Jazz doc successfully makes a case for music appreciation and experimentation

My Name Is Albert Ayler

on March 07, 2008 by Sara Schieron

What begins as a workmanlike documentary on a lesser-known visionary in the world of jazz becomes a primer on music appreciation and the sad legacy of experimental form in an age of increasing consumerism. Smart and savvy doc could find a great home on television.

Experimental jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler had a short but important career in the ’50s and ’60s, but because his audience consisted of such a small clutch of educated insiders his is hardly a household name. Finding an easier reception in Europe, he and his trumpeter brother Donald moved to Sweden for a period. This is how he’s come to have a legacy in Sweden, and how Swedish director Kasper Collin came to find much of the archival footage of Ayler in the country.

As Ayler is no longer with us (his body found was in the East River in 1970), Collin relies on archival footage, interviews with his past associations, and a fairly well known audio recording Ayler made that’s somewhere between a journal entry and a personal manifesto. At first, the use of these elements to paint a portrait of the artist comes off a bit dry, but Collin has a great sense of timing himself and allows the interviews to unfold in their time, unveiling content that sheds light on the mind behind the man. In a subtly didactic sequence, we watch Ayler’s past peers listen to his music and explain in patches the process of listening to music—a skill taught to college students in America, but one taught to children abroad. The asides by these great musicians offer glimpses of clarity into the otherwise foreign skill.

Yet the times Ayler’s music is clearest, most accessible and most impressive are when his compositions are accompanied by Collins’ expressionistic camerawork. Ayler’s freeform jazz plays as we see landscape fly out the window of a streetcar in Stockholm, inferring all the theory of frames and time signatures in one, seemingly comprehensive moment.

Cast: Albert Ayler and John Coltrane
Director/Producer: Kasper Collin
Genre: Music documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 79 min.
Release date: March 7 ltd.

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