Tenor saxophonist (and occasional clarinetist, pianist, violinist and storyteller) Charles Gayle has a reputation as one of the last keepers of the ’60s music once known as free jazz. Streets reinforces this impression, but it also suggests that Gayle may be reshaping some elements of his earlier work. Rather than operating from the 45-minute-per-tune format that seemed like an apocalyptic clarion cry, he has stayed within the five- to 10-minute range. He also seems to be hewing more directly to a model innovated by Albert Ayler, one of only a few saxophonists by whom Gayle might have been influenced. It seems odd to suggest that using Ayler as an imprimatur could be heard as “toning down” one’s approach, but there’s no doubt that Gayle is now working with clearly articulated thematic structure, and that this structure serves as an ongoing point of improvisatory reference.
Both “Compassion I” and “Compassion II” consist of relatively short statements mostly played with the horn’s natural register. There’s a lot of stopping and starting, and more interaction with his trio – here bassist Larry Roland and drummer Michael TA Thompson – than I can recall ever before hearing from Gayle. But “interaction” may be a deceptive word. What I mean is that Streets is not entirely made up of Gayle riding herd over everything in his path (this isn’t meant negatively, by the way), as has been his past custom. Roland, with a rubbery, funhouse tone, seems particularly apt to move things in errant directions. There’s method to this madness though; invariably you wind up hearing how his detached lines make sonic (if not technical) sense. As Ayler said, “It’s not about notes. It’s about feelings.” Except when it is about notes, as it is on “Glory & Jesus,” where the trio is eerily reminiscent of the Ayler/Gary Peacock/Sunny Murray trio of “Spiritual Unity,” one of the most tightly considered documents in free jazz. Or on the title track, with Gayle’s vaguely strangulated statements are decidedly linear, and which are tracked closely by both Roland and Thompson. “March of April” is an actual march; it contains a head (of sorts), chord changes, and a loose but countable rhythm. “Doxology” has a strikingly beautiful theme, bolstered by perfect arco accompaniment from Roland’s bass. For Charles Gayle, pieces like these two would have been almost unthinkable in the past. And, although it’s possible that it might be seen as a sort of stylistic capitulation, it’s more likely that Gayle, now in his 70s, continues to be unwilling to stand still artistically.