Matthew Shipp

Gary Giddins, The Village Voice

Nearly everyone who has seen Charles Gayle's Knitting Factory appearances remarks on his opening note, or blast, a unanimity of response that implies a trademark effect at odds with his expressed determination to be as unpredictable as is humanly possible. As trademarks go, however, it's sensational: a multihued squall obviously unlike the conventional sounds predicated by saxophone manuals, but also unlike the gut- wrenching, reed-biting effusions of the now middle-aged avant- garde, if for no other reason than it is his first note. Even Cecil Taylor warms up a little before commencing his marathon. Gayle starts by peaking and goes on from there. By the last number of the hour, he proves he's mortal by using longer mid more frequent rests. In effect, the momentum of his sets is entropic rather than cathartic.

That opening shout is a kind of call to arms, specific and functional, ending all conversations immediately and turning every head to the stage. It's a well-suited descendant of Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" call, a once-in-a-lifetime alarm for the whole jazz ... I almost said establishment, but there wasn't one in 1928, which is why Armstrong's avant-garde assault on conventional polyphony succeeded immediately. Some have said that after Armstrong, the only contrary direction left to jazz's avant-garde was a retreat from the accompanied soloist back to the improvising ensemble; certainly a primary tenet of postbop radicalism is a reaffirmed equity between figure and ground, But individuality remains the gold standard in jazz. The group dynamic of Gayle's music is a given, especially since Gayle, who has been playing unaccompanied on the streets of New York for more than 20 years, never rehearses. Yet he commands attention at all times, even in repose, because his very brief departures from the mix are at once respite and delay: You're glad it for the surcease and hungry for his return.

Like sinus-clearing spices or ice-cold showers, avant-garde art is, in part, a socially acceptable form of masochism. Need I remind the neocons that even for those of us who aren't neurotic, a little pain often opens the way to pleasure? (Hmm-maybe neocons are different.) At .54, Gayle is a late-comer to the meager world of avant-garde professionalism (gigs, records, reviews, and interviews in a addition to spare change in Times Square). But he is made-to-order to refurbish an inchoate Downtown soured on eclecticism and minimalism --a Downtown as predictable as Uptown. The power and beauty of avant-gardism is only as strong as the pain. Hard to digest and hard to produce, avant- it garde art combines the thrill of novelty, the transcendence of custom, and the pride of the recondite. It refuses to be understood too easily.

If only because they reject the rudiments of professional security, most avant-gardists are romantic figures. In his personal life, Gayle fits the bill. In his music, he is as antiromantic as it is possible to be and still graciously accept applause. He sometimes closes permformances with richly intoned pitches in the extremes of the instrument that have a burning, lyrical edge -- a kind of prayerful reward for what preceded them. Gayle is otherwise so tough and unsparing, you can come to him in complete assurance that he will deliver you to someplace else. If his music begins as a (familiar) avant-garde jazz harangue, its very relentlessness purifies the air, and before long you are inside the cacophony, chiming along with the details - the blistering speed, the edgy timbre, the simultaneous polarity of opposing phrases (that's not a second saxophonist or arco bass effect, it's all Gayle), the virtuoso indulgence in texture, the breathless sustain suggestive of bagpipes, the swing. Swing? By all means: The constantly pitching momentum builds to the kind of heady locomotion associated with chanted nonunison prayer - it isn't your foot that's tapping, but your whole body.

Conservative rhetoricians who patrol the arts for agitators often revert to literalism as a kind of mockery. They hold a generic phrase to the light, find it wanting, and conclude-QED-that any art so designated must be wanting too. Free jazz gets them blathering about discipline; new music about longevity; and avant- garde about military divisions. The most common and yet inexplicable dis of all is the idea that extreme forms come easy. No one believes that Gaddis and Rothko had it easier than Bellow and Wyeth, but in jazz, the idea that Albert Ayler was somehow cheating, while no longer as rampant as it once was, is far from dead. As we near the 40th anniversary of Cecil Taylor's Jazz Advance, though, it ought to be clear that, metaphorically accurate or not, avant-gardists don't ride ahead of the main-stream legions; the two help keep each other honest.

One reason Gayle has made a convert of just about everyone who has heard him is that his technical skill is unassailable, if profoundly autodidactic. After a bass clarinet solo at the Knitting Factory, someone shouted, "How did you learn to play the bass clarinet so well?" His impulsive response was not without wit: "I didn't learn to play it," he said without hesitation. But his considered response was much funnier: "At the Berklee School of Music." Gayle did study, of course. His well-regarded but difficult to find FMP album (with Rashied Ali and William Parker) is tellingly entitled Touchin' on Trane. And if he eschews Ayler's rhapsodic variations, he shows a kindred pleasure in developing guileless variations of nursery-rhyme simplicity in "Justified," on his current album Consecration (Black Saint). The brilliantly protracted "Sanctification," on the stunning double- CD, More Live (Knitting Factory Works), is a kind of essay on the blues without being a blues -- Gayle frames his notes over bowed bass with extraordinary deliberation and force.

The last two pieces, challenging as they are, could serve as relatively accessible points of entry in engaging Gayle. But no trepidations should keep anyone away from the frontier's other phenomena] tenor, David S. Ware. A decade younger, Ware has had a considerably more decorous career. For one thing, he really did attend Berklee. From the moment he appeared with Cecil Taylor at the 1974 Carnegie Hall orchestra concert, his standing was inseparable from the burnished texture of his sound -- splintered multi-phonics and reverberant echoes. The weight of his tone contributed immeasurably to the drama of Taylor's 1976 Dark to Themselves, but he was far more persuasive as a soloist in his work two years later with Andrew Cyrille's Maono, on pieces as varied as Kurt Weihl's "My Ship" (Meta- musicians' Stomp) and Ornette Coleman's "A Girl Named Rainbow " (Special People).

Then a decade went by and Ware reappeared with one of the finest quartets in a generation, heightened by his collaboration with the ingenious young pianist, Matthew Shipp.

Ware's quartet -- with bassist William Parker and drummer Whit Dickey -- is a marvel of interaction, and most marvelous of all is Shipp's ability to anticipate and respond to every textural and thematic gambit Ware throws at him. Though not the shock-tenor abstractionist Gayle is, Ware can radiate a rare confidence when completely unmoored from set harmonies -- it would be something to hear them play together. But Ware also nurtures an affection for standards and has the ability to do something genuinely new with them. On his DIW albums, Flight of i and Third Ear Recitation, he cracks open four chestnuts and a Sonny Rollins riff as though they'd been written expressly for his group. The latter album has two versions of "Autumn Leaves," different from each other and from a third version he played recently at the Knitting Factory, in which he worried the key melodic phrase in an endless series of configurations, dismissing the harmonic runway altogether. The first recorded version opens with Shipp intoning the melody as though he were Roger Williams pitching a collection of piano favorites in a cable TV ad, except that all the while he's playing the tune, Ware is fulminating at it and the changes, blowing free and yet touching down on the harmonies often enough to make it a true variation.

For all his explosiveness, Ware is ultimately a warm player; even at his most turbulent, that warmth is palpable in his darkly capacious sound and the generous spirit of his energy. He can be extraordinarily evocative, as in his recordings of "Sad Eyes" and Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," the latter a dizzying shakedown of the harmonies. He's playing the changes, but he's not playing linear melody; he replaces conventional note patterns with cries and tremolos. It's an ear-opener: the cries seem literally to flee from the tune, as through it were a prison. He makes you feel the harmonic constraints and, at the same time, he allows you to enjoy their ingenuity. In, a way, the performance recalls John Coltrane knocking the blues off their hinges in "Chasin' the Trane," but Coltrane's later distillations of standards ("Out of This World," "My Favorite Things") usually abandoned the forms of the originals. Ware holds onto them. "Sad Eyes" and "Yesterdays" are two of six startling selections on Flight of i, which Columbia imported as part of a cherry-picking deal with DIW. The company's inexplicable failure to pick up Ware's subsequent and superior Third Ear Recitation may well stall a career that deserves to accelerate.

Shipp, who is blessed with originality and technical skill as well as wit and lightning reflexes, shares Ware's capacity to follow Pound's dictum and make it new. If you think there's nothing to be done with Monk but play his tunes, listen to parts two and four of Shipp's 199b Circular Temple (infinite Zero), in which he adduces his own Monkian theme with percussive certainty, and suggests by example the lineage between the High Priest's austerity and Cecilian copiousness, while maintaining thematic continuity. Shipp considers the album a "prelude" to Third Ear Recitation. His more recent duets with the gifted and ubiquitous William Parker, Zo (Rise), form a suite, with a somber reharmonized "Summertime" as the second of four movements, and Shipp's hammering single notes and consequent chords in part three serving as a deft example of how fastidiously he controls his materials while charting his own course. Shipp's comfort with the avant-garde lineage allows him, no less than Gayle and Ware, to dispense with the intrusive issues of jazz authenticity; he helps keep the new music new, even if it's older than he is.

< back^ home ^

all contents © 2000-2013 Matthew Shipp