Albert Ayler: Live on the Riviera

[27 August 2013]

By John Garratt

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

It’s not much of a hyperbole to say that jazz is made for a live setting. The music thrives, for the most part, on improvisation. That improvisation thrives upon countless outside variables: the strength of the rhythm section, the heat of the room, the promise of cash in hand (hopefully) and the energy of the crowd. That’s why my brother tried to point me to live jazz albums when we were both discovering the genre. There were a few exceptions to the rule (Mingus’s The Complete Town Hall Concert comes to mind), but in-concert jazz recordings had the golden opportunity to better their studio counterparts. Catching lightening in a sterile environment like a studio is understandably tough, but one man could always bring the thunder within those walls, and that man was Albert Ayler.

Before I move on to Live on the Riviera, I will first say that Albert Ayler was a badass. He may not be the original badass of the saxophonist or of jazz music in general, but when he raised his horn to his lips, he coughed up sounds that would probably have made Coltrane and Parker flinch. He had a grind to his tone that bordered on harmful, to him and the listener. His bands were highly unorthodox, incorporating bagpipes, harpsichord and occasional spoken word passages courtesy of his girlfriend Mary Maria Parks. And when all of this stuff was piled upon one another, Ayler could summon a bonfire of music—even in the studio. If that kind of recording environment was ever a handicap to Ayler or his band, they certainly never showed it. But if these guys could burn rubber in the studio so well, why does their 1970 live set carry all of the gusto of squeaky wheels on a shopping cart?

After receiving Live on the Riviera, I eventually noticed that I actually had studio recordings of all seven songs: one from Love Cry, one from The Last Album (which wasn’t really Ayler’s last album, but that’s another story), one from New Grass, and four from Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe—more than half of that album’s content. So they’re all from Albert Ayler’s late period, a series of albums that sadly reflected his unraveling mental state as well as an earnest attempt at a spiritual awakening. It’s volatile stuff for sure, full of big questions and the anguish that comes from not getting any answers. And coming from those four albums, these seven songs are nothing but punch. But coming from a concert recorded live in the south of France in the summer of 1970—just four months before Ayler’s suicide—these songs sound like they’re the ones getting punched. It’s hard to tell if Ayler was enjoying any kind of telepathy with bassist Steve Tintweiss and drummer Allen Blairman. Is it an issue of a mediocre sound system and/or sound man? Because at many points during the opening number “Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe”, Parks’s mic doesn’t get switched on until long after she’s begun her next recitation—unless she just forgot to walk up to it. Which is unlikely.

The wake-up reveille of “Ghosts” gets a more soulful bent on the saxophone end of things. But Tintweiss and Blairman, despite making it to the final selection of the evening, are still feeling each other out. “Heart Love” doesn’t even sound anything near its original version, although that could be due to New Grass‘s icey reception and Ayler’s subsequent stylistic backpedaling (I thought the ‘60s were supposed to be an open time, man!). But on Live On The Riviera, it’s almost a matter of interpretation, as if it were a completely different song. And Ayler himself just doesn’t sound confident on “Birth of Mirth” or “Masonic Inborn”. But the crowd is more than down with it. When the concert goers recognize the main theme of each tune, they politely applaud. When each number wraps up, the place goes crazy.

It’s tough to say what got lost in the translation from band members to the stage to the album. Perhaps it was a better night than what the master tapes might lead you to believe. Or maybe Albert Ayler was off his game. As I said before, he had only four more months to go before jumping into the East River on that cold November day, he couldn’t have been in great mental shape. And his troublesome relationship with Parks probably doesn’t put their traveling show in the best of light. She’s got her own timidity to grapple with on Live on the Riviera. But if art imitates life, then this album is full of life. Too bad it’s the thorny kind.

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