Perfect Sound Forever

Re-Viewing influences
Little Willie John, Albert Ayler, late 'Trane

By Wally Shoup
(September 2001)

Like many musicians, I have my stockpile of influences, people who had a strong impact on shaping my direction. From time to time, I find useful to go back, take a re-listen, see if the stuff still holds up, hear with older ears, see if it still has the power to influence anew.

To that end, I recently bought the Best of Little Willie John - includes "Talk To Me," "I Need Your Love So Bad," "Fever," "All Round The World" ('If I don't love you, Baby, grits ain't groceries, eggs ain't poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man').

John was a prominent R&B singer of the late '50's, probably best known for his #1 single "Fever" (later covered by Peggy Lee), who, along with Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter, Sam Cooke and James Brown, were former gospel singers ushering in a vocal style that would later be dubbed "Soul Music." James Brown, in fact, opened for Little Willie John, in 1956 and proclaimed him the only singer he ever considered better than he (coming from JB, no shrinking violet in the ego department, that is quite a statement).

Little Willie John has this rich, quivering voice that just radiates emotional fervor. It's an amazing instrument, and though some of the songs are bad (pastiches of some producer's idea of what would sell - strings, vocal chorus's, novelties) his voice always cuts through the murk. There's an emotional depth that belies his age (17, 18, 19 when these songs were made) and his small physical stature. Perhaps it came from his rough, belligerent, apparently arrogant, nature, which eventually led his downfall. After murdering a man at an after-hours private party in Seattle, John was sentenced to 20 years at Walla Walla, WA penitentiary, where he died in 1968 at age 31, reputedly from the beatings he suffered there.

Years later, I became aware of free jazz and was immediately drawn to it because of its similarities to the emotive r'n'b singers, such as Little Willie, that I had grown up listening to. So, to that end, I recently bought a copy of of Spiritual Unity by Albert Ayler (the second release by ESP records). Ayler had been a child prodigy, playing saxophone at church from age 4, and developed into perhaps the first psychedelic saxophonist. I know when I first heard him (on this record - cica 1969), his saxophone sound had an electrical charge that only Jimi Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock seemed to possess at that time. Albert's throaty, vibrato-laden tenor sax sound still sounds incredibly unique despite nearly 40 years worth of imitations. It's truly sui generis.

What strikes most is his evocation of emotional fervor, in much the same way as Little Willie John's voice, but he's on a whole other level of sophistication in terms of abstraction and intent. Whereas Little Willie John put his voice at the service of commercial songs about heartbreak and pain in typical song-formula structure, Ayler's intense sound conveys a more personalized and highly ambiguous conflict between the extreme joy and extreme pain of just being alive. By ambiguous, I mean these feelings come through his horn at the same time- it's difficult to separate them, to say, oh, this is joyful, oh, this is painful. Plus, his phrasing and the shape of his lines are so organic, yet so convoluted and 'illogical' (from a Western harmony viewpoint) that, when coupled with his plangent, over-driven, tone, stir up deep-seated, often conflicting, emotions that are difficult to categorize. They provoke a sort of vague anxiety and an equally vague glimpse of utopia which are not nearly as easy to digest as Little Willie John's more obvious hurt and discomfort. It's as if he "understood" the origins of his voice better than Little Willie - an intuitive grasp of gospel's and blues's built-in contradictions and dilemmas. A willingness to see that the joy and pain of love relationships are but mirror images of deeper anxieties about either feeling 'at peace' or alienated in this lifetime, and whether or not there will ever be anything "better."

Ayler's combination of holy-roller emotionality with a modernist's conception of abstracted space took "Black Music" to a new dimension. It's still viewed as an exaggeration of some kind, perhaps the only way most folks can deal with its radical implications. That such a primitive and guttural sound (and all the things associated with that) could be put to such sophistication in terms of form put almost everyone in a quandry. Do you take this guy seriously or simply write him off as a 60's-era idiot-savant? That question still separates the jazz world at a deep and perhaps irreconcilable level. Plus, like Little Willie John, his extra-music life was somewhat off-putting: his death was not peaceful, ending up in the East River under mysterious circumstances, and, though quite the flamboyant dandy in attire and demeanor (again like Little Willie), he was, by all reports, a gentle and sensitive soul.

Contemporaneously (Meditations-era), the highly respected John Coltrane had also been trying to find some way to express unbridled, universal emotions but through the labyrinth of chords and chord-based patterns he had worked so hard to master - the equivalent of removing a wall using the same methods by which it was built - whereas Ayler simply jumped over the wall. His was literally the sound of "de-construction" - you hear jazz's ties to the banality of popular song structure and content totally obliterated. Both men, however, are equally exhilarating to listen to - each has that compelling voice only true believers possess. Theirs is music undiluted by parody or commercial intent, though Ayler certainly has a fun-house view of the absurd and a sense of broad humor that Coltrane's music, for all its great strengths, lacks.

All three musicians, however, share this quality: their sound is so moving, so powerful because there is absolutely no buffer, no detachment between it and their most exposed, yet deeply-felt, emotions. The distance from these feelings most people need to maintain sanity and equilibrium are absent when these men played music. You can hear it - it's raw, vulnerable, almost harsh yet containing a beauty that only a deeply-ingrained emotionality can know.

Little Willie John, Albert Ayler, late Coltrane - these are great sources. One can be moved by the depth and richness of their voices while simultaneously being reminded that philosophical conflicts are not cold, intellectual abstractions, but rather the very stuff of emotion and existence.

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