By Troy Dostert
To approach the work of one of the all-time greats of free jazz saxophone is an intimidating prospect. Those who have experienced Charles Gayle and the righteous fury of his tenor saxophone will know that a posture of fear and trembling seems fitting: one prepares to come in contact with uncompromising, undiluted power and, perhaps, something akin to divine fire. For a lot of us, many of the discs he recorded in the 1990s (Consecration; Touchin’ on Trane; Repent) continue to stand as monuments to what unfettered free improvisation can accomplish. So it was impossible to consider a write-up for this album as “just another” review. But in what follows I will try to convey the respect I have for this musician, as well as maintaining whatever objectivity I can muster.
There are a number of remarkable things about Charles Gayle, besides the oft-told story of his homelessness prior to being “discovered” in the late 80s and then exhaustively documented on adventurous labels like Black Saint, Silkheart, and Knitting Factory. One is that his recorded output over the last 10 years rivals his productivity during his most influential and dominant period in the late 80s and 90s; he has seemingly intensified his pursuit of musical transcendence, despite the fact that he’s now in his mid-70s. And he’s also dedicated himself to expanding his instrumental facility, developing his chops as a pianist and violist to complement his work on alto, tenor, and bass clarinet—although there’s no question that it is his playing on tenor that is his claim to true greatness. Finally, in the last decade or so Gayle has taken on the challenge of delving into the jazz songbook, looking for classics on which he could offer his distinctive perspective. Maybe Gayle is trying to bring things full circle, considering ways in which the trajectory of his career can conclude with some commentary on jazz’s traditional underpinnings—although I would never suggest that Gayle’s career is anywhere near coming to a close. The evidence certainly suggests otherwise.
Christ Everlasting is a live recording from a Polish club in 2014, with Gayle joined by bassist Ksawery Wójciński and drummer Klaus Kugel. Fans of Hera will be familiar with Wójciński, and Kugel has performed with a “who’s who” list of leading creative and free improvisers, especially lately with Waclaw Zimpel. These guys are outstanding partners for Gayle, capable of following him in his freest, most outward explorations, while also skilled at playing “in the pocket” when it comes to the conventional repertoire. And there are some well-mined jazz classics here—or at least Gayle’s idiosyncratic renditions of them: “Oleo,” Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” (with Gayle appropriately featured on piano), and “Giant Steps” in addition to Ayler’s “Ghosts.” Wójciński and Zimpel are quite versatile, assured and effective no matter what is called for. When it involves a full-bore scorcher, like the opening track, “Joy in the Lord,” they can bring all the zealous power needed; but on a quieter, ruminative piece like “His Grace,” they sustain a more slow-burning tempo, giving Gayle room to explore his more mysterious, contemplative side. One of the impressive things about this record is the sheer diversity of the nine pieces, and the trio works as a cohesive unit on each of them.
As for Gayle himself, all the prophetic majesty his fans have come to expect is present here, although admittedly Gayle in his 70s is not quite the consummate fire-breather he was a couple decades ago. The upper-register staccato flurries that he could once summon seemingly effortlessly (see Touchin’ on Trane or Consecration as examples) are no longer there, as he more frequently sticks to the middle range of the horn—albeit with the usual bouts of intense overblowing. And understandably, we’re not going to find any of Gayle’s once-routine twenty-minute jaw-dropping excursions to the outer limits; his pieces here are generally more concentrated and focused, the longest at just over twelve minutes and a good deal more restrained than some of the more intense shorter tracks on the record. And I confess that I am not as big a fan of Gayle’s work on the piano, although there are some potent moments on “The Father’s Will” where the trio come together formidably around Gayle’s intensely percussive playing in the lower register of the instrument. As for the standards on the album, some are better than others: “Oleo” is more compelling than “Giant Steps,” the latter exposing Gayle’s diminished precision, especially in stating the theme, which is rather choppy. But these reservations aside, the overall product on the record is standard-issue Gayle: fiery, passionate, and unceasing in the search for integrity and power in the music.
And on a final note: critics of Gayle’s onetime practice of haranguing his audiences with conservative sociopolitical commentary (see the dust-up from a few years ago over Gayle’s 2012 ESP release, Look Up) will be glad to hear that Gayle’s “preaching” either did not take place at this concert or was excised from the recording. While I have never been as bothered by Gayle’s desire to speak his mind on these issues as other listeners, on balance it is a positive that we can hereby appreciate Gayle’s quest for truth in its purest, musical form, without distraction. What a treasure he has been for this music, and how wonderful it is that he is still going strong.
Available for purchase from InstantJazz and the Downtown Music Gallery.