Since one of my recurring themes here is the vibrancy that can come about through repeated and almost infinitely varied interpretation and re-interpretation, I was quite pleased about a recent email from Frank Mannix down in New Orleans. Mr. Mannix had come upon some of my earlier noodling about “St. James Infirmary,” and wanted to let me know about another interesting place the tune had popped up.
Albert Ayler was a saxophone player known, among other things, for his “free jazz” work. Among those who have admired that work quite a bit is another free-jazz saxophone (and other instrument) player, Peter Brötzmann. I have a little familiarity with Ayler, but had never heard of Brötzmann. Ayler had what I guess could safely be described as a troubled life, which ended with his body being found in the East River, in 1970, when he was in his mid 30s.
Brötzmann, along with Toshinori Kondo, William Parker, and Hamid Drake, performed a kind of tribute to Ayler’s work under the name Die Like A Dog. Kondo handles the trumpet, and some electronics, and Mr. Mannix assures me that bassist Parker and drummer Drake constitute “the baddest rhythm section in improv music.” A CD recording of the quartet’s performance on August 19, 1993 (at “the townhall charlottenburg, berlin,” the credits say) describes the four long pieces performed as “fragments of music, life and death of Albert Ayler.”
The four pieces are titled No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. It’s definitely a free-jazz context, and most of the disc draws on what the notes call “very short quotations out of Albert Ayler’s music in different variations (prophet, ghosts, spirits, bells and others).” The bit that Mr. Mannix wrote me about is No. 2 — “a 16-minute improv that Brötzmann divides into parts A, B, and C, where A and C are listed as ‘St. James Infirmary.'” And indeed, the opening four minutes, and the final minute and a half, are in fact that very melody — played quite freely, to be sure, but also unmistakably.
I wouldn’t normally associate a song like “St. James Infirmary” with free jazz. I asked Mr. Mannix, who knows that world far better than I do, why he thought Brötzmann would make that choice, if there was some reason to connect the tune to Ayler. He wasn’t certain either of what the connection might be — “at least not beyond the general heaviness of finality.” Actually, that’s a good point. Given the heaviness of the title “Die Like a Dog,” and the heaviness of the way Ayler died. I’ve obviously dwelled in the past on the contrasts built into the way the song tends to be performed in New Orleans: The dirge-like start, building to a wild climax. (A similar contrast is there in the lyrics, too, but we happen to be dealing with an instrumental take here.) In the notes, Brötzmann writes of Ayler: “During his last years, the discrepancy between his will and his existence became increasingly recognizable: on one side the attempt to open the music to everybody, to let everybody participate in his experiences, his wild energy, his love, to give everybody a part of his imagination. On the other hand poverty that comes with repression.” Perhaps there’s a clue in that: Not just the heaviness and finality, but the sense of contrasts at the heart of the song. In any case, it’s an extremely interesting listen.
Here is a brief chunk, about 45 seconds long, of the point when the band transitions from “St. James Infirmary” into improv.
A final note: Brötzmann’s album, like the original physical record version of “St. James Infirmary” itself, credits the tune to Don Redman.
Sincere thanks, Mr. Mannix.