Look Up (ESP-Disk)
by Phil Freeman
I interviewed Charles Gayle once. It was nearly a dozen years ago, in the front room of his tiny Lower East Side apartment. We sat across from each other and talked for a couple of hours; I asked a bunch of dumb, uninformed questions, because I didn’t know much about anything, and he answered patiently, thoughtfully, and at length. When my tape ran out, and I moved to flip it over, he asked that the conversation not be recorded. He hadn’t objected as I recorded the first 45 minutes’ worth of talk, but I obliged him anyway, and in the final piece (a chapter in my first book, New York is Now!), I didn’t use any quotes. He was extremely dismissive of the importance of his own work throughout our discussion, calling what he did “irrelevant” more than once. I believe now that this was a manifestation of his extraordinarily strong Christian faith, no different than his screamingly intense, marathon saxophone solos or his album and song titles.
Gayle’s Christianity isn’t hidden—it’s broadcast via virtually every one of his recordings, sometimes through the titles and sometimes through the actual music (he’s made several albums that seem strongly influenced by gospel forms). In live performance, he’s been known to put down the saxophone and embark on lengthy sermons. This ESP-Disk release, recorded in 1994, is to my knowledge the first official documentation of this latter side of him.
Look Up‘s next-to-last track, “In the Name of the Father,” features a Gayle monologue that begins by claiming that those who say they love John Coltrane and Albert Ayler (players whose influence can be clearly heard in Gayle’s own music) don’t truly understand those musicians unless they embrace Christ. Admittedly, both Coltrane and Ayler were intensely spiritual men, if not necessarily strict churchy types, but I believe it’s possible to find glory and power in their art while rejecting any and all belief in the mythological or supernatural. I certainly have.
Anyway, that’s where Gayle’s preaching begins, but that’s not where it ends. He moves on to denunciations of abortion and homosexuality, too, all based on a faith that seems more rooted in the Old Testament than the New. During this speech, his rhythm section—bassist Michael Bisio, currently heard in Matthew Shipp‘s trio, and drummer Michael Wimberly, who’s been working with Gayle and others off and on for years—keep a free but propulsive groove going, which helps turn what Gayle’s saying into “part of the show,” in some ways, especially since he erupts into another fiery saxophone solo when he’s done yelling. Given that this performance was recorded in California, it’s entirely possible that some, if not many, present treated it as performative madness to be snickered at, as if he was Wesley Willis or someone like that. That would be unfortunate. Gayle’s faith is very real to him, and even though I don’t share it, not even a little, I would never suggest that he be mocked or scoffed at for it.
“In the Name of the Father” is but one track of five, though, and the shortest one at that. The other four are burners of varying length (though every one passes the ten-minute mark) and intensity. In 1994, when this performance was recorded, Gayle was at something of a creative peak; he’d already made his best-known (and best) album, Touchin’ On Trane, with bassist William Parker and drummer Rashied Ali, three years earlier, and would soon release Kingdom Come with Parker and drummer Sunny Murray. Two of the tracks on Look Up are explicit tributes to predecessors—”Homage to Albert Ayler” and “I Remember Dolphy”; on the latter, Gayle plays bass clarinet. The last piece, “The Book of Revelation,” is nearly 23 minutes of fierce blowing, with a core of incantatory melody—there’s nothing random or unfettered about what Gayle, Bisio and Wimberly are doing. Indeed, the way the album is recorded and mixed, the drummer is frequently the loudest element, and he’s playing with extraordinary power, slamming the kit like he’s in a metal band. Bisio disappears beneath this avalanche of percussion at times, re-emerging during the set’s quieter moments (notably on the melancholy “I Remember Dolphy,” which he launches with a terrific, heartfelt solo).
Charles Gayle‘s music is breathtaking whether you share his faith or not. This album is one of the stronger entries in his discography—the fact that the tape took 18 years to emerge says nothing about its quality. Highly recommended.