Good Night Songs is an intimate live recording of three masterful improvisers in a relaxed, contemplative mood. Serene yet challenging, this double album is the culmination of lives spent under the radar exploring free jazz as imperative expression.
Saxophonists John Tchicai and Charlie Kohlhase and guitarist Garrison Fewell converged on a late December evening in 2003 at the Unitarian Meetinghouse in Amherst, Massachusetts for the concert documented here. Within the setting of the church, the trio embarked on a program of restrained, but spiritually uplifting free jazz. Although each member of the trio has equal time, the indefatigable John Tchicai commands the most attention.
An icon of the early free jazz movement, Tchicai has recorded and toured with such luminaries as John Coltrane, Don Cherry and Albert Ayler. Like Sam Rivers, the passage of time seems to have had little effect on Tchicai's conceptual outlook or technical abilities. Enjoying a slight resurgence in popularity, Tchicai has recently been the focus of a number of different recording sessions, in configurations ranging from trio and quintet to string ensemble. This rhythm section-less trio is the most unique such lineup so far.
Fewell plays a supporting role, with the paired saxophonists weaving fractured counterpoint around him, more often than he leads. Whether playing delicate arpeggios or strumming transposed bass lines, Fewell is the harmonic and rhythmic center around which Tchicai and Kohlhase orbit. He steps out occasionally, spining a delicate, quietly lyrical solo on "Undercurrent," in contrast to the jagged, needle-like shards he expels on "Consolation Cake."
For the saxophonists, youthful brio has been replaced with maturity. Tchicai and Kohlhase can still bleat and cry, as they do on the spastic "Consolation Cake," which spotlights Tchicai's caterwauling bass clarinet and Kohlhase's multiphonic blaring alto. But their statements are more regal now; unbridled energy has been forged into knowing, abstract lyricism.
Most impressive are the rich unison passages Kohlhase and Tchicai weave on the modal drone of "The Queen of Ra" and the regal majesty of the Coleman-esque "Undercurrent." A sense of irreverent playfulness crops up on the jaunty angularity of "Thriftshopping" and "Start to Finish," which features an especially visceral baritone solo from Kohlhase. Tchicai sings wordless, primitive vocalese on "Ramana Maharashi" and "Lilanto Del Indio" for an intriguing effect.
A simmering intensity underlies these proceedings, coming to the surface just often enough to surprise. A sublime meeting, Good Night Songs lives up to its title, proving integrity needn't be sacrified for the cost of restraint.
Personnel: John Tchicai: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, voice, percussion; Charlie Kohlhase: alto, tenor and baritone saxophones; Garrison Fewell: guitar, chopsticks, slide, percussion.