For the Saxophonist Zoh Amba, Free Jazz Is Gospel

A web search led her to Albert Ayler, whose roaring, quavering tone and palpable thirst for transcendence have made him an icon to generations of freethinking tenor players. Amba immediately identified not just with his music but also with the resistance he faced in his own home.

She heard an interview where Ayler recalled practicing saxophone in his parents’ house. “He comes downstairs and his mother tells him, ‘I don’t think you’re my child; I think they made a mistake at the hospital,’ and he just cried, just feeling like, people aren’t accepting me,” she said. “I really understood that.”

After high school, Amba attended the San Francisco Conservatory, where her allegiance to free jazz put her at odds with her teachers. “I love straight-ahead,” she said, referring to the mainstream of jazz. “But unfortunately, it’s just not the song in my heart.” After two years, she dropped out.

Growing up, Amba was intensely drawn to religion, but the absolutism of Christianity turned her off. In San Francisco, a fellow musician gave her a book on Advaita Vedanta, a tradition that embraces all faiths as equally valid. “As soon as I found it,” she said, “it was a huge turning point for every single thing in my life.”

She dropped out of the conservatory and spent time at Vedanta centers on the West Coast. Within the community, she was given the name “Amba,” a Sanskrit word meaning mother. (She has added her given middle name, Zoh.) She moved back to Tennessee, but in the fall of 2020, after being invited by a mutual acquaintance, she made daylong drives from Kingsport to Harlem to meet and eventually study with David Murray, the master saxophonist who has reconciled the whole history of jazz tenor, from swing to free, during a wildly prolific career.