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Charles Gayle: Always Reaching

By Published: May 2, 2006

AAJ: On each of the tracks on Time Zones you embody the whole history of jazz from James P. Johnson, to the blues. You take it out, you bring it back.

CG: I don't want to sound like I'm copying everybody. Maybe I need a little more time to make it totally personal. I like that. There's a way of playing. I know I could use a style that wouldn't relate to any of that and it would sound so completely personal and hopefully original, but that doesn't mean it's going to be good.

AAJ: Yours is a very original sound.

CG: I love that kind of music, and that's what I want to do. It's blended, but I love the blues, stride, speed, no speed, dissonances, all of that. I'm trying to churn it around, make a music out of it myself. I'm going to continue to do it the best I can because I love that kind of music. I really do. It just swings for a second, then it walks. I can't get away from it, and I'm not going to try. So that's it.

AAJ: You've played recently with Henry Grimes and Sirone. Any thoughts on those two giants?

CG: Great, great, great, great players. They're completely different. Sirone is living in the wrong country. He needs to be in America. Sirone muscles the bass. He's probably the strongest bassist, besides William Parker, in the world. I don't mean he's trying to just exhibit strength, but he has that and plays it like it's a toy. But he stays in physical shape to do that. He really attacks the bass. He's not about just hanging. Grimes plays it more than attacks it. And they both can go anywhere, anytime.

AAJ: And William Parker?

CG: He's different than both of them. He's busy. He's great. He's strong. His mind is working completely all the time. Grimes can be a little more laid back, even Sirone, but William is absolute forward motion. He can wear you out, too. If you play with William and just go for it, you have to be very strong to play with him. I mean that. If he's going to push you and you're going to push him, you've got to be physically strong to do that. It's a good thing to have fun and challenge each other too. Like a jam session, to go at each other while you're playing and then that brings out some other music. Sometimes people do it and sometimes they don't. That's their prerogative.

I like to do that sometimes, but that's from the old school, to just take a person on and say let's go for it then. I was playing one time with Sirone—we were playing over in Europe. It was just a duo. People were making noise. He started playing something and it was forceful, and everybody shut up. He was so strong with what he was doing, he made everyone be quiet. A lot of times you do that when you're playing soft, but he just went through the crowd because he wanted them to be quiet. He didn't say anything. He just played them quiet. And I said, whoa, that's all right. I'll always remember that.

AAJ: With your playing, it's like you have 10 ideas going.

CG: Sometimes I have to watch that. I don't know if it's too much or too little. Sometimes when you sit home and you do things, and you get ready to do it, and you say I've got everything under control and you don't. I don't know if I have anymore thoughts than anyone else. That's for other people to decide. I'm trying to do something, and it's a lot. It doesn't have to be busy, but it's always a lot. I want technique that you can't even question—technique being fast, not just style. Clear and clean, even be slow and be clean, but I absolutely want all that movement and thoughts and try to put it all together.

It's hard, and I don't know if it works or not. I just go with it. It works better for me than to not go with it. I want to take chances and not have everything down because sometimes I play blindfolded. At some point in the set, I put a mask over my eyes, and then put an exotic mask on so people can look at something. Then I can't see anything. It's hard to judge the keyboard at all. It's not a gimmick. It's to create another music. It pushes me. It would push anyone. You're just blind. You don't know what you're going to do. You don't know where your fingers are going to land, and so therefore, you have to create something out of that. Now, if a person is normally blind, they develop a style in certain parameters where they know where the piano is. You can play the blues without seeing it because the piano has patterns. Once you go past the first eight notes, the second eight notes are the same. That's a feel process. But this way, playing free, it develops another music. I don't know if it's good or bad, but I'm going to do it just to change up now and then. So who knows, if it's not interesting, I won't do it.

AAJ: You've always been highly independent. Any idea where that comes from?

CG: If I have to give credit to anyone, it's my parents. They were independent thinkers. Maybe everybody is, but I know them best of course. They spoke their mind in a very peaceful way, not afraid. They told me to think for myself. I don't do this to be independent; I just don't see how you could not be. It's just natural for me to be the way I am. It's not for show. The clown, the mask, the drums—it's just like drinking water to me. I put on a clown nose because I thought that this will strip you of your ego. I didn't do it to look funny. It's just me.

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