FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Hans-Jürgen Schaal


But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.
Exodus chapter 14 verse 16

There's a certain man who compares himself to a boxer, a steel worker, a demolition squad. Somebody who wants to breathlessly thrash about, casting liquid fire above the factory din, who wants to tear down walls, move mountains, part the waves, who wants to fling open heaven's door with a saxophone. Somebody who plays against the cold, the hunger and homelessness, against emptiness, petrifaction and the loss of hope; who plays with biblical power: without compromise, without compassion, radical. Blasts out sheer energy.

This man is Charles Gayle, born 1939 in Buffalo, the last prophet of Free Jazz. For twenty years he has struggled through as a street musician in Mammoth New York, a martyr on the saxophone, hungry, cold, homeless. He slept on park benches, rummaging about in the rubbish, screaming against Indifference on his instrument - the indifference of the stone walls, of the glass façades, of people's faces. "Five or six days of the week I play outside, in the open air or in subway stations or wherever and I get maybe seven dollars or five dollars. Ten dollars says it's a good day; ten is actually a very good day. I would have to be there all day to get as much as that."

Charles Gayle has played for his life, and this is the extreme, frightening truth of his music. He has learned about the instrument, he has taught Jazz at university, but in order to play like he does, you need a different set of experiences. His saxophone playing can hardly be described in music-critique terms and even less be judged. It does not come from a particular school, it is based upon mental energy. It is not about right intonation, about changes and phrasing, here it's about sound unlimited.

Sounds, never ending lava flows of sounds: deep roaring salvos, squeaky garlands of sound, screaming falsetto nose-dives, spiral-like whirls of noise, smeary fanfares, cascading whines and rusty gears, multiphonic screams. A radical orgy of sound, sweeping everything away: No further increase in intensity seems possible on this instrument, and, if at all, then only through Charles Gayle. "Each new concert has to make the previous one look tame", he says. Or: "Often, when people run out of the club, it's like an ovation for me. Each time I want to blow the place empty - I want to be as disturbing as that." And: "When the building is still standing in the end, we've failed."

Musical edifices break apart as well, wall paper of conventions crumble. Charles Gayle's music preaches freedom in an emphatic way, spontaneity in all its extravagance: "We are not as free as we think we are." This is why he goes on stage without even a verbal agreement with his musicians. Any structure, any devotion comes from the here and now, the live concert is that single moment of genuine truth, which comes over us like an earthquake, devastating and frightening. The musical patterns which have nourished so much energy linger on in the ear only from afar: Echoes of Jazz ballads, the nervous pulse of Bebop, the unbending desperation of the Blues. So much passion and ecstasy.

Before him others have stormed the heavens on the saxophone untiringly until their death, John Coltrane or Albert Ayler. Like these two, Gayle refers to the power emerging from black spirituality - a power which has nothing in common with pious worship, with silent prayer and humble contemplation. This power is more a power which wants to destabilise, a sermon from tongues on fire, a hymn with the angel's sword. In Gayle's Christianity there is still the power of the magic oath, the ritual forcing of evil spirits, a belief that moves mountains.

Because the rod which parts the ocean's waves, is in truth a tenor saxophone in the hands of a black Moses.

Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton

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