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Happy Birthday Charles Gayle

28 February 2009

Free jazz tenor saxophone great CHARLES GAYLE did not make his first recordings until 1988, and therefore hasn’t been in the public eye for all that long compared to other jazzmen. Thus, it’s a mild shock to be reminded that he’s celebrating his 70th birthday today, February 28. But starting in ‘88, Gayle has been spectacularly productive, making 26 albums as a leader. His unrelenting intensity, legendary unwillingness to deviate from his artistic vision even in the face of homelessness, and seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of improvisatory creativeness have made him a much-admired figure, both among fellow avant-gardists and with such sympathetic alternative rock icons as Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore. He had a solid grounding in bebop in his early days, and has revived aspects of that in his music in recent years, but his core style mixes ‘60s “outside” influences – Albert Ayler’s primal melodicism, John Coltrane’s deep spirituality and discursiveness, Frank Wright’s raw power – in a highly personal sound that’s full of subtleties yet utterly visceral.

Here are six of my favorite Gayle albums. Most are imports, out of print, poorly distributed, or combinations of those states, but a look at Amazon shows that they can be found.

The 1992 album Repent (Knitting Factory), his first on a domestic label, brought Gayle to the attention of a wider audience. The 24-minute, edited title track and the uncut 51-minute “Jesus Christ and Scripture” were both captured in concert at the Knitting Factory with his working trio in a period where he played there every Monday night, conveying the excitement Gayle stirred on the downtown New York scene in the late ‘80s. Gayle is an unfettered force of nature, bursting with energy as he free-associates musical ideas to create a restless panoply of sonic textures and motivic cells.

Consecration (Black Saint), my favorite Gayle album, is a deeply spiritual disc offering transcendent music-making, with better sound and more focused playing than on Gayle’s many live albums. “Thy Peace” is a subdued yet harrowingly intense showcase for Gayle’s formidable bass clarinet skills. VATTEL CHERRY on bass and WILLIAM PARKER on cello and violin lay out a thick string carpet to support Gayle, while drummer MICHAEL WIMBERLEY proves highly responsive.

Touchin’ on Trane (FMP), recorded a year before Repent but released a year later, teamed Gayle with Parker (bass this time) and Coltrane drummer RASHIED ALI and, as the title indicates, looks back towards a major inspiration a bit more than he usually would. He remains his own man, of course, but the ties to one of his spiritual forefathers make this a special experience—and Ali’s superb polyrhythms certainly spur him on.

Kingdom Come (Knitting Factory), mixing concert and studio tracks, matched Gayle with a very different drummer, SUNNY MURRAY, another ‘60s hero. Murray’s relatively spare technique is surprisingly complementary to Gayle and allows him to explore more moods. This was also the first album Gayle played piano on, and his excitement is palpable. Also well worth looking for is Illuminators (Audible Hiss), from two years later and credited to the Sunny Murray Duo Featuring Charles Gayle.

Shout! (Cleanfeed) is a transitional album, catching him in trio in 2003 as he was in the midst of retooling his style and switching his focus to alto sax (though he only plays tenor and piano here). It is particularly interesting for showing his probing, unfettered approach to standards; here represented by “I Remember You,” “What’s New,” and “I Can’t Get Started.”

Time Zones (Tompkins Square) is Gayle’s first all-originals solo piano album, exhibiting a style much different from his sax playing. Stride players, blues, the flashy runs of Art Tatum, the angularity of Thelonious Monk, and the vehemence of Cecil Taylor are uniquely united.