Jazz enthusiasts are the obvious audience for Swedish director Kasper Collin's impressionistic portrait of saxophonist Albert Ayler (1936-1970), but the story of his troubled life and premature death is engrossing without prior knowledge of his place in the history of experimental jazz.
Born and raised in Ohio, Ayler (who pronounces his name "eye-ler," though many of his associates prefer "ail-er") learned to play alto sax from his father, Edward, and his musical ambitions were encouraged by his mother from the time he was a child. Ayler began playing clubs as a teenager and continued to hone his skills in the army, which he joined after graduating high school; the military also exposed him to Europe's thriving music culture, which embraced the non-traditional sounds of free jazz long before US music lovers did. Frustrated by his inability to find regular work in the US, Ayler moved to Sweden in 1962, and cut his first album there. Ayler's life and career were inextricably intertwined with that of his younger brother, trumpeter Donald, whose life was blighted by drug use and mental illness. Ayler's admirers included John Coltrane -- he was one of a handful of musicians invited to play at the jazz pioneer's funeral -- but he never achieved commercial success and died, an apparent suicide, in New York's East River when he was only 34.
Ayler haunts Collin's film like a ghost, his raspy, high pitched voice preserved on audiotaped interviews recorded between 1963 and 1970. Collin speaks with Ayler's father and brother, who lives in a Cleveland-area psychiatric facility, as well as collaborators and musicians who try to explain the unique, feral beauty of Ayler's improvisations. But the film's heart lies in the juxtaposition of Ayler's ferocious music, captured in archival footage and vintage recordings, and his open, almost childlike musings about life, music and spirituality, a fascinating mix of new-age noodling, confident predictions that his work will be understood by future generations ("If people don't like it now, they will") and sweetly earnest assertions that he never set out to make iconoclastic or challenging music: He just played what he felt. The film begins and ends with footage of Ayler's 89-year-old father looking for his grave in an Ohio cemetery, an obvious but moving metaphor for Albert Ayler's sadly marginalized life. (In English and subtitled Swedish)
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