Prophet of Doom

Free-jazz icon Charles Gayle

In recent years, my conversations with other youthful, stymied professionals have turned increasingly apocalyptic. A decade ago, for instance, declarations about the need for a revolutionary cabal of young and highly sexualized political assassins would be greeted with excited affirmations and solemn promises. Nowadays, I'm more likely to hear, “Yeah, whatever” or “Shut up, you fucking moron.” Or, “My seats at the 'KMEL Summer Jam' were too far back. Surely these are the End Times.” And right these sticks-in-the-mud are; be patient and the bad times will come. The fire in the belly comes streaming out the asshole soon enough.

Even if the world doesn't end in the year 2001, as I anticipate with certainty, the aging process is gonna get you, just like that harpy in the Blondie song. Irony has driven us to the point of picking out our sharpest death clothes and jovially suggesting the proper soundtrack for Judgment Day. And, if the music I've been hearing from our so-called musical revolutionaries is any indication, then it's an Armageddon well deserved.

Thank God, then, for free-jazz multi-instrumentalist Charles Gayle, a devout Christian who takes the apocalypse personally. Gayle, a truly original tenor saxophonist renowned for his lyrically cacophonous blasting concept, ignored the prevailing trends of industry for so long that he bypassed wealth and moved straight on to iconhood. While even John Coltrane and Albert Ayler would sometimes dilute their art in the hopes of saturating the public with their moral ideals — Trane recording “Chim Chim Cheree” side by side with Ascension, Ayler committing what could be generously referred to as acid jazz — Gayle would have none of it. He consequently gave up comfort, family, and home, not just for music but for individual approach; he was homeless for a period, and still plays on the streets of New York, two facts that have been fetishized among fans and in newspapers like this one. Gayle did not record until his late 40s, but has now contributed to nearly 10 CDs. (His latest, Testimony on Knitting Factory Works, features the same lineup as his upcoming Koncepts Cultural Gallery-sponsored show in Oakland: Wilbur Morris on bass and Michael Wimberly on drums.)

The desire for and fear of apocalypse lead us into two reactionary positions: one violently banal, the other nakedly transcendent. There are those who would work to make the world a facsimile of what they imagine it once to be (or could be), back when they were pure and held a special (if I were a beatnik, I'd add “holy”) ignorance. Pat Buchanan, for instance, or most music critics. For there has been a Second Coming — of critics' darlings. Novelty is the order of the day. The quirkiness of an act as mediocre as, say, Cibo Matto, is so easy to write about that you would think the band itself must have something to contribute. They are cool, that is enough. And they are cool because you have been told as much, because you should like to admire the furniture in their apartments, and if you disagree you might have your smokes taken away.

And then there is what author Steve Erickson has named the “nuclear imagination,” that is, a mind that welcomes apocalypse as a clarifying act, even if it's an act of relished self-destruction. Gayle has no great need to be cool, and his behavior suggests that he doesn't even care if he is liked — a musician's cardinal sin. Last year's solo release, Unto I Am (Victo), would have been quite a controversial recording if it had been properly distributed, thanks to some of Gayle's more inflammatory statements on the CD concerning issues like abortion and homosexuality (“You don't want to admit you know the word sin!/ All those fancy words!!/ … You want the women to lust after the women/ That's all called an abomination!!” he cries). Hey, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! Today, you're just as likely to see him behind the drum kit (playing with heavy guitarist Rudolph Grey) as on the sax, or striking at the piano in a style that underlines his serpentine compositional technique. That his certainty of his own dissolution has made for an erratic career is irrelevant (and not only because it can be marketed as such). Unlike mere poseurs, who encourage apocalypse without commitment, Gayle still believes — in the possibility of purity through suffering, and of salvation.

Of course, it is just as likely that Gayle is merely an excellent musician drawing upon the depths of his facilities. That is small thinking. Music possesses more than meaning: It possesses significance. Or as Gayle said in a recent interview, “I'm not really a musician into music. I only hear so much.”

The Charles Gayle Trio plays Sat, Feb. 24, at the James Moore Theater in the Oakland Museum; call (510) 763-0682.

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