Charles Gayle Trio

Look Up
ESP-Disk 4070

Perverse as it may seem to anyone seeing him perform these days, but gigs with saxophonist Charles Gayle actually feature a kinder gentler Gayle than in the past. Today Gayle concentrates as much on his piano playing as his saxophones, and, apt to throw some standards into the set list, he also usually lets his reeds express his opinions.

That wasn’t so in 1994 as this Santa Monica concert proves. Celebrated as a link to 1960s Energy Music, who had endured neglect and homelessness to maintain his commitment, in the early 1990s Gayle was still treating every performance as a challenge. This makes for an exhilarating if someone exhausting set of more than 70 minutes. Assisted by drummer Michael Wimberley, who has seconded the likes of saxman Louie Belogenis and trumpeter Roy Campbell; and bassist Michael Bisio, now better-known for his affiliation with pianist Matthew Shipp; Gayle was practically indefatigable. Every phrase appeared to flow from his tenor saxophone in altissimo screeches or renal growls, and he wasn’t above lecturing his audience on the benefits of a Christian life and rail against homosexuality, feminism and abortion. In short he comes across as a combination of Pat Robertson and C. L. Franklin plus a resurrected Albert Ayler.

In spite of – or maybe because of – his antithetical opinions, the audience here reacts with rapturous enthusiasm. And indeed it’s hard not to get caught up in the bulldozing power of Gayle’s playing. Taken at a kinetic pace each track is more frantic than the next with the saxophone screams, split tones, reed bites and continuous multiphonics matched by Wimerley’s equally relentless drumming, which bounces ruffs and flams, continuously shatters cymbals and pounds out irregular rhythmic patterns. Against this dual onslaught Bisio is the odd man out, with only the occasional arco run or vibrating double stop signaling his presence.

Gayle was evidentially concerned with his place in Jazz history, with one track entitled “Homage to Albert Ayler” and another “I Remember Eric Dolphy”. In truth the saxophonist pulls off the former more successfully than the latter. During “Homage to Albert Ayler” he almost uncannily mirror’s the late saxophonist’s tone with its extended glossolalia and squealing throat-rasping runs. Phrasing like Ayler, at one point he quotes “Truth is Marching In”. He’s not as successful remembering Dolphy since that musician was more sophisticated and schooled in his playing, compared with Gayle’s essentially primitivist approach. No amount of buzzy clarinet slurps, coupled with yodels and whistles, as well as Wimberley’s rim shots and smacks can disguise this.

This doesn’t negate Gayle’s own qualities expressed in almost-Technicolor-like audio here. Go along for the ride, as on the more than 22½-minute “The Book of Revelation”, and it’s almost as if nothing else exists on a temporal plane. There’s even a surprising sequence where the saxophonist undeniably proves that he can express himself in a balladic mode. Tellingly though, he then reconfirms his commitment to the ecstatic by weaving a solo out of stratospheric squeals and guttural honks. Wimberley’s lumberjack-like smacks and Bisio’s sophisticated triple stopping meet him head on

As exhilarating as an energy drink or a shot of speed, listening to Look Up is also much better for your health than either of those options.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Alpha 2. Homage to Albert Ayler 3. I Remember Eric Dolphy 4. In The Name of the Father 5. The Book of Revelation

Personnel: Charles Gayle (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and voice); Michael Bisio (bass) and Michael Wimberley (drums)