When the most adventurous of the jazz players in the Sixties ventured boldly into avant-garde practices, saxophonist Albert Ayler may well have been the most provocative. Enjoying the benefits of retrospection, jazz historian Ted Gioia, in his 2011 The History of Jazz, called Ayler a “virtuoso of the coarse and anomalous.” For the benefit of readers who expected saxophonists to provide them with smooth melodic lines, Gioia explained that first adjective by observing that Ayler was more interested in discovering and exploiting new sonorities than in giving clear and polished accounts of the notes.
Ayler was far from the only one to explore this territory. Among saxophonists the names of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy should come to mind immediately. However, Coltrane had the benefit of having mastered more traditional approaches to playing jazz. His reputation provided him with the “bully pulpit” from which he could pursue such adventurous projects as Ascension and Meditations and provide Dolphy with work as a member of his combo. While Ayler never played with Coltrane, the latter was there to help the former out with financial support.
In 2002 the Albert Ayler Estate released a CD entitled The Copenhagen Tapes, an audio document of the quartet that Ayler led during a visit to Copenhagen in September of 1964. (Ayler’s dead body was found in New York’s East River on November 25, 1970, and his death was presumed to be a suicide.) The quartet began earlier in 1964 as a trio in which Ayler performed against a rhythm section of Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on drums. In July of that year, Ayler provided a freely improvised soundtrack for Michael Snow’s film New York Eye and Ear Control; and his trio was augmented by Don Cherry on trumpet, John Tchicai on alto saxophone, and Roswell Rudd on trombone. Cherry would then join the trio on their trip to Europe. They were to have been joined by Dolphy, but Dolphy died in Berlin on June 29.
The Copenhagen Tapes was the result of two sessions. The first six tracks were recorded live at the Club Montmartre on September 3. Alternate takes of three of those selections, “Vibrations,” “Saints,” and “Spirits,” were then recorded in studio by Danish Radio on September 10. At the end of this past April, all six live tracks were reissued by the Swiss label HAT HUT Records under the title Albert Ayler Quartet: Copenhagen Live 1964:
Those unfamiliar with how far Ayler ventured from conventional jazz practices will definitely find their curiosity satisfied by this recording. Indeed, there is something unabashedly (and unashamedly) primal in what Ayler and his colleagues brought to Copenhagen. Even the fact that each track has a title that is a simple plural noun reinforces those primal qualities. Indeed, those who visit this site regularly will find on these tracks the sorts of qualities that have inspired me to refer to the most adventurous of avant-garde efforts as being out on the “bleeding edge.”
Those without a taste for such adventures may find themselves uneasy in listening to this album. Some might even call the listening experience painful. Such listeners need to bear in mind Gioia’s approach to Ayler as a maker of new sonorities. Those sonorities were so new in their time that they were even more shocking than Edgard Varèse’s effort to compose music for thirteen percussionists (“Ionisation”) about half a century earlier. Indeed, when Frank Zappa started pursing his own “bleeding edge” interests with larger ensembles, there is a good chance that he wanted his saxophone players to follow in Ayler’s path.
The six tracks on this recording may not be for the faint of heart, but those willing to steel themselves for the listening experience will have much to discover on this album.