For those who don’t know (I have to admit that I was one of them), Albert Ayler was a jazz saxophonist who is now widely considered one of the greatest innovators of the ‘Free Jazz’ movement. Director Kasper Collin’s documentary explores Ayler’s life and music, and is largely narrated by Ayler himself, using interview recordings from the 1960s.
Ayler was born in Cleveland in 1936. He lived there until leaving to join the army in his early 20s, after family poverty forced him to drop out of college. But Ayler’s real dedication was to the saxophone, which he had learnt at the age of eight and, after leaving the army in 1961, he embarked upon a career in music.
Ayler developed a very expressive style of playing and was compelled to shun traditional jazz conventions. Inevitably, his still-developing, sophisticated style was hard to sell on the conventional American jazz circuit, and Ayler went to live in Stockholm, where experimental jazz was more generously received and where he eventually became acquainted with members of the American avant-garde jazz movement. After moving to New York in the mid-60s Ayler and his new found music soul mates slowly began to make a name for themselves, helped not insignificantly by the patronage and admiration of John Coltrane.
The style of the documentary is sometimes slightly anarchic though always focused; a kind of homage to Ayler’s style of music. Its loose, chronological storytelling format is generally unobtrusive, as the director quite wisely focuses primarily on the words of his family and friends, as well as those of Ayler himself. Collin wants to be no more than a silent guide in our exploration of Ayler’s life.
Some of the most interesting moments arise during the various interviews with his fellow musicians, particularly when they are given headphones with which to listen to Ayler’s music. Often, the intense emotional involvement visible in the musicians’ expressions gives the impression that we are voyeurs on a most intimate conversation. However, Collin does give a lot of weight to the Ayler’s increasingly eccentric state of mind. The concluding section of the documentary, which focuses on Ayler’s unique spiritual beliefs and practices, made me consider whether the director wasn’t giving dangerous levels of attention and credibility to what essentially was the delusions of grandeur of a highly narcissistic individual.
Putting my (perhaps very personal) unease aside for a moment, there is no doubt that this is an interesting and absorbing piece of documentary making; one which can certainly be added to a list of explorative music culture documentaries well worth seeing. It is also engrossing to the extent that eulogizing cultural icons always contains its fascination – though for me this all-to-common tendency among filmmakers has reached something near saturation point. Although there is something of interest for all viewers here, jazz fanatics are the most likely to leave the cinema feeling wholly satisfied.