Assuming you are familiar with the remarkable discography of saxophonist Charles Gayle, the first thing you are bound to notice about this recording is that it is somewhat less intense than most of his others, which have built his reputation as a scorcher. If this marks a change in direction for Gayle, however slight, the results are no less intriguing, as he is full of the usual surprises that his many admirers have come to expect.
Gayle acknowledges the shift in perspective: “This album is different in that I am playing songs, in addition to playing outside. I wanted to be a little more melodic, without forcing it.” He says he came to realize that playing freely without boundaries can, in some instances, be restrictive: “By constantly playing energy music I found myself becoming a victim of the music, and, ironically, even less free.”
A remarkable observation, to be sure, from one of the masters of Free Jazz.
Lest the listener sense that Gayle might be simply accommodating commercial instincts by embracing something more accessible than usual, in fact, the differences are merely incremental, with the commitment to artistic integrity clear from the first note. Considering his established style, it might appear as ironic (but relevant to this recording) that Gayle cites as seminal influences the performances of the classic jazz masters, in particular Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker, whom he heard either through recordings or in person during his formative years growing up in Buffalo, New York in the 1940s and 1950s.
In grade school, Gayle studied piano privately but did not take up the saxophone until he was eighteen. He never studied jazz or saxophone formally, although, of course, he knew how to read music, and was familiar with various scales. Much of the myth of Charles Gayle is built on this foundation as a self-taught musician, and just as importantly, on his life as a homeless person for nearly fifteen years on the streets of New York City, sometimes dwelling in abandoned buildings without heat or air conditioning, usually without a bed. While those days of destitution are behind him now, and his artistic accomplishments are recognized for what they are, he expresses a deep humility and lack of bitterness for the tough times, a result, in large part, of his intense spirituality, something often embedded in the titles of his songs, as evidenced on several of the selections here.
For this recording, Gayle has chosen the trio format, backed only by the legendary Sirone on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Although the trio is not a working group, the results speak for themselves, with a tight sound and propulsive force that integrate the melodies beautifully and allow Gayle to follow his muse with unmitigated abandon.
Although there are melodies, sometimes “songs I played as a kid at jam sessions,” Gayle fashions from them the brilliant improvisations for which he is known. He digs deep into the essence of a tune, exploring its fundamentals, and viewing it from multifarious perspectives. For example, on “Unto Jesus Christ,” there is a peaceful beauty, a purity clearly reminiscent of some of John Coltrane’s later works, without being derivative. The tune, Gayle says, “was in my head.” None of the melodies or arrangements was written down, and all are first takes. His selection of the quirky “Independence Blues,” is his “way to express not having sovereignty in life.”
For most of the album, Gayle focuses on tenor sax, foregoing his more recent interest in the alto sax, but he includes one piece, “Piano Medley #1” (the longest on the recording), on which he showcases his prodigious technique and eclectic individual style on the piano. His piano playing, with its romantic flair and in this case an astonishing breadth of vision reaching back to the giants of stride, may be even more expansive than his saxophone blowing, and in some cases even more appealing. Along with his explorations on tenor, the listener is treated to a glimpse at one of the most creative performers in modern jazz improvisation in a highly sympathetic and relaxed setting.
STEVEN LOEWY/ June 2004