by Ethan Swan

Charles Gayle

Sat Jan 10


People are used to relying on music to help them through dark times: punching walls with Black Flag, gasping for breath with Charlie Patton, or desperately pursuing enlightenment with Albert Ayler. Saxophonist Charles Gayle learned this lesson better than most, not only through the two decades he spent homeless, playing on street corners, but also by harnessing the transformative power of his own music.

Gayle is often compared to John Coltrane, which hints at both his project and tone, but no warnings can prepare listeners for his presence. Gil Scott-Heron wrote a song about music's healing power that beautifully describes Coltrane's strength as "our hero rides in, rides in on his saxophone." Gayle also has this power, but hearing his enormous, booming sound, it's much easier to imagine him as a hulking giant, reckless, determined, and often misunderstood.

Recent criticism of Gayle focuses exclusively on anything but his music. Full of words like "rant," "preoccupation" and "abortion," they all tell the same story of a man squandering his talent by talking too much. I'll admit, I think that Gayle has one of the most expressive and emotive tones I've ever heard, and I don't fully understand why he feels it needs to be augmented. But with much of today's free jazz audience consisting of extreme music refugees--metalheads who followed Zorn, or kids at the end of their post-punk rope--I can appreciate his concern. I can also appreciate his sense of theatrics.

Gayle occasionally affects a character named Streets the Clown at his concerts. In complete silence, wearing greasepaint and a red rubber nose, Streets acts out the minute, unnoticed acts of violence, love and worship that make up our lives. Streets is now five years old, and still he baffles audiences who nervously wait for the music to start again. But if Streets is used as a prism, separating the love, violence, and worship that resides in the notes, listeners will find the noblest hope for music, the healing force of the universe.