Albert Ayler: New Grass Album Review


No one could have predicted Albert Ayler’s turn to pop. The tenor saxophonist emerged in the mid-’60s as one of the most visceral forces of the free-jazz movement, with raw, chaotic compositions that jumbled expressions of joy and mourning until they were indistinguishable. Ayler’s respected standing in avant-garde circles made the abrupt stylistic shift of his 1969 album New Grass all the more baffling. Instead of the structureless squall he was known for, here was Ayler singing lead on AM-radio pop songs and superimposing his unhinged sax skronk over funk, soul, and rock rhythms. Freshly remastered and reissued by Third Man in its first vinyl pressing in over 40 years, the wildly mismatched colors of New Grass still don’t resemble anything else.

Ayler had signed on with highly visible jazz imprint Impulse! in 1966 at the behest of their star player John Coltrane. New Grass would be his third release with the label and the first without his brother and trumpet player Donald Ayler. Donald’s limited but eruptive playing had been integral in his brother’s music finding its highest form, but the lifestyle of the struggling jazz musician pushed him to his brink. He stopped playing in Ayler’s band shortly before suffering a mental collapse. Around the same time, Ayler had begun a relationship with Mary Parks, a poet and singer who went by the alias Mary Maria. Parks sang on New Grass, and her flower-power poetry provided the lyrics. Some familiar sidemen were on board (Bill Folwell switching from upright bass to electric and keyboardist Call Cobbs reprising the gossamer harpsichord he’d brought to Ayler’s free-floating Love Cry the year before), but the personnel consisted mostly of session musicians. Lockstep drumming, overdubbed horn sections, and back-up singers all nudged the sound towards the kind of schmaltz the music industry was churning out in the late ‘60s. As if to ease listeners in, the album begins with a high-energy saxophone and bass improvisation that leads to a spoken message from Ayler. In a mystical ramble somewhere between a prayer and a warning, he offers the hesitant disclaimer “I hope you will like this record.”

On transcendent concert documents like Bells and In Greenwich Village, Ayler’s free jazz was messy and volatile, with a drive so supernatural it barely seemed possible the music was made by earthly beings. His new songs were messy in a way that was unnervingly human; jittery, flailing, and striking out in several bizarre directions at once. The melodic signatures were the same—simple, friendly lines that evoked New Orleans funeral marches or children’s songs—but Ayler’s vibrating tone hovered in a separate orbit from his band’s standardized grooves. More jarring than the ill-fitting arrangements were Ayler’s prominently featured vocals. Unlike the wordless incantations he’d occasionally included on earlier albums, here he was leading songs with a bellowing, untrained voice that…

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