Critical Responses

I.Ratings of Ayler and members of his group in the Downbeat Critics' and Readers' Polls (These polls are a ranking of favorite musicians, in order, by instrument, i.e. Ayler's first rating means that Ayler was the critics' eleventh favorite tenor saxophonist, based on his work in 1966)

Albert Ayler, on tenor saxophone

1966: critics 11, readers 15

1967: readers 13

1968: readers 17

1969: readers 16

as a Talent Deserving Wider Recognition (critics only)

1966: 2

1967: 2

1968: 7

1969: 1

as Jazzman of the Year (readers only)

1966: 31

his group, as a whole

1966: TDWR 4

1967: TDWR 3, readers 26

Don Ayler, on trumpet (The remainder of these scores are based on all the player's work during the year, not just with Ayler.)

1966: TDWR 9

Charles Tyler, alto sax

1966: TDWR 11

Henry Grimes, bass

1966: TDWR 5, readers 23

1967: TDWR 3

1968: TDWR 7, readers 18

Sunny Murray, drumset

1966: TDWR 1, readers 17

1967: critics 8, readers 17

Gary Peacock, bass

1966: readers 12

Milford Graves, drumset and percussion

1966: TDWR 2

1967: TDWR 1, readers 15

1968: readers 24

Albert Ayler ranked 10th in nomination for Downbeat's Hall of Fame in 1971, 16th in 1972, and did not appear again until his election in 1983.

II.Blindfold Test responses to Albert Ayler's music

The blindfold test is a peculiar institution, promoted by Downbeat and critic Leonard Feather, in which records by unknown artists are played for someone, usually a famous musician, to elicit the truthful response that anonymity should encourage. It is quite common for the interviewee to embarrass him or herself by failing to recognize the work of friends, proclaimed influences, etc. During the late 1960's controversy regarding free jazz and Albert Ayler, his music was sometimes included to get the reactions of those who Feather considered "real jazz musicians" to this bizarre new music.

During his lifetime, 7 musicians heard Albert Ayler's music in the Downbeat blindfold test. While predominantly mainstream saxophonists, they also included players who were based in Coltrane's work: reedmen Sonny Simmons and Prince Lasha, and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. Here are their reactions, in chronological order.

Booker Ervin (regarding the 3-28-65 version of "Holy Ghost"):That was probably made in concert. It sounded like Albert Ayler, or somebody trying to imitate Albert Ayler. I've heard Albert Ayler play, and I've heard one record I really liked by him, The Spirits.

But this record I didn't particularly like because the music gave me no feeling of direction or anything. I heard no arrangement. I just heard guys running up and down their instruments and making sounds. I don't particularly like that. I don't have anything against avant-garde-I like some of it that is good, and I've heard Albert Ayler play some good avant-garde. I've heard Coltrane play some things that I liked with Pharaoh Sanders. But this thing, I couldn't make it.

I don't know whether this was Albert Ayler with his brother. I haven't heard his brother but once on a record. It sounded like Sunny Murray or someone trying to imitate Sunny Murray's playing. The bass player, he just sounded like he was running his fingers across the keys. There's got to be some sort of technique involved in what they're doing, which I know.

I didn't hear any form, but I have heard some of Albert Ayler's music which had some form to it-if that was Albert Ayler.

I like him as a person, he's a very beautiful cat. If that was him, I didn't like that at all. The music had no direction-not to me. I'd give it one star.

Oliver Nelson (on the same recording): Of course, that was a very highly charged performance. I suppose this-the kind of music I just heard-would be typical of the new wave or whatever. It might be considered the jazz that's replacing whatever it was that we were talking about with Basie a minute or so ago.

But I had a feeling that that must be a record that my producer must have produced-Bob Thiele-because I don't know of anybody else who is doing it.

There was little melodic organization, but toward the end they did something very startling. They played the melody--did you hear it? And they tried to play it in unison, and the ending was conventional.

I found the cello player good, bass player good. The drummer played some figures that reminded me of the drummer who used to play with Diz when he had his big band. In fact, the tune reminded me of "Salt Peanuts" a bit, and the drum thing-which I would imagine would be alien to the kind of music they were playing, because it was rhythmically stable.

If I have to object to anything about this music, it's mainly lacking in texture, and naturally I would feel that way, being an orchestrator and arranger. The same intensities are used. It's like using red, black, and maybe some other kind of crimson color related to red all the time, and not being aware that white or green or blue exist too.

As to form; well, everybody just plays. It was a live performance, and the audience seemed pleased. It's too early to say too much about this, because out of all this, ah, I guess you would call it chaos-out of it, somebody is going to have enough talent to integrate whatever is happening with this kind of music. It's almost like chance music, which a lot of composers in Europe and here are trying-where you don't limit a player to anything, and as a result, everyone plays.

I heard a group in Denmark last year, John Tchicai and the trombone player Roswell Rudd, and sometimes it happened and sometimes it didn't. But when it happened, it was marvelous. They started out with something, and it happened to be a good melodic idea, rhythmic idea, and they would elaborate on that, and after a while, they would get into things that sounded like, I guess... complete freedom but still related to an essential idea. John is one of the most mature players in this kind of music.

Give the cellist four stars, but I'd rather not rate the record as a whole.

James Moody (on "Our Prayer" 12-18-66 version): That sounded rather like "No Place Like Home" and that's where they should have been. I have no comment on that. I really don't understand it. Coltrane did so much with the chord thing, he knew his instrument, knew musically what was happening and he did it. Then he went to the so-called free form thing, and I could understand it because he went step by step, so I'd take it that he knew what he was doing. But a lot of other people are doing this, and I'd never heard them play before, except this new thing.

I guess I'm just old fashioned-I just like to swing and hear some changes in there. I'm busy trying to learn changes myself. I hadn't heard this record before, but I had heard the group before, playing at Trane's funeral, and I'm just a little bewildered. I'm not saying it's bad and I'm not saying it's good-I just don't understand it.

I wouldn't want to play like that, because I don't get anything from it. I can't give it any stars; I don't dig it.

Sonny Simmons and Prince Lasha (tested together) (on "Change Has Come," 2-26-67 version): Simmons-Well, there was no question about that. It was unquestionably Albert Ayler and his brother. I'm not familiar with all the personnel in the rhythm section, but I am acquainted with one of the bass players: Bill Fowler, I think his name is. I don't know the other bass player or the drummer-it's not Sonny Murray. Also the violin player, I think he's a European.

Overall I'd give them four stars for what they are doing, because I understand what they're doing.

Prince Lasha: Yes, I recognized Albert Ayler and his brother, and I'll follow along with that rating. It's the new music; they are trying to recapture the sounds that have been in the atmosphere for centuries, and are trying to utilize them. It takes quite a bit of concentration for them to organize and unite to come under that theocratic movement of music together. This is why I like the arrangements, the writing-and the violin also.

Jerome Richardson (on "Bells" 8-31-67 version): Well, what do you want me to say about that? It sounds like a club date tenor player trying to get into the jazz thing. I wonder what they were doing-I don't know whether they were trying to fool somebody or not. If that was their version of avant garde, they'd better do a little listening.

It held nothing for me. They were playing a little line together, and it sounded as though they were trying to see what they could do with the little line. It's true that some things of this type have come off, but I don't think that came off.

I haven't the slightest idea who it was. The tenor player, I could give a wild guess-I'd still guess it was Don Ellis' band again. I'll give it one star for effort.

Jean-Luc Ponty (on "Love Cry" 8-31-67): That, of course, is Albert Ayler. I don't remember the name of the tune, but I've already heard it on the radio in France. I like this one particularly. I don't like all the work of Albert Ayler, but I think he has much humor, and especially when I hear this tune, I enjoy it and it makes me happy.

Sometimes this music reminds me of when I was in a military band and we were joking (I played tenor sax then) playing military marches. Anyway, he took a hard direction. He is one of the rare musicians who broke all old tradition completely; harmony and structures. I'm speaking in general of this music.

On this particular track I like the sound-of Albert Ayler himself, of his brother on trumpet, and from the drummer and bassist too. I think it's a very good general sound of the group. Four stars.

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