I realize I can’t let go of the W. Eugene Smith story, but that’s how fixations are. As I reported Sunday, I was knocked out by The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, a stellar documentary illuminating Smith’s life and work, but especially his years quartered in a Manhattan loft churning out photos, hosting marathon after-hours jazz sessions, and making audio recordings of purt-near every sound made in the building. One of the many great moments in the documentary (and in Sam Stephenson’s recent Smith bio, Gene Smith’s Sink) comes when surviving participants–including the great alto saxophonist Phil Woods–recall the loft rehearsal sessions for Thelonious Monk’s first-ever big band performance at Town Hall. The arrangements, the difficulty of which one familiar with Monk’s music can well imagine, were written by the great Hall Overton–who just happened to live and work in the space on the other side of Smith’s wall. After creating arrangements to Monk’s satisfaction, a process fascinating in itself, the two men contacted the musicians and called the rehearsal. At two in the morning. And, Monk being who he was, everyone showed. Suffice it to say that I found it impossible after watching this sequence to avoid listening to Thelonious Monk at Town Hall last night (and I’m doing it again right now) (and you should, too), the full recording captured via YouTube above. Nothing short of amazing, folks.
I’ve also previously written about my attempt to whittle my CD collection down to a sane size. Since early January, I’ve traded in 200-300 of ’em, and they’d already been honed about a year ago, so at times I’ve felt like I was trading chunks of flesh. When my wife observed me taking a couple of late Aylers (Love Call and New Grass) downstairs to box up, she said with great alarm, “Wait, you can’t trade in those!” Yes, I am lucky; Nicole is as much an Albert Ayler nut as I. She even eagerly accompanied me to visit his grave outside of Cleveland! However, I told her, “Well, these are late experiments where he was trying to make accessible music, and they’re more than a shade uneven…we’ll never miss ’em.” She looked askance at me, and I went on downstairs with them.
I put them in a box, then stared at them for the next five days.
Have you ever felt guilt-pangs at getting rid of music by one of your favorite artists, even if it isn’t their best work, even if you could just digitize it? As if you’re betraying them, even if they happen to be dead (in Ayler’s case, for almost 50 years)? As if you’ve just discovered you’re a cold-ass bastard?
I took them out of the box, and out to The Lab, to give them one last listen in the compressed space of my Ranger’s cab and make absolutely sure I wasn’t fucking up.
I was. Well, I’m only halfway through New Grass, but, though it features very lame “spiritual” lyrics and singing, and some awkward arrangements (“Ayler goes R&B!”), Albert actually plays pretty well, and at least suggests what a successful merging of his wild wails and seriously soulful backing might have sounded like. Also, one gets to hear Ayler talking; that might not seem like much, but we hardly knew him before he was gone, and I treasure any moment that makes him seem more real. One track that exemplifies the worthy struggle of engaging with New Grass is “New Ghosts”: it’s seriously marred by some very-sub-Leon Thomas ululations, apparently emitted by Ayler himself, and Bill Folwell’s bass playing seems out of sync, but once the leader starts playing his tenor, some sparks fly–he brings out the calypso melody that was always embedded in the earlier recordings of “Ghosts” and anticipates Sonny Rollins’ ideas of the mid-to-late ’70s (think Sunny Days, Starry Nights). Goofy and wonderful: I suspect that combo was another Ayler’s human elements.
So, I’m keeping them. Try New Grass yourself–another full-album link’s there for your pleasure.
Speaking of Ayler–and this mysteriously happened after my Lab session–an archival release by the great Hat Hut free jazz label finally showed up in my mailbox: Ayler, Sunny Murray (drums), Gary Peacock (bass), and Don Cherry (trumpet), live in 1964, in fantastic fettle and fidelity, from the Café Montmarte in Copenhagen. The performance is one of the greatest of Ayler’s life, and Cherry is in amazing form, dancing lightly in and out of the eye of the saxophonist’s hurricane and illuminating the link between Ayler’s work and Coleman’s: an exciting contrast between free styles, earthiness v. elegance (and, yes, I’m calling Coleman’s work elegant in a relative kind of way, but even if I weren’t, his work still was). This release is a must for any serious Ayler fan. A must. Don’t make me repeat it again. (I will die with this CD still on my shelves, I assure you).