Albert Ayler was a different kind of enigma. The meat of the troubled saxophonist’s career was in the free jazz vein, an already polarizing genre. But when he began to stretch his musical vocabulary in the late ‘60s, many staunch fans cried foul. The curious thing is that, even in the midst of his “selling out”, Ayler’s music was still pretty weird by most people’s standards. In brief, his solo career started in 1963 with the straightforwardly titled album My Name is Albert Ayler. Over the next couple of years, he and his brother Donald would bang away at records that would eventually be considered cornerstones of the free jazz idiom such as Spiritual Unity and Spirits Rejoice. Ayler was more than a dozen albums into his solo career when he made New Grass in 1969, managing to confuse and demoralize much of his urbane audience. Looking back, it’s hard to see what the big deal was since Ayler was grappling with R&B and soul music on his own uncompromising terms. Nevertheless, the summer of love and its subsequent years proved to be a very misunderstood time in Ayler’s career. Impulse records does an admirable if overly modest job of reintroducing two of Albert Ayler’s late period albums on the twofer Love Cry/The Last Album. This is actually one of several twofers that Impulse has released lately and the content is pretty cool even if the fine details need some explaining.
For one thing, Love Cry and The Last Album are separated by the release of two other albums, Music is the Healing Force of the Universe and New Grass. A lot of time passed and a lot of crazy things happened (e.g. Ayler saw an object in the sky and was convinced that it was God) between the recordings of these two albums. Putting them together doesn’t make as much sense as, say, pairing Love Cry with Music is the Healing Force of the Universe and matching New Grass with The Last Album if just for chronology’s sake. Secondly, the inside of the CD sleeve doesn’t attempt to update a thing. If you buy reissues of classic jazz albums, you are used to seeing two sets of liner notes: the original and the hindsight. Love Cry/The Last Album only shows the original liner notes in microscopic font. Contrary to the practice of having yet another journalist weigh in on something like Bitches Brew for the millionth time, this package is content to let the music (and the original packaging) do the talking. In the land of a thousand reissues, this is refreshing and strange.
Unlike these albums’ previous incarnations, Love Cry/The Last Album includes no bonus tracks. Both albums are remastered in their entirety, covering over 77 minutes of the CD. Their cohabitation certainly gives a weird snapshot of Ayler, looking like either an eclectic genius or an eccentric coot throwing stuff against the wall to see what will stick. Love Cry plays out like a mission to find tonal, almost revile-like jazz only to drag it through the wringer courtesy of drummer Milford Graves, harpsichordist/rocksichordist Call Cobbs, bassist Alan Silva and trumpeter Donald Ayler. That’s right, rocksichordist. Spellcheck may not like this word one bit, but it’s something that those ‘60s cats came up with to describe the artificial harpsichord-like sound while going through the impossible task of getting it to “rock”. Albert Ayler may have been concerned with rocking out at this point, but Love Cry sounds like it was the last notion on his mind. The title track has a call-and-response routine that gives it a remote battlefield feel. “Omega” rocks even less, bringing to mind the chord progression of something from a child’s instructional music book. “Zion Hill” pushes the whole thing further out to sea as Ayler solos his ass off while Cobbs tickles away at a sound that probably sounded outdated one day after it was recorded.
Yet Love Cry is the more consistent of the two. The Last Album, which was technically not Albert Ayler’s last album, is a true kitchen sink wonder. Even from the first note, you can tell this is going to be one hell of a strange album. It makes no attempt to evenly stir together an electric guitar/saxophone duet (“Untitled Duet”), a musical poetry mash-up with his then-girlfriend Mary Maria (“Again Comes the Rising of the Sun”), off-kilter blues (“Toiling”), an impressionistic vocal number that hardly reaches resolution (“Desert Blood”) and a very, very stressed-out sounding ballad (“Water Music”). The Last Album is baffling, almost poetically so. You still feel the stretch of Ayler’s musicality and personality within these tracks, even if it is all terribly unfocused.
Albert Ayler’s life did not have a happy ending. He struggled with crippling depression and guilt over his younger brother’s nervous breakdown and, at Impulse’s urging, dismissal from Albert’s band. His body was found in New York City’s East River in late 1970, presumably a suicide. If art reflects life, then the struggle and mess in Ayler’s late period music was obviously genuine. This twofer takes his strife and aims it right for your nose. So while this package is a good deal and it is nice of Impulse to take steps to shrink the number of physical CDs in your library, just know that Love Cry/The Last Album is not for the casual listener. Not by a long shot. This is for the already indoctrinated free jazz aficionados who can brace themselves against the slight, if at all applicable, disappointment that only genre-hopping can bring. So don’t blame me if you bruise easy.