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Charles Gayle Trio - Streets

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Artist: Charles Gayle Trio

Album: Streets

Label: Northern Spy

Review date: Feb. 21, 2012

Those who have been following Charles Gayle’s career over the last two-plus decades will be familiar with his Streets the Clown persona. With a bowler and a red nose, the Gayle of the early 1990s used to play around meaningfully with the juxtaposition of the tragic clown accoutrements and his righteous tenor saxophone roar. A street musician for many years, and a musician of fierce devotions, Gayle’s uncompromising work on the tenor (and, in subsequent years, piano, alto, bass clarinet and bass) has made him a beloved player among devotees of fire music.

Paring his music back down to its simplest form, Streets finds Gayle in the company of a very resourceful and responsive rhythm team in bassist Larry Roland and percussionist Michael TA Thompson. The music here, though, is not merely another series of howls. While it’s got plenty of energy and intensity, the 72-year-old Gayle also plays with a kind of fractious, fragile lyricism. Combined with the often fascinating rhythmic language of this trio, it makes the record more compelling than the usual free jazz date.

Mind you, Gayle is still very much conversant with his main influences. During the opening passages of “Compassion I,” as Gayle roars out of the gate with a hot, almost ragged tone on his horn, I could swear I heard a descending tag from Ayler’s “Truth is Marching In.” This may be the power of suggestion — Gayle’s particular form of saxophonic sound and fury has often been compared to Ayler’s in its shock and intensity — because on many of the subsequent pieces, Gayle is expressing himself in a language that is quite different. On “Compassion II,” there’s a bitty, choppy quality to his phrasing that suits the spare, creative drumming (swinging and alternating between rolls and rimshots) and the careful pizz placement of Roland’s bass. This isn’t to say that Gayle is less than assured and passionate here; indeed, he lets loose with some intense vocalisms and startlingly fast, tumbling runs. It’s simply that he’s not quite the fire-breather that one might expect from Touchin’ on Trane or Kingdom Come.

There’s some flashing, almost stuttering momentum on “Glory & Jesus,” and Roland deals out a fantastic bass solo. The title track returns to a kind of Aylerian feel, and Gayle zealously engages the heavily motivic material, almost as if he’s trying to shake it apart by playing it too roughly. The most expressive of these pieces is “March of April,” heavy and dense as compared to the moaning threnody “Doxology,” whose long quavering notes are suspended over cymbals and free pulse. And with “Tribulations,” Gayle returns to the form most expect from him, lingering in a shrieking altissimo region defined as much by its power as by the near crack of its sound.

The experience of listening to Streets, though, is a curious one. While the trio is clearly in superb form and playing free jazz that is fairly distinctive, I’m somehow not compelled to go back to it very often. I realize, though, that this is a byproduct of simply having heard hundreds and hundreds of records in this basic idiom, and I wouldn’t want to deter those new to Gayle from checking out Streets. After all, Gayle does it about as well as anybody.

By Jason Bivins

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