Born: February 28, 1939 Primary Instrument: Saxophone
Charles Gayle blew down with hurricane force - the pun is too obvious - out of Buffalo. He drifted in and out of the first great free jazz scenes of the Sixties, playing with Pharoah, Archie Shepp, and other trailblazers. But he says now that his sound then was even more fiery and forceful than it is now, and he couldn't get a recording date. He drifted. He became homeless. He lived as a squatter in an abandoned Lower East Side tenement. He found Jesus.
He kept playing. His music retained its hard industrial edge. It sent listeners through the wall. It busted them out of the day-to-day grind into a divine ecstasy. It lifted and uplifted. He developed a tremendous facility with the upper- upper register of the tenor saxophone, so that he could take his spiritual flights to their farthest reaches. He played wherever he could; his steadiest gig was in the New York subways.
Eventually lightning struck. In the late Eighties Silkheart Records recorded three discs him featuring Gayle's ecstatic, holy holy tenor. One of them, the much-overlooked Always Born, paired him with the incomparable John Tchicai, a pairing that seemed problematic at the time but which worked much better than perhaps anyone was aware then.
After that work, and recordings, came a bit more steadily. For the enigmatic German FMP label he recorded the all-time classic Touchin' on Trane with musicians as talented and passionate as he: bassist William Parker and drummer Rashied Ali, a living connection with the Coltrane legacy that Gayle so dynamically extends here. But this disc became something of an anomaly in the Gayle discography: most of the others were much more furious. Gut-wrenching, metal-tearing, pedal-to-the-floor music.
Much of it was magnificent: Testaments, Repent, and More Live at the Knitting Factory are outrageous, outlandish sonic assaults. Testaments has a rough lyricism that is captivating; the other two make adroit use of doubled strings from bassist Vattel Cherry and William Parker on cello.
On some discs Gayle himself plays viola, bass clarinet, other oddments. His bass clarinet solos are deeply felt and generally more conventionally lyrical than his tenor blasts. He plays it to particular effect on FMP's Abiding Variations. But his chief double is piano, which he has played with increasing frequency and facility in recent years. He's even planning a piano disc loaded with standards, which could change popular perceptions of him - as could the majestic and hard-won lyricism of his tenor playing on the recent Delivered and Ancient of Days.
Popular perceptions may change, but a lot of people do not like and will not like Charles Gayle. They don't like him because he speaks his mind, in concert, and his views are not fashionable. He speaks about his Christian faith and about respect for life. He dresses up like a clown and acts the fool for the many who say he speaks like a fool. His speech is as unpolished and sincere as his playing, and obviously springs from the same well. So what should be done? Should he be censored? Should his art be restricted? If it is - as it is by the fact that many clubs will not hire him now - some transcendent and original art music goes unheard. Art is the loser. We are all the loser.
There is no player on the scene today with the emotional wallop of Charles Gayle. His later discs - particularly Ancient of Days - manifest a mature improvisational talent that can stand with any saxophonist's today. If you are interested in improvised music, you owe it to yourself to hear him.