Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Albert Ayler on Soprano Saxophone

Many know saxophonist Albert Ayler as the 1960s free jazz tenor saxophonist with the big and brawny sound, infused with blues, gospel, and R&B. He was also an interesting soprano player.

Let me begin by saying that refined is not the first thought that comes to mind when you hear him work out his ideas on the straight horn. Spirited is probably a more accurate summation.

The recording, My Name is Ayler, is his first as a leader on the Debut label, a small Dutch record company based in Copenhagen. This album features Ayler wailing and screaming his way through five jazz classics and an original titled “C.T.”

 It is on the Ray Henderson/Mort Dixon piece “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” that we hear Ayler on the soprano. After hearing only a couple of bars, there is no hiding that Ayler was influenced by Coltrane’s extended version of the song (17 minutes and 55 seconds, to be exact) which he recorded on the tenor saxophone two years earlier on an album of the same name on Pablo Records. Coltrane was a mentor to Ayler, often loaning him money for food and bills, and was even the catalyst behind Ayler getting signed to the Impulse! label in 1964, which afforded him the financial stability he hadn't yet experienced during his career.

Ayler's approach to the soprano is undoubtedly more textural than melodic. I imagine he didn’t feel comfortable enough on the instrument to play it melodically. This is often the case. Typically a saxophonist playing the soprano has two choices to make: Either rein it in or let the instrument run amuck, like a wild boar. Personally, I like hearing both—and even playing both ways when I’m able. One of the paradoxes of the soprano is that it’s an instrument on which it's much easier to play wild and uninhibited than to play simple and melodic.

And to say that Ayler is over blowing the soprano on this recording would be a gross understatement. In fact, he sounds like he's dismantling the conventional concept of notes and is veering straight into the realm of noise. Which was not uncommon for him, even on the tenor. I'd be curious to know if Ayler is using the stiff synthetic Fibrecane reeds that he typically used on tenor. This would certainly explain the coarseness of his sound.

What I also find interesting was Ayler's tonal flexibility. He seemed to be able to employ the long glissandos for which he was known on tenor, giving his soprano playing a primitive but vocal-like quality.

The other players heard on this track are Niels Brosted on piano, Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson on bass, and Ronnie Gardiner on drums. As you’ll hear, his sidemen take a more conventional approach to the song. In fact, in his Allmusic review, jazz critic Thom Jurek, who gave the album three stars, wrote, "This is a strange record, like a soloist mismatched with the recording of another band…”

Even though the recording is aesthetically imbalanced, as suggested by Jurek, containing only the extremes of avant-garde improvisation and straight ahead swing, there is something very cool about hearing Ayler doing his thing on soprano, no matter how raw and unrefined.  But enough said. Check it out. Let me know what you think.

Please check out my book Life Lessons from the Horn and my new CD, Sopranoville.

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