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Charles Gayle 1939-2023
One of the most misunderstood jazz players ever
New records! Buy ’em! There are two new releases coming next month from Burning Ambulance Music:
Polarity 2 is a sequel to 2021’s Polarity, an album of duos by tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman and trumpeter Nate Wooley. This one is even more beautiful and wide-ranging (Ivo sings!) than the first. Buy it.
Seis Amorfismos is an almost indescribable work of avant-garde chamber metal, written by Barcelona-based guitarist and composer Diego Caicedo. It’s arranged for electric guitar, extreme vocals, and string quartet, and is accompanied by three solo guitar pieces in a noise-rock vein (think Keiji Haino meets Pat Metheny’s Zero Tolerance for Silence). Buy it.
Saxophonist Charles Gayle died last week at 84. He was born February 28, 1939 in Buffalo, New York and lived and worked there until the early 1970s. He didn’t like to talk about his early life, but he’s known to have been a teacher at the University of Buffalo at one point, and he recorded a living room session with bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer John Bergamo in 1965 that Neidlinger released on his own NKB2 label 50 years later.
Gayle moved to New York City in the early ’70s and reportedly recorded an album for ESP-Disk’, but the label was running out of money at that point and closed up shop without ever putting it out. Throughout the ’80s, Gayle was homeless, living in a storefront in Brooklyn and a squat in lower Manhattan (or maybe the other way around) and playing on the streets and in the subways. He was featured in Ebba Jahn’s documentary Rising Tones Cross, which was filmed in 1984; he’s seen and heard with pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Peter Kowald, and drummer Rashied Ali; in a trio with Kowald and drummer John Betsch; and as part of a large ensemble led by Peter Brötzmann also featuring David S. Ware and Frank Wright. Quite a front line!
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Late in that decade, Gayle began to gain a reputation as a performer, and recorded several albums (Homeless, Always Born, and Spirits Before) for Silkheart and a few others (Repent, More Live at the Knitting Factory) for the Knitting Factory Works. Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf was a crucial supporter of Gayle’s, giving him a pager so he could be reached, and booking him regularly. His album Touchin’ On Trane, with bassist William Parker and Rashied Ali, came out on the FMP label in 1993, and is regarded by most who’ve heard it as one of the key free jazz releases of the 1990s. (I wrote about it at some length here.)
Gayle guested on a few records, notably Cecil Taylor’s Always A Pleasure, William Parker’s Requiem (featuring fellow bassists Sirone, Alan Silva and Henry Grimes), and the Sirone Bang Ensemble’s Configuration (with Sirone, violinist Billy Bang, and a young Tyshawn Sorey on drums). He also recorded a series of jams with the Rollins Band which were released as Weighting. But for the most part he worked as a leader, and was the sole horn in all of his trios and quartets except for Always Born, on which he was paired with John Tchicai. It was the label’s idea, and it works OK — it kinda sounds like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman improvising together, but not quite as interesting as that.
In a 2012 interview, he said, “As far as I’m concerned, those are the very basics, to have a horn and the bass and the drums. That’s enough. It poses more of a challenge for me and I like to work. It makes you work harder, to have to put out the melody and maybe you have chords in your mind and you have to state that. With a quartet, a piano can do all that work and I’d rather do it myself — not just egotistically, but because I like that kind of challenge. Due to the fact that I do play piano, I don’t really think about a piano player any more. Most of the piano players are busy, they play a lot of notes and keep filling up all the holes. I really don’t like that. I like to have a little sparsity. But it’s demanding to play without a piano. If you don’t maintain your concentration, it can get boring pretty quick.”
Gayle was often portrayed as a post-Ayler flamethrower, but he was a much more complex player than that. He started out on piano, and despite working in a mode of total improvisation (his pieces were titled after the fact, almost always with some reference to his deep Christian belief) there often seemed to be a song buried in there somewhere. From a technical standpoint, he was an ascended master of the horn, on a par with Pharoah Sanders or Sonny Rollins and much less unfettered than players like Brötzmann, Ware or Wright. On Precious Soul, a 1997 trio recording with bassist Gerald Benson and drummer Gerald Cleaver, he reveals himself to be capable of extraordinarily beautiful ballad playing, and that’s just the first example that came to my mind. And when he switched to piano, he could evoke Cecil Taylor’s romanticism as well as Matthew Shipp’s spirituality and Thelonious Monk’s percussive melodies. (He said of Taylor in 1994, “If you’re going to play with somebody, play with Cecil Taylor. He’ll see what you’re made of. He’s constantly thinking and turning ideas over at a rate nobody else does.”)
I saw Gayle live three times: once in the late ’90s at the Cooler (co-billed with Borbetomagus), once at the Vision Festival, and once playing solo piano at a venue I can’t recall. Each time, my impression was of someone who had spent decades engaged in deep consideration of his own music. There was nothing haphazard about his work. Yes, he played at the extremes of the tenor saxophone’s range, often emitting fierce, shrill upper-register squeals. But the passionate, blues-and-gospel cry at the heart of his music goes all the way back to jazz’s early history. What gets called “free” playing is an echo of ideas heard as early as the 1940s in the work of Illinois Jacquet and Big Jay McNeely, and spiritual ecstasy (again, Gayle was deeply religious) has manifested in seemingly wild eruptions as long as people have been playing music in churches. In a 1996 interview, Gayle said, “I grew up with religion…I’m a believer. My hope is to be as open and honest as I can. I’m not saying my music is about God, but I dedicate my music to Him,” adding that “A lot of church players played that way, in a sense.”
Some of his most volcanic performances, like Repent (with David Pleasant on drums and either Vattel Cherry or Hilliard Greene on bass) or Kingdom Come, a trio album with William Parker and drummer Sunny Murray, are thrilling in ways that most free jazz doesn’t touch. Live at Disobey, with Greene and drummer Michael Wimberly, is hard to find on CD but well worth hearing, too. But some of his best work was also his most thoughtful and introspective, particularly a series of early ’90s albums with a quartet featuring Parker, Cherry, and Wimberly. Translations and Raining Fire were studio recordings on Silkheart (a third collection from the same sessions, Blue Shadows, was released years later), and More Live at the Knitting Factory was their live counterpart, with Marc Edwards on drums on its first disc. That music had all the emotional power typical of Gayle, but it was also spacious and moody, with long passages of dual bass interaction, and sometimes Parker would switch to cello or violin.
Gayle was not universally beloved, for his music or his full-throated Christianity. His beliefs manifested onstage in various ways, some of them shocking and quite confrontational. He often performed in clown makeup, as a character he called Streets, and sometimes used these pantomimes to express his strong antipathy to abortion, including presenting blood-stained baby dolls to the audience. On his album Look Up, recorded in 1994 but not released until 2012, the track “In the Name of the Father” he delivers a monologue that begins with his claiming that those who say they love John Coltrane and Albert Ayler don’t truly understand those musicians unless they embrace Christ. Admittedly, both Coltrane and Ayler were intensely spiritual men, if not necessarily strict churchy types, but I believe it’s possible to find glory and power in their art while rejecting any belief in the mythological or supernatural. I certainly have.
That’s where Gayle’s preaching begins, but that’s not where it ends. He moves on to denunciations of abortion and homosexuality, too, all based on a faith that seems more rooted in the Old Testament than the New. During this speech, his rhythm section — bassist Michael Bisio, currently part of Matthew Shipp’s trio, and Wimberly on drums — keep a free but propulsive groove going, which helps turn what Gayle’s saying into “part of the show,” in some ways, especially since he erupts into another fiery saxophone solo when he’s done yelling. Given that this performance was recorded in California, it’s entirely possible that some, if not many, present treated it as performative madness to be snickered at, as if he was Wesley Willis or someone like that. That would have been unfortunate. Gayle’s faith was very real to him, and even though I don’t share it, not even a little, I would never have suggested that he be mocked for it.
Some people reject Gayle’s music because they reject his beliefs. I have two things to say about that. First, while he may have preached from the stage, he did not demand that anyone listening share his faith. (I originally wrote “his faith or his politics,” but using Gayle’s views on abortion and homosexuality to slot a man who was voluntarily homeless for close to two decades as part of what can only be described as a spiritual and artistic quest into a simplistic political binary seems stunningly dumb.) Second, the best of an artist manifests itself in the art. The human being behind the art is usually much less interesting, and almost always disappointing in some way. Tell me who your favorite artist is, and with five minutes of research I’ll show you something shitty they’ve done or said.
Because of his insistence on downplaying his own significance — I interviewed him once, for my book New York is Now!: The New Wave of Free Jazz, but didn’t include any quotes, because he seemed so ambivalent about his own work (he used the word “irrelevant” to describe his music over and over) — Gayle has long been a mysterious figure in free jazz. But he was deeply intelligent, a masterful saxophonist who could make the horn do anything he wanted it to, and a kind and gentle and friendly person (some of the time). His artistic legacy deserves preservation, and much deeper exploration than it’s gotten to date. (Cisco Bradley is apparently writing a biography of Gayle, and I look forward to reading it.) Dig into his catalog, both the early stuff and key latter-day documents like Ancient of Days and Streets. I think you’ll be surprised by what you hear.
That’s it for now. See you next week!