Tuesday, November 13, 2007

My Name is Albert Ayler (2005)

Kasper Collin's 2005 documentary, My Name is Albert Ayler, has finally reached the U.S., screening at Anthology Film Archives this past week. Ayler developed a form of free jazz independently of the "new thing" that was happening in NYC with Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and the like. A soft-spoken mystic who played with staggering intensity - and equivalent volume, he was a divisive figure - you either loved him or hated him, as bassist Gary Peacock says in the film. I loved him when I was in college - his impassioned cacophony almost sounded like he was weeping through his music - there was absolutely no filter between himself and his instrument. Such passion can lead to sloppiness and indulgence - and you just had to accept that if you wanted to get anything out of his tunes. I'm able to now and again.

The documentary is loaded with interviews, but unfortunately pretty slim on insight. There's a lot of talk about how enigmatic Ayler was, how soft-spoken and isolated - but there's no attempt to analyze his main form of speech - his music. There is little to no discussion of his artistic progression or style - just that it was weird and rejected in the States, and that Northern Europeans were more receptive. A few flashes of album covers gives short shrift to his incorporation of marches and folk forms into his music - the only remotely musical thing discussed is his attempt to cross-over with his more fusion oriented New Grass album. But the main corpus of his work is left wanting - just a huge slab of unexamined "greatness". There are some fabulous anecdotes - especially from his frequent drummer Sunny Murray (a verbose and hilarious guy), but there's precious little insight into what made Albert's music so different and threatening.

The film is efficient in filling the basic outline of his life - and uses haunting interview clips with him over the course of his career as a post-mortem narrator, which only goes to increase his enigma further. Late in life his his girlfriend/manager was Mary Parks, who is alluded to have isolated him from the jazz community by Murray and others. In an interview on the phone, she refuses to appear in the flesh, because she says it would dissipate the mystery that surrounds her and her relationship to Albert. Kasper Collin's film follows her lead - not presenting the importance of the man through his art - but through the mystery of his life, of which we will never be privy to.

His death, a presumed suicide into the East River - can never be explained. But his music - at least we have a shot at explicating that.

All that aside - there's some amazing concert footage, Sunny Murray truly is a delight, and I would recommend it to those interested in the guy. So, while seriously flawed, it's serviceable as an intro to his work - but don't take it as the last word - that's still waiting to be spoken.



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