Charles Gayle, in many ways, is the very soul of the free music scene in New York — or in America, for that matter. For nearly two decades, Gayle was homeless, blowing his tenor sax furiously on the streets of Gotham, living an extended — and no doubt far less pleasant — version of Sonny Rollins’ “underground” period.
Over the past decade, however, Gayle has gathered a rabid cult following, drawn in equal parts by his apocalyptic sax playing, now and then punctuated by equally stylized turns on piano or violin, and his riveting, often theatrical stage presence.
This evening, Gayle played the set in the guise of “Streets,” a character he employs when he’s at his most message-oriented. Dressed in Emmett Kelly mufti, complete with clown nose and moth-eaten suit, he’s every bit the sad clown: But rather than evoke a sweet melancholy, his between-song mime pieces offer fierce political commentary, such as this evening’s anti-abortion staging, which he amplified in an impassioned post-set speech.
Gayle began this performance with an extended piano improvisation, a piece significantly lighter in tone than most of his doomier pieces. Over the course of the 25-minute piece, he moved stealthily across the keys, staking out small, defined sections and examining every nuance before moving on. His angular chording was mirrored by drummer Michael Wimberly, who concentrated his efforts on his kit’s more delicate pieces, maintaining a running discussion between hi-hat and lightly tapped snare.
For the set’s second piece, Gayle turned to his tenor, changing the atmosphere significantly. His squealing, oscillating tone — which rubbed off on Wimberly — recalled that of Albert Ayler’s Greenwich Village bands, full of rough edges that recall the backwoods church as much as the art-house loft.
Gayle, like Ayler, weaves his Christian beliefs into the fabric of his compositions, leavening fire-and-brimstone salvos with passages redolent of milk-and-honey.
The set ended with a somber solo piano piece, during which Gayle cut dramatically from lullaby to death march, ultimately blurring the edges so that the two elements entwined in most unsettling fashion.
More than just create uneasy listening, Gayle makes a statement, demands a dialog with his music — a rare accomplishment indeed for someone who doesn’t even use words.