The saga of Charles Gayle is a long and winding tale full of highs and lows. The fluctuations are mostly not in quality (he has made just two subpar albums out of twenty-two he's led from 1988 on), but in media and record label attention to his talents. He was a big story in the '90s (well, on the NYC avant-jazz scene), often with weekly gigs at the Knitting Factory, but then he became dissatisfied with his approach and began experimenting, musically and in terms of presentation, withdrawing from regular performance while he did so. In recent years, he has been working on combining the precision of bebop with the intensity of free jazz. That combination is heard to best effect in his alto sax playing (his latest instrument, joining not only tenor sax but also piano, violin, viola, bass clarinet, and drums in his arsenal), as those who have heard him in concert recently can testify. Somebody should document his alto playing with his regular trio (he has been heard on alto with the Sirone Bang Ensemble on a Silkheart album released this year, Configuration, but as good as that disc is, it's not as thrilling as Gayle in his natural setting).
In the meantime, here he returns to tenor sax, joined by the rhythm section of veteran bassist Sirone and new drum stalwart Gerald Cleaver. Five of the tracks are the roiling, anything-can-happen free improvisations that are his trademark, coming out of the Ayler/late-Coltrane styles from which Gayle long ago crafted a distinctively personal sound. But where he used to rely heavily on quickly shifting textural contrasts, now he often sculpts his improvisations with an ear for longer lines and greater use of melody. Not that he's mellowed into easy listening; he's still one of the most aggressive and challenging saxophonists around, with screaming altissimo squiggles and plenty of sonic variety - "Healing Souls," the last track, will melt your ears.
But Gayle does surprise with three standards. (Apparently the label was surprised too, as they mess up two songwriting credits: "I Remember You" is by Victor Schertzinger; "What's New" is by Bob Haggart (not Hoggart), but in collaboration with Johnny Burke; and "I Can't Get Started" is NOT by Vernon Jordan, of course, but Vernon Duke.) Gayle's vocalized tone is apt for songs and conveys their emotions piquantly; the bittersweet "What's New" is unabashedly heartbreaking, like a freestyle Ben Webster. Gayle improvises motivically, so though he's not playing on the chord progressions, everything develops organically. "I Can't Get Started" is a solo piano showcase and thus more harmony-oriented, often lush yet bristling with jagged edges and stark style shifts, like Jaki Byard alternately channeling Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor - wistful, whimsical, and wild.
Gayle's intensity is still high, but this disc offers a less forbidding, more accessible experience than much of his discography, making a great entry point into his sound-world for neophytes and an exciting new tack for longtime fans to take off on. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.