A minor classic so unknown that, until this 2008 reissue, it wasn't even listed at All Music Guide, Danish-born of Congolese-descent saxophonist John Tchicai's 1969 MPS release Afrodisiaca is a sprawling, multi-disciplinary work that rivals better known works like John Coltrane's Ascension (Impulse!, 1965). No less a personal journey, Afrodisiaca stands, nearly forty years later, as a masterpiece that blends Afro-rhythms and harmonic conceits with improvisation of the freest kind, near-classical microtonalism and innovative sonic experimentation. Its reach as an underground classic is so broad that it's even considered by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore to be "beautiful, baby, BEAUTIFUL!"
With a core 18-piece, reed-heavy ensemble also featuring trumpeter Hugh Steinmetz, guitarist Pierre Doerge and Willy Jagert playing the tuba/euphonium precursor, the ophicleide, what was originally the second side of this release features three pieces by Tchicai alongside Tin Pan Alley composer Harry Akst's "This is Heaven," given the Salvation Army marching band treatment by Tchicai.
Those already familiar with Tchicai will find the brief melody that leads into totally liberated territory on "Heavenly Love on a Planet" to be completely in context with his later recordings, his solo filled with extended techniques including multiphonics and harsh, guttural textures. But the lyrical interlude that draws one solo to a close and introduces the next links the song's greater extremes with its title. Tchicai's oblique but beautiful soprano intro to "Fodringsmontage" sets the stage for collective free play that, despite everyone's involvement, is dominated by Doerge and Steinmetz. And, like Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1961), its apparent anarchy is belied by the emergence of clearly arranged/cued figures that provide a clear rallying point.
But it's Steinmetz's sprawling, 22-minute title track that elevates Afrodisiaca to the position of masterpiece. Based around the scale of the African marimba-like balafon, it opens with two organs briefly playing the entire, dense, 19-note scale, resembling Gyõrgy Ligeti's microtonal intro to "Atmospheres" (1961), before Steinmetz enters with a solo trumpet of painful beauty that gradually expands with both the addition of trumpeter Theo Rahbek echoing him from 30 feet away and the resonant sympathetic strings of the piano as Steinmetz blows into them.
But that's only the beginning. The piece moves through a number of movements that include rich, vertical horn harmonies over Musoni's balafon and a propulsive, percussion-driven rhythm; a segment for four flutes that, again, utilizes the sympathetic strings of a piano to create an even lusher soundscape as a backdrop for Tchicai's moaning alto; and a bass solo from Steffen Andersen that, surrounded by horns emulating the wind, leads into a more full-fledged blow-out by all around a pulsating tribal rhythm.
It's a sonic and rhythmic tour-de-force that has to be heard to be believed. Tchicai's lengthy discography and association with other bastions of cross-cultural free jazz like Don Cherry, Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd have already ensured him a place in jazz history. Afrodisiaca cements it and, thanks to Promising Music's MPS reissue program, is finally available for everyone to hear.
Track Listing: Afrodisiaca; Heavenly Love on a Planet; Fodringsmontage; This is Heaven; Lakshmi.
Personnel: John Tchicai: alto and soprano saxophones, leader (2-5); Hugh Steinmetz: trumpet, leader (1); Willem Breuker: tenor saxophone (1, 4), bass clarinet (2); Pierre Doerge: guitar; Max Brúel: baritone saxophone (1); Theo Rahbek: trumpet, iron claves (2); Mauritz Tchicai: trombone, sousaphone, waterpipe (2); Joergen Thorup: clarinet; Michael Schou: alto saxophone, flute; Kim Menzer: trombone (1), flute (1); Willy Jagert: ophicleide; Bent Hesselman: flute (1); Sune Weimar: alto saxophone; Christian Kyhl: alto and soprano saxophones, triangle (2); Mogens Bollerup: tenor saxophone, petrol can (2); Niels Harrit: tenor saxophone (1), flute (1), saw (1); Ole Kühl: tenor and soprano saxophones; Ole Matthissen: organ, cymbal (2); Ole Thilo: organ, tankcap (2); Steffen Andersen: bass (1); Claus Boeje: drums; Jon Finsen: drums, glockenspiel (2); Anthony Barnett: percussion, tabla (4); Giorgio Musoni: balafon (1), africodrums (1), gong (1); Simon Kopel: tympani (1); J.C. Moses: cowbell (1), bongos (1), percussion (1).