A true lost classic this, as it's long been out of print. Lord knows why or how that's been allowed to happen. My Name is... may not be viewed as Albert Ayler's definitive work (that honour usually goes to 1965's Spiritual Unity) but it is a classic recording made by a true visionary at the top of his game and contains transcendental majesty and searing beauty, in amongst a whole lot of sronking, grooving, astondingly improvised be-bop.
After hearing Ayler's rendition of the omni-genre standard 'Summertime', the key track on My Name is..., I just knew I had to possess this record, no matter how frustratingly elusive it was to track down. I finally found it on the racks of Amoeba Records in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury (and, yes, I am smug about that), and you know what? I would have gone a lot further to get it. This is record which I, a non-affectionado of jazz who just knows what he likes, would play to anyone who claimed they couldn't stand jazz (This and Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet - very much not a lost classic).
The reason why lies in the heat and coolness of the music on My Name is..., music which, as its title suggests, just seems to perfectly sum up its maker, why he was such a ice-cool, crazy cat and why I sort of wish I'd been mates with him. This is a guy who lived as fast as any rocker and died in circumstances as fascinating and myth-enshrining as yer Lennons, Cobains or Joneses. Ayler drowned in New York's East River in 1970, at the age of 34 (he probably took the Statue of Liberty ferry and jumped off as it neared Liberty Island) and rumours still circulate as to what led to this tragedy. Was is suicide? One tale has it that he believed the survival of his mother and his younger brother required a sacrifice. Or was it murder, a mob hit or police brutality?
Just like with the rock icons listed above, all we have left is the man's music, which makes it maddening that this stunning work of free-form expression is so hard to get hold of. Above all, I want to be sure people younger and cooler than me won't completely forget how to make music this wild, burning bright with energy and buzzing with a zillion impulses. I don't want to live in a world where making music that's free and liberated means sounding like fucking Muse or David Guetta or something.
Anyway, this album. It was recorded in Copenhagen and, aptly, it starts with Ayler, his voice pure, tickly silky, sounding as shy and sexy as Prince or Hendrix, talking softly and meditatively about how he got into playing sax ("My father, he made me"), why he had to drop out of college and join the army, and why he likes being in the Scandinavian countries ("I feel quite... Free. Really free.") His voice is then submerged under a totally different sound; the wailing, quavering, pleading outbreak of soprano sax on 'Bye Bye Blackbird', played, of course, by Ayler himself. Thus does My Name is... completely, unfussily sum up the two extremes of the man's character.
One of the reasons this album isn't so highly though of by affectionados is apparently that Ayler's backing band here, a Scandinavian rhythm section which included 16-year-old Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass, stick to straight be-bop. Well, I don't really know enough about the ins-and-outs of different jazz genres to discuss that, to be honest, and it sounds fine to me. On 'Bye Bye Blackbird', Ayler's sax is constantly wavering in and out of tune, as if struggling upward like a bird with its legs tied to a post. Is that unintentional? Is that not good jazz? Cos it sounds fucking great.
The following 'Billie's Bounce' swings more conventionally, all aching coolness, toe-tapping, skipping rhythm and Ayler's sax weaving effortlessly around the other instruments. Elsewhere, 'On Green Dolphin Street' is more expansive, with Ayler producing endless skrees of vibrating, gibbering ecstacy, while the closing, 12-minute 'C.T.' begins in a sorrowful, grumpy mood before racing off at a fast pace, stopping, starting, falling over and getting back up again, galloping forward into some unknown, equally frightening and thrilling sound.
However, the album's centrepiece is its bruised, sticky, electrifying version of 'Summertime'. I feel there probably aren't words to adequately describe this piece of music, but here goes: It's hot, parched, arching, sexually frustrated yet lazy. It's like a beautiful cat lying in the dust that bares its teeth when you get too close. It's swollen droplets of rain hitting asphalt on a sweltering day. It's graffiti and 60s street life and loss and pain and fucking and the emptiness and sleepiness you feel after you're lover has gone. Many have viewed Ayler's desolate sax, at times weeping, at others argumentative, as articulating how African-Americans felt during the turbulent civil rights struggle of the early 60s.
What's for sure is that Ayler's playing is just beyond anything that could be called mere musicianship. He's wildly expressive without wasting a note, never putting a food wrong even as he disregards conventional notions of melody and structure. And the dude recorded this live. Think about that. Which band do you like who could do that today? Who could summon up and all the love, rage, sexuality and pain inside them and then blast it into a microphone in a one-shot deal, using strange alchemy to transform their sound into an expression of the frustration so many were feeling at an unjust society? Who today could be so eloquent and yet never even speak a word?
That is why people younger and cooler than me must hear this album. We must wrestle their piddling false icons from them, make a bonfire of the Gagas, Coldplays and whatever skinny-jeaned bore-fest is on the cover of this week's NME, and play them My Name is Albert Ayler on repeat, until they are also brave enough to put their name to music as wild, free and elemental. And we must do so quickly before the spark which created such music recedes forever to out-of-print albums and half-forgotten history.