In 1988, with the history of African-American free jazz and spiritualism seemingly written decades prior, tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle came onto the recording scene. In his late forties at the time, he’d been playing in subways and on the streets in New York since the 1970s and making rare concert appearances. Gayle came up in Buffalo; bassist Buell Neidlinger recalled to this writer in 2003 that, on a 1968 gig with fellow saxophonist Andrew White, Gayle was an especially strong and somewhat mysterious force. He recorded a date for ESP-Disk’ during that period which has remained unissued, and it wasn’t until 20 years later that Always Born and Homeless were waxed for Sweden’s Silkheart records. The ensuing two and a half decades have brought a host of powerhouse dates for labels like Silkheart, FMP, Black Saint, Knitting Factory, 2.13.61, Clean Feed, and No Business that have become storied, if sometimes impenetrable, cairns on the vanguard’s path.
The somewhat ascetic Gayle and the full-bore nature of his music remain an enigma; the music is exuberant and hot, full of “paint-peeling” digs, screams, and shouts, but there is also a world-weariness to his tone and, in recent years, a gentle lope to the collective rhythms he and his groups put forth. Streets is Gayle’s first for the young Brooklyn label Northern Spy that, while primarily a home for outsider rock outfits, has also released recordings of improvised music by the Jooklo Duo and the Chicago Underground Duo. He’s joined by bassist Larry Roland and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson (the trio is a favored format) for seven originals on which Gayle is present as “Streets,” the clown/mime persona that has gradually become ever-present in his performances. Of course, “Streets” is only visible on the cover art — there is nothing theatrical, particularly, about these performances. But as Gayle himself put it to Brad Cohan of the Village Voice, “There’s some things that happen [as Streets that cannot] with [street clothes] on — nice things. I’m not gonna hurt nobody.” “Streets” is part of the music as much as the music comes from (the) “Streets.”
While Gayle’s playing might seem like an heir apparent to Albert Ayler, Frank Wright, and late Coltrane, his phrasing is not rooted in Ayler-esque thematic haranguing and extrapolation, nor is his vibrato as wide. Unlike Wright, there’s not much of a down-and-dirty R&B shove, though Gayle does have his own folksiness to put forth. On the two takes of “Compassion,” one gets a sense of the curious rhythmic parallels the trio creates, Gayle chomping at short phrases before blurring them and doubling back in a quilt of dissected chords and angular swipes. Simultaneously, Thompson and Roland create a strange, Monkish shuffle with contrasting overlaid tempos. At first blush, the three seem as though they are out of sync and not listening to one another, but after multiple hearings and an emerging awareness of the conversational signposts, it becomes clear that this is music of a very high communicative order. It’s reminiscent of the independent group language of the New York Art Quartet or saxophonist/trumpeter Joe McPhee’s Po Music. “Compassion II” slows the tempo down a bit so that one can hear the responsiveness of tenor and bass. There’s feelable heat pouring from Gayle’s horn, long wails that contrast with fills, eddies, and a dry croon. Far from mere pulpit pounding, his phrases are bright and quizzical orations neatly matched by Roland’s supple fingers.
“Glory & Jesus” has a bit more rhythmic thrash to it, but Thompson is an extremely controlled drummer, tight and funky while also building up abstract and gestural relationships (reminiscent of Pheeroan Ak Laff). Therefore, the pulse remains crisp, sweaty, and engaged. As Gayle wrangles, brays, and soars, his mixture of pure sound and singsong melodies are kept at an almost teetering level by the rhythm section’s unflagging athleticism. This pair might be among Gayle’s most copasetic partnerships, reminiscent of the meaty and busy Sirone-Dave Pleasant team of his earlier recordings. “March of April” throws a slight monkey wrench into the proceedings by setting up a rather didactic (not implied) martial beat, which Gayle relates to with sunny and wistful melodic snatches. But it doesn’t take too long for Thompson and Roland to dispense with the march and shift to a furious whorl of action around the tenorman’s loquacious array of quotes. In recent years, Gayle’s connection to his forebears has become more apparent, and Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, and earlier Coltrane are slyly quoted.
A special record for Gayle, Streets finds a sweet spot in the pantheon of his recordings — namely, acknowledging the fire-and-brimstone of past work, which still lies within, while hewing toward the patient, boppish inventiveness that has characterized more recent outings. When power and measurement can work together seamlessly, the result is nothing short of exquisite.