Charles Gayle Trio

Streets
Northern Spy NSCD018

By Ken Waxman

By now the tale of how the mid-‘70s “discovery” of homeless street musician Charles Gayle, whose unfettered saxophone playing breathed new life into jazz’s so-called avant-garde, has as much apocryphal currency as how toothless trumpeter Bunk Johnson’s ‘40s re-emergence supposedly energized traditional jazz.

In truth, as his exceptional improvising on this CD attests, regardless of his storied background, Gayle, like Johnson before him, is a notable player on his own merits. Whereas some New Thing veterans have returned to playing with disappointing results, at 72 Gayle is creating at as high a level as when he first recorded. Furthermore as his sympathetic relationship here with Boston bassist Larry Roland and New York mainstay, drummer Michael TA Thompson attests, free-form improvising, like classic jazz, has always been around. The bassist and drummer, who both spent years played with other below-the-radar experimenters like saxophonist Ras Moshe and trumpeter Raphe Malik, would confirm that.

Those who hear this combo as an updated version of the revolutionary Albert Ayler trio are likewise missing the point. Expressing himself on these intermezzos with exaggerated glossolalia, skyscraper-high altissimo and irregular snorts for Gayle is as much extending the ongoing jazz tradition here as his piano playing does with its quirky variations on standards.

The most obvious clue is “Doxology”, the album’s lengthiest track. With a title that conflates Sonny Rollins “Doxy” and Milt Jackson’s “Bluesology”, Gayle’s split tone solo includes quotes from other tunes that flash by at supersonic speeds while his superimposition of bugle-call-like brays on a gospel-styled head references both Ayler brothers. Roland’s flamenco-like strums could come from Jimmy Garrison, while the rolls and smacks that are part of Thompson’s solo practically update freebop.

The saxophonist’s intention to meld his song-oriented asides with knife-sharp double tonguing that asserts itself throughout, most notably on the title tune, proves that Streets is no energy music copy. Instead Gayle’s speech-like slurs, splutters and cries fit so perfectly with the drummer’s barrage of rattles, slaps and cymbal pops and the bassist’s durable and uncomplicated string power plucked and bowed that the trio becomes an original entity unto itself.

It would appear that Gayle has created one of his most remarkable sessions by subtly positioning himself and his musicians within the jazz continuum as his playing continues to evolve.

Tracks: Compassion I; Compassion II; Glory & Jesus; Streets; March of April; Doxology; Tribulations

Personnel: Charles Gayle (tenor saxophone); Larry Roland (bass) and Michael TA Thompson (drums)

—For New York City Jazz Record June 2012