father Edward and his troubled trumpeter brother Donald, as well as video and audio clips of Ayler’s music. We also hear from Ayler in his own words, through sometimes eerie sounding interview recordings, some of which are also available in the highly recommended Revenant box-set, Holy Ghost.

After a stint in the military, Ayler honed his music in Europe, before returning to America, and eventually signing with Impulse thanks to the influence of his mentor John Coltrane. Ayler faced various professional challenges to his unconventional music, while at the same time he was increasingly pressured to look after his brother and front-line mate. During this period, many believed Ayler was deliberately isolated from friends and family by his manager/lover Mary Parks. (Though declining to appear on-screen, Parks did consent to phone interviews with the clearly frustrated Collin, asserting her off-screen voice would create a sense of mystery for the film.)

Tragically, Ayler committed suicide in 1970, though many have harbored suspicions regarding the circumstances of his death. Collin however, made a conscious editorial decision not to explore such issues. In a Q&A following the 7:00 screening yesterday, Collin also alluded to further Ayler family troubles, which he declined to address in the film. It is actually refreshing to see a filmmaker respect the privacy of his subjects, and clearly he wished to keep the focus squarely on Ayler the man, and his music.

Of Collin’s other interview subjects, former Ayler and Cecil Taylor sideman Sunny Murray brings the most to the table. Often insightful and at times quite funny, Murray has some of the more fitting words of summation, suggesting many who followed Ayler may have played with similar energy, but in Ayler you could hear someone truly playing with his heart.

Name begins and ends with ninety year-old Edward Ayler during a visit to his son’s gravesite in a Cleveland cemetery. These scenes of the devoutly dignified elder Ayler take on additional poignancy with the recent news of the death of his younger son Donald.

While less adventurous ears might be intimidated by a documentary of such a touchstone figure of the avant-garde, Ayler’s music is actually more accessible than people realize, especially if heard in the full context of the performance, and not just in isolated honks or shrieks (and of course his late R&B oriented New Grass material should not unsettle any listeners).

Collin’s film is respectful, bordering on the reverential. Well focused, it does convey some sense of Ayler as an individual. Its New York run ends tonight at the Anthology Film Archives, but will play limited runs in other cities in the coming months, including Ayler’s hometown of Cleveland starting November 17th. It is well worth seeing if it unspools in your city.