The Impulse Story

Albert Ayler

Impulse, 2006

REVIEW BY: Michael Broyles


Contradiction. I am unsure if “free-jazz” saxophonist Albert Ayler intended his music to convey this, but contradiction is what graced my ears as I listened to his collection of Impulse Recordings named The Impulse Story. In fact, I first bought this album after reading about Ayler in Ben Ratliff’s book about Impulse’s founder John Coltrane, titled Coltrane: The Story Of A Sound. When I first heard The Impulse Story, I hated it. Passionately. Upon second listen – more than a year later, and with the intention of writing a scathing review – I found myself entranced, amazed, and awed. Right time, right place? Ah, such are the contradictions. In The Impulse Story, there is music I once hated then loved, free jazz songs heavily influenced by traditional European orchestration and chant, deeply felt Christian expressions mixed with blatant blasphemy, and a message of universal love taught by an eccentric musician who, by most accounts, committed suicide. Contradictions.

Ayler’s squeaking, squealing, uproarious playing may have been most immediately influenced by gospel – and not the smooth, well-harmonized gospel of polished choirs but rather numinous undulations relayed through fits of charismatic ecstasy and speaking in tongues – but the compositional qualities often sound much more rooted in European chant and orchestration. Take “Truth Is Marching In,” an experimental throwback to pre-Armstrong march-jazz of New Orleans that, when heard by a critical ear, sounds like Wagner gone mad. “Truth Is Marching In” is a march with no strict rhythm and a raucous destruction of right-step conformity. Contradictions. Or take “Bells,” a glorious saxophone-trumpet emulation of high-tower church bells echoing throughout small Austrian towns (à la my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 The Sound Of Music). The most apparent connection to European chant and orchestration is in “Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe,” in which singer Mary Maria Parks intones the song’s title in a fashion eerily similar to the lineage incantation heard at the beginning of many traditional Catholic Easter Vigil celebrations.

Much free-jazz of the 1960’s appropriated a distinctly Sufi quality, especially for the Christian Coltrane and the free-spirited Ornette Coleman. By contrast, much of Ayler’s mystical music on The Impulse Story is so inspired by Christianity that I would venture to label it “Christian Jazz.” No, The Impulse Story contains no hymns or echoes of contemporary worship music, but rather encapsulates the passionate, enthralling essence of spiritual reawakening. In “Holy Ghost,” Albert’s saxophone and his brother Donald’s trumpet playing purposely invoke the Third Being in the Christian Trinity through blasting jolts and roars amidst a dissonant, disturbing cello drone. Conversely, the harp-inspired piano of Call Cobbs and the surprisingly lush tone of Ayler’s saxophone in “Angels” paint rhapsodic visions of peaceful cherubim carelessly floating between clouds. Of course, Ayler’s traditional, albeit eccentric, invocation of Christian imagery is juxtaposed with the grand blasphemy of prophetical claim and pantheistic mysticism. In “New Grass/Message From Albert,” Ayler’s spoken word postlude claims that “through meditation, dreams, and visions” Ayler has “been made a universal man through the power of the Creator” and that he was “sent once again to give the people on Earth a spiritual message” of “love, peace, and understanding.” Aligning himself with John the Baptist and the Hebrew Prophets, Ayler claims a Divine purpose, at once relying on Judeo-Christian imagery to ridicule their rejection of his own Godly ordination. Contradictions.

The rest of The Impulse Story abounds with minor contradictions such as the inclusion of the soul-inspired “Free At Last” or the use of heavy electric guitar and bagpipes in the Delta-blues styled “Untitled Duet.” But most troubling of all contradictions was Ayler’s untimely suicide. How could a person who dedicated his art to the life-affirming message of universal love commit an act of such violence and desecration? As “New Grass/Message From Albert” moved from untamed, anarchic aggression to soft, harmonically fit resolution while Ayler recites “We must restore Universal harmony / Everybody is only thinking of themselves / Of selfish equal / We must have love for each other and our fellow man,” I pondered this contradiction.  I only wish that Ayler’s own tumultuous contradictions somehow resolved in the universal harmony he was searching for.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2010 Michael Broyles and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Impulse, and is used for informational purposes only.