"With jazz," Ralph Ellison once said, "we are not yet in the age of history, but linger in that of folklore." Forty years later, that seems to be both jazz's blessing and its curse. It allows us the space to believe in a certain kind of magic, marveling at musicians' Olympian prowess and gravity-defying improvisations, but it also romanticizes the jazz mystique of excess, poverty and madness--ghettoizing it into a cartoonlike version of the Beat aesthetic. For evidence of this, look no further than 62-year-old saxophonist Charles Gayle, one of the most compelling figures to ever step off the pages of jazz mythology.

During the 1960s Gayle was adrift in and around the fuse-lighting of that era's fire music. During the '70s and most of the '80s, he was homeless. And, in the end, Gayle's strange trajectory landed him front and center in the late '80s with a who's who of '60s/Loft-era jazz survivors, including Sunny Murray, Cecil Taylor, Wilber Morris, Sirone, William Parker, Rashied Ali, John Tchicai and others. If you're looking for street-level grit to lend credibility to your voyeuristic expectations of the jazz life and its outlaw image, Gayle's your man.

Live, he's caustic, comedic, poetic and raucous, with a taste for Pentecostal performance art (sometimes hectoring audiences with scripture-soaked vitriol in the guise of the white-faced, red-nosed "Streets the Clown"). With his battery-acid sax tone, he worries notes with the tenacity and fervor of a Bible-thumping snake-handler.

A cult artist for more than a decade now--in part thanks to the support of indie-rock entrepreneurs like Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore--Gayle's one of the few bridges we have left to the wrenching immediacy of 1960s free-jazz pioneers like Rev. Frank Wright and Albert Ayler. Absolutely captivating in both his stamina and spectral dynamics, Gayle's a visionary improviser and (whether you like his asphalt oracle shtick or not) a blustery, sound-and-fury entertainer of the highest order. Whether playing tenor or sax or bass clarinet, Gayle relentlessly assaults lines with a convulsive beauty that could shred Core-Ten steel, revealing a halting wail somewhere between love and pain. He gives new life to the Beats' Blakean credo, "Energy is pure delight."

Lately, Gayle's revealed a bit of tenderness (recording a piano album chock-full of premodern, cubist-stride versions of standards), but behind the horn Gayle's anything but demure with his trademark sterno-fueled, fire-breathing rants and flights of frenzy. So if you're looking for a transportive, hellhound-on-my-trail fire-music experience to begin your 2004, then this is your best bet.

Charles Gayle plays with Michael Bisio & D'Vonne Lewis Saturday, Jan. 10, at Million, 116 NE Russell St., 913-6884. 8 pm. $10 advance at Ozone Records and Jackpot Records, $12 door. All ages.