FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004

FMP CD 100

Felix Klopotek


There at the turning point
There at the turning point
To reality
They keep on burning
(The Congos, Sodom, Gommorow)

For years Charles Gayle's music has been exclusively assigned to the categories of power-play, energy and exertion. It seems as if everything that was missing in Jazz of the eighties and early nineties has been forcibly read into the tenor player and multi-instrumentalist (on early recordings you can hear him play piano, violin, bass clarinet, drums and soprano, as well): no compromise, an intractable will-power (to survive), spirituality and aggressiveness. In accordance with this way of reading things, Gayle was heir to Albert Ayler and John Coltrane and simply blew away the Free Jazz clichés gone grey over the years. He was the newcomer, the lost son of the generation of the Ayler's and Frank Wright's, the survivor. Indeed, he had battled his way for years on the streets of New York, a fact which has been stylised as his 'trade mark' in an obscene way. Only recently it said somewhere that he was living on the streets again. What rubbish!

In general, hardly anybody seems to ask himself if what has been written about Gayle and identified with him, does not rather reflect his own clichés of Free Jazz. Gayle himself has, in words as well as in sounds, left no doubt about the fact that he does not really fit this image. He played the drums in the White-Noise-Band The Blue Humans, piano in a duo with Sunny Murray, he published a gospel album or, in "Daily Bread", a recording characterised by its fragmentariness, an approach which does not define musical textures exclusively through high tension.

Whoever saw him in the last past years, how he walked on stage like a ragged clown with an ostentatious battle-fatigue as if he wanted to say to the audience: "You want a guy from the streets? OK, you got it!", knows that Gayle is not interested in those typically 'authentic' sounds of the "street".

This already becomes clear with these recordings, made immediately after the legendary Free Concerts of Peter Brötzmann's 'Die like a Dog' Quartet (FMP CD 64) and of his own trio (FMP CD 90) organised by FMP in honour of Albert Ayler on August 19 and 20, 1993.

It's the much shorter pieces which give a different impression of the way Gayle and his partners Vattel Cherry and Michael Wimberley face up to free improvisation. The High Energy which dominated the live recordings of the previous day, disperses and becomes more differentiated. The music is more transparent, allowed to breathe and hints to the fact that the expenditure of energy which produced these concerts, in fact, does not result from a indomitable power-play but from the elegance with which the musicians weave the pulsating, multi-layered and then, again, sparse texture. Gayle blows his saxophone 'over the top' at the same time initiating connecting motifs, formulating harmonies, getting involved cautiously and then, again, abruptly stepping into the interplay of bass and drums and provoking a change of mood. The relations of the improvisations, like the one from sound textures to rhythmical structures move to the foreground. Sensitivity, kinetic flexibility, supplying intuition and concentration, the ecstatic letting-go as well as that insistent circling of an idea reveal themselves as the constitutional characteristic of the music. And it becomes clear that what you so often wanted to hear from Gayle, the squanderingly propelled eruptions are the result of this exacting work, of this precise listening.

Whoever connects Gayle's well-known quote exclusively with Energy-Free Jazz "When the building is still standing after we're through we failed", simply fails to notice that the subversive power of revolution is the work of a mole. Obviously, nothing can be taken away from his dedication which, proudly and unassailably, doesn't give a damn about economic sobriety (because Gayle hasn't had the best of experiences with 'economic efficiency').

The contribution of Free Jazz, as controversial as one may find this expression, still lies in widening our ideas of musical categories in as much as that what is added to the process of improvisation is a lot richer and more differentiated than what our too quick to hear ability to categorise is prepared to perceive. Ayler's 'Spiritual Unity', already, was a masterpiece of fragile interwoven, finely sketched lines.

Thus Gayle's dedication is distilled from its supposed opposite: the numerous gestures, hints and transient sketches which still all exhale this burning breath and thus require exactly what they create: passion.
He avails himself of the secret knowledge of improvisation that 1+1 does not necessarily result in what we expect. Behind all that which he actually or supposedly represents stands this subverting of patterns which burrow themselves in microscopically detailed work through the historic references and the emotions of the moment.

As thoroughly as people misunderstand his music as expression of the "street", as banal it is to think of it as a whispering evocation of the Holy Ghost. It occupies, roughly speaking, an intermediate position, an ambivalent attitude between metaphysics and materialism. No, Gayle rather fights for it – step by step from the religiosity he claims for himself, from the ghosts of the past and the direct confrontation with the NOW.
It is this 'turning point to reality' which sets the music alight.

Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton

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