Look Up documents the period in Charles Gayle’s life when he first began to receive greater recognition. After years of living and playing on the streets of New York City, the tenor saxophonist began appearing regularly in nightclubs and in 1994 embarked on his first-ever tour of the West Coast, from which this Santa Monica performance comes. The sound is less than spectacular, favoring Michael Wimberly’s drums (and especially cymbals). Michael Bisio’s bass can be felt but not really heard, except when he plays unaccompanied—and even then, the volume needs to be cranked. Yet pieces from the ESP back catalog serve as a reminder that musical conviction trumps low fidelity any day.
Gayle plays with conviction to spare. Although it’s essentially a 71-minute continuous piece, Look Up is banded into five tracks with clear musical demarcations. “Alpha” begins with a howl and a crash; later, Gayle demonstrates how his years of woodshedding have enabled him to develop serious and lengthy thoughts in the altissimo register. “Homage to Albert Ayler” and “I Remember Dolphy” evoke their namesakes with wide tenor vibrato and some bass clarinet blowing, respectively. The real powder keg arrives in “In the Name of the Father,” where Gayle speaks rabidly about his religious convictions and connects them to the music of Ayler, Dolphy and John Coltrane. Though this sort of verbal testimony became more prominent in his performances in the ensuing years, it comes out of left field here and sounds frightening at times, especially when Gayle is essentially preaching against homosexuality and abortion. Reactionary sentiments aside, this disc is inspired.