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Shakers n’ Bakers Reinterpret Albert Ayler’s ‘New Grass’ For Today’s Audience

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BEDFORD-STUYVESANT – Fifty years ago, Albert Ayler attempted a musical experiment—recording an album combining the spontaneity and iconoclasm of free jazz with more traditional song structures and a strong R&B groove. New Grass was a notorious flop, savaged by Ayler’s avant-garde fans as a sell-out and ignored by the wider pop music audience who declined to buy in.

Brooklyn saxophonist Jeff Lederer wants to take another bite at that apple. “I have a mission to kind of redeem this music,” Lederer said. “Not to redeem Albert; he doesn’t need me to redeem him, but at least to present it again.”

Lederer and his long-time band Shakers n’ Bakers do that with Heart Love, which includes selections from Ayler’s final album Music Is the Healing Force in the Universe and a few tunes he had recorded previously as well as songs from New Grass.

New Grass “was bizarre at the time; it’s still bizarre today,” Lederer admits, but he rejects the initial response to the album and the “huge accusations of him being a sell-out and being forced by the label to do a pop record.”

“The free jazz of the 60s, not to say that it’s an elitist music, but it certainly is not a music that had a broad appeal,” said Lederer. ”Albert felt that his music was really kind of a folksy music for the people, although on first hearing it, most folks find it to be really abrasive.”

“I think for Albert it really was, as bizarre as it might seem, it really was just one music and his message, and he wanted a lot of people to hear it and accept it.”

While Lederer defends the concept behind the record, he does think it suffered in its execution. “You can hear on the original New Grass that it was kind of a quickly put together studio date. There’s a lot of, just kind of errors on the recording. Guys are getting lost in the song forms.”

Lederer decided that Shakers n’ Bakers—created to engage with the music of the Shaker religious sect—could present the material to a new audience. “I wanted to remake these songs because I felt like they were great material, and Shakers n’ Bakers would be a great band to do it,” he said. “It’s really a grooving band, so really a combination of kind of the free improvising thing we do with groove-based music.”

Shakers n’ Bakers

The Shakers n’ Bakers, augmented by a four-piece horn section and the “Heart Love Singers,” mirror quite closely the musicians on hand for the recording of New Grass. Lederer’s arrangements are also often similar to the original material. His devotion to “these joyful and visionary songs” is apparent in this approach, making Lederer and Ayler almost collaborators.

A key to the success of Shakers n’ Bakers’ take on Ayler’s misunderstood music is the masterful performance by the rhythm section. Legendary session drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie anchored the original session, setting a high bar for the bottom that Allison Miller handles with aplomb. Chris Lightcap is able to lock absolutely onto that groove while contributing bass lines that are consistently supple and fluid and often delightfully surprising. The potent combination of a steady pulse and untrammeled freedom is exactly the target Lederer argues Ayler was aiming for when he recorded the music.

Lightcap is well known in the jazz world and often plays double bass. “On this one he’s playing only electric bass, which is a special thrill to him,” Lederer said. “He told me he was very excited to be playing soul bass lines because he prides himself on doing that really well but there’s not many other situations where he’s asked to.

Heart Love’s most dramatic departure from Ayler’s original recordings are the vocals by Mary LaRose and Miles Griffith. New Grass featured the singing of Ayler himself and co-writer Mary Maria Parks.

“Albert’s own singing, while I find it charming, is really kind of awful,” Lederer said. “In a beautiful way, but maybe he was ill advised to take that on himself.”

“Mary and Miles have a great way of interpreting this music,” he continued. “Miles is one of the greatest male jazz singers around. He’s quite unique, he’s quite his own person. I think that scares some people, but he just goes for it.”

Trading lines in rhyming couplets, LaRose and Griffith lead the ensemble in a jubilant performance off the title track, released as a video on Valentine’s Day earlier this year. As the song climaxes, with Griffith improvising along with the horns, Ayler’s vision sounds fully realized.

Or perhaps not quite fully realized. Shakers n’ Bakers performed some of the Heart Love music upstate to prepare for the recording, but the material will get its New York City debut at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy on Monday, May 28. Lederer is thrilled to be playing at the club, which he said has been drawing enthusiastic audiences appreciative of improvisation with an innovative series of performances in recent months.

But like Ayler in 1968, Lederer has his eyes on another set of ears. “I would really love to be touring this band outside my jazz world,” he said. “I would love to play this music for millennial audiences who are not coming from a jazz background, and maybe haven’t experienced the music of Albert Ayler but might be intrigued to learn more about it.”

“It’s still kind of divided. I’m pretty well established in the jazz world, and it’s kind of a leap to get out of that. For me to transition into the places where millennials hang out, it’s challenging.” Fifty years on, Lederer will find if the world is yet ready for Ayler’s utopian dream.

Shakers n’ Bakers play Heart Love
Monday, May 28 at 8:30pm
Bar Lunatico, 486 Halsey Street (near Lewis Avenue), Bed-Stuy
The music is free but watch for the tip jar going around and treat the band well.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Chris,
    Very informative well written and researched piece. When speaking with you at Bar Lunatico you didn’t reveal the depth of your research and knowledge. I’ve perused a few more of your articles and they too are exhaustively researched, informative and well written. So thank you for your work and cudos to you for contributing to the arts. Keep up the good works. Looking forward to more reviews and articles in the future.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Steve. I am lucky that Bklyner supports this kind of coverage of our local Brooklyn artists, who are doing so much exciting work. I hope you will consider becoming a subscriber to help make sure the blog can thrive. And please check out my new piece on Rob Schwimmer, a really inspiring musician who has a show tonight at Joe’s Pub celebrating the release of his new record.

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