by Phil Freeman
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On October 31 and November 1, 1991, saxophonist Charles Gayle, bassist William Parker, and drummer Rashied Ali occupied a Berlin recording studio. Jost Gebers, head of the FMP label, was in the booth. I don’t know how much music they recorded, but they released just under 67 minutes’ worth of blazing, full-force improv, divided into five tracks simply titled “Part A,” “Part B,” “Part C,” “Part D” and “Part E.”
Touchin’ On Trane was originally issued in 1993, but its 1991 recording is what I’m choosing to celebrate. The album begins with a thunderous (if abbreviated) drum solo from Ali, whereupon Gayle and Parker join him and something almost like a groove is set up. The pace is frantic and the rhythm intense throughout “Part A,” with Gayle blowing fiercely, but—and this is crucial; it’s what makes the album such a landmark achievement—retaining melody and clarity of thought at all times. Behind him, Parker and Ali are a ferocious rhythm section, one which becomes much more than that when the saxophonist drops out around the eight-minute mark, permitting the bassist to take an extended solo as Ali limits himself to cymbals and hi-hat. When the drummer begins his own solo with a series of exploratory, yet forceful taps and thumps on various drums (including an astonishingly powerful foot) and more breathtaking hi-hat work, it puts the capstone on what’s already been established as a time-freezing landmark in free jazz.
What separates Touchin’ On Trane from the pack is the mastery of the three players involved, and their ability to be taken out of themselves by the opportunity to work with the others. This was their first collective encounter, and it would remain such for over 15 years. (More about that below.) Seemingly inspired by the uniqueness of the circumstance, each man plays at the highest possible level, driving the others forward even as he reaches deep within himself to bring out something ineffable and awesome (in the sense of inspiring awe).
Gayle in particular sounds totally different here than on any of his other recordings. The full-bore post-Ayler screams of albums like Repent and More Live are absent, replaced by mature, searching phrases, particularly on “Part B,” a ballad where Parker bows behind him and Ali works with brushes, slapping the drums with his customary force but less raw sound than usual. Hell, on “Part B,” it even sounds like the saxophonist throws in a quote from the spiritual “Lift High the Cross,” though I’d have to go back to church to be sure, and that ain’t happening.
Parker sounds like himself, as always; his ability to transform an upright bass into a talking drum has remained undiminished in the 30-plus years he’s been recording and performing, but his work with the bow on this disc is every bit as amazing, particularly when he yanks it from its quiver for a few evocative slides across the strings rather than getting lost in long passages of high-tension sawing, as he’s done on other occasions.
And Ali is simultaneously restrained and convulsively powerful. When I first heard this album, in my mid-twenties, part of me wished the drums were louder, more aggressive—I thought a rock/metal approach would have driven the other two players into even more of a frenzy. And maybe that would have been true. But a) that wouldn’t have served the music, wouldn’t have created the suspended-in-air feeling that so much of this album has, even at its most fervid; and b) what the hell was I thinking? The drum solo on “Part C” is like an avalanche wiping away a town.
Despite being firmly within the free jazz tradition, Touchin’ On Trane is very much its own thing. As I said above, it’s unique in Charles Gayle’s discography—though he’s had other moments of glory, none come close to this. Compare Touchin‘ to, say, the trio of Gayle, Parker, and Sunny Murray on Kingdom Come, from 1994. The saxophonist is blowing wildly, almost shrieking at times, and while Parker lays down a powerful pulse, Murray is nowhere near the guiding influence Ali was. But even beyond that, this particular group of musicians never recaptured the magic they possessed (or which possessed them) for those two days in 1991. In 2008, they reunited for a live performance in Stockholm, which was recorded by the Ayler label under the band name By Any Means. I haven’t heard it, but reviews claim that age had taken its toll on both Gayle and Ali. That’s almost certainly the case, as evidenced by the fact that the saxophonist had switched from tenor to the lighter alto. By Any Means even continued performing after Rashied Ali’s death, substituting his younger brother Muhammad. I can’t imagine that sounding right, as the two drummers’ styles were completely different (compare, say, Rashied Ali’s work backing John Coltrane to his brother’s performances as part of the Center of the World quartet with saxophonist Frank Wright, pianist Bobby Few and bassist Alan Silva and you’ll hear what I mean almost immediately). So the album exists as a singular document of a once-in-three-lifetimes occasion. And we should be extremely gratified that it does.
Touchin’ On Trane was out of print for a while, but it’s back—with different, slightly less stark cover art—as part of the Jazzwerkstaat label’s efforts to reissue notable FMP titles. If you’ve never heard it, you really should get on that.