It will come as a surprise to many that Charles Gayle, decorated soldier of free-jazz street warfare, is also a pianist.
On his primary instrument of tenor saxophone, Gayle is like musical chemotherapy: cleansing, perhaps even healing, but toxic. His piano work, however, will not make your hair fall out. Unexpectedly infused with premodern devices from stride, blues and swing, it contains moments of coherence and even fractured lyricism.
Not that Gayle is going to get supper-club piano gigs any time soon. On piano he is mostly a curiosity, creating seven- to eight-minute amoebalike shapes that evolve according to their own rules. Motifs appear and are submerged in convulsive fidgeting runs and crashing chords, or they morph into eight bars of boogie-woogie, which is then broken up or abandoned. There are no connecting threads, but rather jumps to new mental tracks as synapses fire.
But the last two pieces, “Inner Edges” and “That Memory,” build something like statements. They are Monklike (a Monk gone over the edge) in the halting and grasping and selfless nature of their searches. They reveal that Gayle’s piano can, like his tenor saxophone, reach dark elusive truths that escape more “rational” creative processes.