Charles Gayle has received a lot of love on FJB, and for good reason. Bear with me for a minute and I will try to keep the redundancy to the essentials.
From truly humble beginnings, Charles Gayle has become a legend. His story is almost the very stuff of jazz fantasy: a lone artist devotes himself completely to his craft in the face of an unyielding world (or music industry) only to overcome obscurity and gain due recognition – albeit on the fringes – in his later years. That romantic tinge only holds, however, if you focus on the uncompromising quest for self-realization through music and strip it of the hardships endured in a decade and a half of homelessness, whereby Gayle survived by busking in a fashion more likely to repel than attract the average passer-by. This, of course, was how Gayle refined his sound, which lies somewhere between freneticism of Charlie Parker, the spirituality of Albert Ayler and late-stage John Coltrane, and the off-the-walls adventurism of Arthur Doyle. If you have listened to his previous recordings, you already know he digs deep into the new thing tradition and, if you have heard Solo Piano or Live at the Glenn Miller Café you know his roots run still deeper beyond free-bop and be-bop. Gayle’s inspiration also emanates quite unapologetically from his religious faith (listen to the brief thank you at the end of Seasons Changing for a brief and inclusive declaration) and his oft-noted resistance to commercial conformity, as well as his experience, all those decades ago, on the streets of New York. As Gayle himself explains, “I tried to copy the sounds I heard: the traffic, the fire engines, the police cars, even babies crying. Everything. It’s just automatic. You do it all these years so that becomes your music.” This odd brew of obstinacy and spiritualism, deeply human music and accidental noise pollution, struggle and discipline, tradition and vanguardism, makes him hard to pin down. This also makes him so exhilarating.
Now, some three decades after his first releases on Sweden’s Silkheart label, Gayle is an octogenarian and he is still blowing his uniquely colored fire, as these two recordings from 2019 attest.
Charles Gayle, Giovanni Barcella, and Manolo Cabras - The Alto Sessions (el Negocito, 2019) ****
It begins with a series of twisted wails. Barcella and Cabras bide their time for a minute, and chime in with similarly gnarled lines and broken rhythms. From there, a wild ride ending abruptly with energy and some of Gayle’s (?) vocal howls. The second track, “Charles’s Speech” is a ballad, softer and blusier than Gayle usually lays. The rhythmic accompaniment is sparse and lyrical. “Three Lonely Legs,” the third track, returns to the energy music paradigm, laden with squeals and tortured scales. In a way that it seems only Gayle can muster, however, behind this aggressive, inspired abstraction resides and underlying pensiveness and meditation. This theme carries over into the next track, Cabras’s steadily lumbering and meditative solo-drum piece “Solitudine.”
The ominously titled “Dark Optimism” is one of the surprise treasures on this album. It begins with Barcella’s squealing arco bass, soon followed by tentatively rummaging drums and a surprisingly restrained Gayle on piano. A fan of Time Zones, I found his piano work here more disciplined, effective, and, well, dark. Except for a brief twinkling of upper register keys at the end of the piece, I find little evidence of optimism, but maybe that is the point: the lightness comes imperceptibly and only as the darkness retreats. Barcella steps in for the next piece, “Balosismik,” a slow solo-bass meditation that leads into the final piece, “Sun Sin.” Here, the group reconvenes in their original formulation as Gayle returns to the alto and his truncated, contorted phrasings overlaying a propulsive, deeply synergistic rhythm section. All in all, a well-balanced recording of the frenzied, clunky free jazz that has granted Gayle renown.
And, speaking of soaring alto screeches knifing through a synergistic rhythm section…
Charles Gayle, John Edwards, Mark Sanders - Seasons Changing (Otoroku, 2019) ****½
Seasons Changing is pure Gayle fire-spitting riding atop densely latticed, knotted groves of John Edwards (bass) and Mark Sanders (drums). Given their extensive, compelling history together, Edwards-Sanders might just be England’s answer to America’s William Parker-Hamid Drake, or maybe Parker-Rashied Ali of By Any Means and Touchin’ on Trane fame. As much as those latter releases offer some context particularly for Gayle’s approach, however, this November 15, 2017 concert at London’s now legendary Café Oto documents a very different outing.
Seasons Changing takes me back to my first few spins of my first Gayle album, Live at the Glenn Miller Cafe. That is not because it rehashes, but because of its unfaltering drive, its free-bop-reprised dynamics, and its sheer intensity. Clearly, Gayle has still got it. And, clearly, Edwards and Sanders have got their own thing going on that intertwines so impeccably with Gayle’s. Six-minutes into the first piece on this two-disc live date, Sanders and Gayle step aside and let Edwards show his angular chops. What sticks out on this live recording is not just Edwards’ dexterity, speed, and sense of rhythm, but the contrast between the static and manic sections of this extended run. Soon, Sanders recaptures the grove and Gayle squeaks his way back into the fray, falling into a sharp, spirited melody.
Intersperse adjectives such as “soulful,” “squonky,” “pained,” and “beatific” here and there, and the description above describes the entirety of these two sets, whether Gayle is on sax or piano. Whether Edwards is playing a jagged walking blues or meticulously percussing to elicit creaks and clamps. Whether Sanders is laying down a rolling groove or playing around the melody a la Tony Oxley and Sunny Murray. This album is packed with spiked improv punch. It is replete with erudite references (I am sure) that I am too daft to tease out. And, it is oddly, at times somber, at others joyfully exuberant. This is classic free jazz chiseled for the present by decades (in Gayle’s case, eight decades) of musical history, exploration, and awareness. Absolutely riveting.
This album is available as a double CD and download.
Astute and very readable reviews, Nick. Many thanks.
Thanks, Colin. I have been into Gayle since my beginning with this type of music and it was about time I articulated some of that appreciation.
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