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Greatness that's hard to find
Charles Gayle's trio recorded one of the best CDs of 2006. So where is it?
Six seconds of drum roll, a saxophone's shriek, a fast-thumping bass, and the trio is off. Charles Gayle is blowing mad phrases out of his little white alto saxophone, Gerald Benson is walking up and down the neck of his bass, and Michael Wimberly is letting loose on his kit at breakneck speed. Someone is moaning along with the notes. There's just the hint of melody, but the music invigorates and lifts the soul. This is "Cherokee" like you've never heard it – 5 minutes and 47 seconds of tension, anguish, and adrenaline.
Before the hour is up, the trio will have turned the lovely standard "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" into 14 minutes of free jazz, ruminated beautifully on the old standby "What's New," conjured a hurricane out of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," brought out a few of Gayle's own fire-and-brimstone compositions, and ended it all with Albert Ayler's "Ghosts," as if to remind us who the group's forebears are.
"It was cold that night," Gayle recalls in a phone interview
from his home in New York. "People came in early to eat dinner. I
thought, 'Maybe these people are here to eat dinner and they'll leave.'
But nobody left. I had my special white saxophone, and I took it out,
and it was magic. There was something in the air that night. The people,
they were enthusiastic before we even got into it. We played whatever
we played, and they just went crazy."
The date was Feb. 12, 2006. The place was a tiny jazz club in Stockholm. The concert was recorded, and the result is the Charles Gayle Trio's "Live at Glenn Miller Café," released last June on the Swedish label Ayler Records. It may have been the best jazz record of 2006, and most of us missed it. Finding it is nearly impossible. Good luck searching Borders or Amazon.com.
Gayle, 68, has been a significant figure in jazz only since the late 1980s. His music is fiery and wholly improvisation based, the stark cries of his sax invoke Ayler and Coltrane, and his message can be overtly religious. He mostly performs his own works – songs with titles like "O Father," "Repent," and "Jesus Christ and Scripture" – and he's been known to go on 45-minute improvisations. He's been homeless at times, and he occasionally performs in grease paint, under the name Streets the Clown. His tenor sax has been recorded prolifically, but he recently switched to a softer alto, and he is also an interesting pianist. His 1991 album, "Touchin' on Trane," is considered an essential document of free jazz.
Yet most people – even many jazz fans – have never heard of
him. His style of music can be an acquired taste, harsh on the ears. He's
not heard on jazz radio, and he's recorded only for out-of-the-mainstream
labels such as FMP, Black Saint, Silkheart, and Knitting Factory Works.
Few stores stock such labels, and even many of the bigger Web-based outlets
fail to carry them, so aficionados are left to scour obscure jazz websites
and online auctions.
To understand why it is all but impossible to get your hands on what may be the best jazz record of last year, it helps to know a little about the economics behind such CDs. And the economics are this simple: A disc like Gayle's would sell maybe a copy or two in any given city. So why in the world would a record store – especially a chain like Barnes & Noble or FYE – bother to carry it?
"The chain stores basically are pushing numbers. They're run by computers that tell them what to order and how many to buy," says Bob Rusch , CEO of North Country Distributors, which handles 1,300 independent labels, including Ayler Records and the "Live at Glenn Miller Café" disc. "We're basically a distributor that specializes in unpopular music that most stores will not handle. There is a market out there, but it's diffuse."
Jan Ström , the head of Ayler Records, said he presses anywhere from 100 to 3,000 copies of each album he produces. The trick is getting them to stores where they might sell – places like Downtown Music Gallery in New York, whose Web store is a haven for fans of outsider jazz.
"Every year I go around to the record shops in what they call the home of jazz – New York – and I have great difficulty finding any of my CDs there," Ström says. "You have all these young people who become purchasing managers, and they hardly know who John Coltrane is, so how can you expect them to buy one of your CDs by Henry Grimes or Charles Gayle?"
This may sound discouraging, but some people think the jazz business is
ahead of pop and rock in this regard. Digital downloading is rocking the
industry, and music blogs are giving wide exposure to indie bands and
labels. It could be a return to the past, when all labels were independents
trying to make a small profit selling a few records.
"The ability to make a couple of million dollars off of a single recording artist is long gone," says Phil Freeman , author of the free-jazz guide "New York Is Now." "Big record companies have to learn to adjust their expectations. The indie labels came into the marketplace with their expectations already adjusted." A label like Ayler Records knows it's going to sell only 1,000 copies of a particular CD, so it makes only 1,000 copies.
None of this does anything to help a gifted musician like Gayle, whose music – especially his stunning recording from the Glenn Miller Café – deserves a wider audience. But he gets it. He understands that the music he has chosen to make will never make him wealthy, and he sympathizes with the people who put out his records. The small labels put all their money into recording and producing a CD, he points out, leaving nothing for advertising and marketing.
It is almost as though they assume the people who enjoy this music will seek it out and find it. For Gayle, that seems to be reward enough. "I'm amazed people even listen to me," he says.
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