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Charles Gayle (1939 - 2023)

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    Posted: 08 Sep 2023 at 2:56pm
By Martin Schray

One of the most uncompromising and mysterious figures in free jazz, saxophonist, bass-clarinetist and pianist Charles Gayle, has passed away. He gave us a visionary music forged by spiritual exploration and sonic discovery, but what has made him a legend was the fact that his life was the story of a modern Don Quixote.

Gayle was born in Buffalo and learned to play the piano as a child. Later he taught himself the saxophone. In the New York of the late 60s and early 70s, Gayle wanted to catch up with the free jazz scene and so he was jamming with Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. Yet, his aggressive saxophone style dominated the groups he played in so often that he got the reputation of being too focused on himself. In times when collectives were the order of the day, this was fatal. Sometime in the early 70s he disappeared and became homeless for almost 15 years, playing for change and living wherever he could. In the late 1980s he was rediscovered (by Peter Kowald, among others, who heard him on a corner in 1984 and arranged his first regular gig after a very long time at the Sound Unity Festival) and eventually Gayle managed to return as a performer and an educator, releasing outstanding albums from then on.

However, his years on the streets left scars. When Gayle returned on the scene he was a born-again Christian and made no secret about it, some titles on his albums reveal this, e.g. “Jesus Christ and Scripture“, “O Father“ and “The Lord’s Prayer“ (and these are just some of many). Sometimes he delivered monologues to the audience about religion, morality and abortion, which left most people puzzled. “His reclusive street existence and the born-again Christian preaching (which he has thankfully stopped) threatened to overshadow his identity as a player“, as The Rough Guide to Jazz put it. However, if one could get past the politics and disagreements that one might have with his attitude, one could never deny that Gayle was an astonishing musician.

I came across his name for the first time in Ebba Jahn’s film Rising Tones Cross, which I saw at beginning of the 1990s. The film starts with Gayle playing in the streets and then in a trio with Peter Kowald. Afterwards he and Kowald sit in an apartment discussing about music. These few minutes showing Gayle play and the passion he talks about music really got me and I immediately bought Touchin’ On Trane. I still remember the impact the music had on me, I was touched and agitated at the same time. His saxophone style was the perfect hybrid of Ayler and Ornette, the sound was strong and compelling. On Touchin’ On Trane he wraps his typical contours and textures, his characteristic shrieking overtones, which are often at the verge of breaking, in fully ripe notes and elegant runs.

Charles Gayle has released a lot of marvelous albums, it’s difficult to pick out highlights from his outstanding oeuvre. Especially in a trio with bass and drums he was often at his best. That’s why one certainly has to mention Homeless (Silkheart, 1989) with Sirone and Dave Pleasant; Repent (Knitting Factory, 1992) with Hilliard Greene respectively F. Vattel Cherry and David Pleasant; Clowns (Northern Spy, 2012) with Larry Roland and Michael TA Thompson; and Seasons Changing (Otoroku, 2019) with John Edwards and Mark Sanders. His albums on FMP deserve to be highlighted separately, most of all the above-mentioned Touchin’ On Trane (1993) with William Parker and Rashied Ali, one of my favorite free jazz albums of all time, Berlin Movement From Future Years with F. Vattel Cherry and Michael Wimberly (1997) and Precious Soul (2001) with Gerald Benson and Gerald Cleaver, on which you can also hear what a great piano player he was. Finally, Unto I am (Les Disques Victo, 1995), his solo album, on which he also shines on the bass clarinet, shouldn’t be missing here.

Now Charles Gayle, the true impassioned, volatile master of improvisation, one of the greatest free jazz saxophonists of the last 40 years, has gone for good. May he rest in peace.

Watch Charles Gayle with Dave Burrell (piano), William Parker (bass) and Michael Wimberly (drums) at the Vision Festival 2014:

from www.freejazzblog.org

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