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Breakfast in Montreal: Albert Ayler in Canadaby Stuart Broomer
Copyright © 1999 Stuart BroomerCoda Magazine, issue 272, March/ April 1997
In the late summer of 1967, I went with my band of the day from Toronto to Montreal where we were to play in a Michael Snow performance at Expo '67, Canada's World's Fair. We arrived at night, the day before our accommodations in a vacant college dorm would be available. One band member had a friend in the city, and we arrived late on his doorstep. It was going to be crowded, with five of us sleeping on the floor in one small room. Imagining the sleeplessness before me, I decided to go exploring, thinking that just walking around somewhere unfamiliar would be more fun than trying not to wake other people.
With the approximate address of a club I knew might have interesting music, I set out. I didn't know what I'd find, but it was one of those rare moments that happen only in youth. The band that was playing was Albert Ayler's.
Now that would be one kind of surprise, maybe even better, for someone who'd never heard of Ayler, but at the time I was convinced that he was among the most important musicians on the planet. In the previous two years I'd written a couple of pieces to that effect for Coda, a long review of Spiritual Unity and an article on all his records available at the time. His playing had contributed much to my thinking about music. I'd heard some of his key sidemen live -- Sunny Murray, Henry Grimes, Charles Tyler -- but I'd heard Ayler only on record. So it was a special instant, when even the fear of insomnia seemed in some special synch with the universe, one of those rare and generous moments when the world feels like it's been staged just for you.
I can still feel my surprise at seeing his name on a hand-lettered sign on the street, but my recollection of the club itself is sketchier. It was an after-hours coffee house, a few steps below street level. The band was already playing, the music seeping outside, but when I went through the door Ayler's tenor hit like a wall, not violence or anger or any of those things, but a wall of impossible sweetness. At midnight there was only a scattering of people there, and I sat down close to the stage.
The band was a quintet with Ayler's brother Don on trumpet and Call Cobbs playing an apartment-size piano. I recognized Rasheid Ali on drums. I'd met him a year before when I'd gone to Detroit to hear Coltrane. The bass player, unfamiliar to me by both sight and sound, turned out to be one I'd never heard, or heard of, either before or since, named, I'm almost positive, Bill (not Steve, not Art, and not Richard) Davis. I'm not sure now if the band didn't outnumber the audience even at the start of the night, when the club was as crowded as I would see it.
The music was extraordinary. I know I'd heard better Ayler bands on records, but Ayler's sound was one of the great musical truths, so huge and bright and various and alive, the most fully human -- and humanly full -- sound I've ever heard from a musical instrument. He was playing alto, too, that night, with an incredibly broad, almost cavernous tone. Don Ayler, it's true, shared few of his brother's talents, but he played trumpet as if everything else had been sacrificed to sheer sound, a great metallic blaring that seemed to carve the air into blocks then shunt them around that low-ceilinged room. There's much to be said for a musical conception large enough to include very different levels of skill, and Ayler's conception was one of those. I've never heard a recording that did justice to the parade band sound of the brothers playing Albert's simple themes together, the concordances and divergences tangible in the air.
I introduced myself between sets. Ayler knew the articles I'd written about him and was pleased by them. He thought that people could hear the music better "outside the empire." Coltrane had died only a few weeks before, and his presence could be felt in the way Albert and Rashied played that night (the loss had not yet come to mean all that it would, though, for Coltrane was a principal link between the art and the business of jazz). Albert told me that the last time they'd talked, Coltrane had declared himself the father, Pharoah Sanders the son, and Albert the holy ghost. It was a kind of statement that could send me running, but from Ayler it seemed plausible. There was no arrogance in it, only his wonder at the scale of the music he was playing. It was a way of finding language to give the music its rightful dimension. He had a sense of his own ascendancy, telling me confidently and modestly, as if the avatar of outside were a job, that he had to keep working at it as he felt Pharoah Sanders gaining on him.
The performance ended around 4:30. By the end of the last set, I was an audience of one, something that's made it hard for me to line up ever since. We left the club and went for breakfast, the sun just coming up. It was really just a pleasant conversation, but there were things Ayler said that I remember still, and one in particular stands out.
He asked about the instrumentation of my group, and registered surprise that there was no bass player. He remarked that you had to have a bass player in New York, otherwise people would "think it was weird." It struck me then, and strikes me still, as one of the most valuable things anyone ever told me about jazz. What I felt was Ayler's resentment of the nagging, even ridiculous constraints on making music in the jazz business. Even for Ayler to hope for acceptance, it was important that the band "look like" a jazz band. It might help explain why, in his brief career, he had gone from playing with the very best bass players (Grimes, Gary Peacock) to touring and sometimes even recording with ones who mattered little to the music, or how he went from those beautiful performances with strings to what "looked like" conventional groups. That night in Montreal the band had the instrumentation of a bop quintet. This isn't to say that Ayler didn't have bands where one or even two bassists were an essential and vital element, only to say that Ayler's view of the audience required a bass player whether or not he felt any musical reason to have one.
The first important band he'd played in, Cecil Taylor's, had managed without one, but that, after all, had been in Denmark, far away from "the empire." When he recorded the first session for Love Cry within a few days of that Montreal performance, he used Alan Silva, a fine musician who played the instrument as little like a "bass" as possible. That sense of continuous constraint may have made it easier for Ayler to shift to the electric fusion settings of the later Impulse records. In a sense, perhaps, the continued presence of the veteran Cobb, who had played with Johnny Hodges and Billie Holiday, was a literal sign of jazz history, part of a complex bargain Ayler had made between his ideas of music and audience. Given that view, the electric harpsichord that Cobb played on Ayler's records may refer ambivalently to a longer musical history.