Charlie Kohlhase: The Cranky Yankee
State, New Hampshire. Party affiliation, communist. Obsession, Woody Herman's 1963 Herd. No, it's not Boston-based saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase. It's the Cranky Yankee, a character he's been known to slip into while on the road. "He would go on and on about this 1963 Herd and the brilliance of Jake Hanna at the drums, said Either/Orchestra founder Russ Gershon who Kohlhase played with for 14 years. "He's an absolutely hilarious guy.
A knowledge of jazz inspires these road worthy entertainments. As the host of Research and Development, a Monday afternoon radio show on WMBR 88.1, Kohlhase has a comprehensive catalog in his corral, music that entered his consciousness as a teenager in Portsmouth, New Hampshire hanging out with older kids. "They were into John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ornette Coleman, he innocently explained.
Hearing Eric Dolphy on a Mingus Quartet album prompted Kohlhase to begin lessons with local saxophonist Charlie Jennison. Studies with Stan Strickland followed and one day in 1979 he spotted an advertisement in a local music paper. "I think it went something like 'Increase your ear power, study with Roswell Rudd!' So he tried it and, to this day, bits of wisdom from that handful of lessons in Maine continue to surface. "Beginners tend to play a lot of notes and scales when they're improvising. One great thing that he said to me was 'you know sometimes you can just play one note for a while' and that's something I do quite a bit now. You can get so much out of just hanging on one note and varying the rhythm. It opens up a lot of stuff. It's a philosophy Kohlhase, who moved "50 miles down the turnpike to Boston in 1980, has carried over to his writing. "The music he writes is really open for experimentation, said saxophonist Matt Langley, who has played with Kohlhase for nearly 30 years. "There's always a lot of stuff in there for you to grab for ideas.
Guitarist and band mate Eric Hofbauer agreed. "Everybody gets a chance to really have their own input as far as their playing personality. There's a lot of freedom for your own expression, he said.
Both Langley and Hofbauer play in The Explorer's Club, a septet with two drum sets Kohlhase formed after his quintet CK5 disbanded a few years ago. He seems to enjoy employing unusual amounts of the same instrument. His other active band, the Saxophone Support Group, is made up of seven saxophonists who rehearse in his Malden apartment, surrounded by his extraordinary record collection. "I wanted to revisit some of the saxophone quartet music I wrote 20 years ago and it became clear to me that there are so many fine saxophonists around that we could make it bigger than a quartet, he explained.
Through the '90s the Charlie Kohlhase Quintet released a string of albums including Eventuality (Nada Music, 2000) with Roswell Rudd and a live album Play Free Or Die (Boxholder, 2001). The group hasn't gotten together in two years but Kohlhase stays busy. At the Longy School of Music he runs the Modern American Music Program's jazz ensemble and teaches a composition class, in addition to working twice a week at the infamous record store Stereo Jack's. He has played with Anthony Braxton twice since 2003 - once in the Genome Project, "a large ensemble thing with 55 musicians in a hockey arena, and once at Wesleyan University in honor of Braxton's 60th birthday. "It was just amazing because he has this great way of combining fairly tightly orchestrated music and then having open areas that can be more aleatoric. In a way he's really trying to unite the, what did he say, the 'post-Webern and the post-Ayler paradigms'.
Kohlhase calls composition and improvisation the yin and yang of music. "You compose stuff to set up suggestions for these directions in which you can improvise. Sometimes I'll be just working on my horn and I'll get into an area improvisationally that will suggest something and I'll say 'how can I set this up with a composition?' To me, in a way you can be freer with compositional guidelines than if you were just freely improvising.
Words of wisdom from someone who has gotten himself into quite a tangle at jam sessions in the past, including one memorable night at Charlie's Tap in Cambridge that led to a 14-year run with the Either/Orchestra. "It got kind of wild, Gershon recalled. "At a certain point we were playing into each others bells, we had our horns interlocked. It was 'ok I think we have a vibe going here.' The group's baritone saxophonist was leaving, so Kohlhase got the job. One of his favorite moments with the band occurred in 1992 in Davis, Calif., when John Tchicai sat in. "He really had a thoughtfulness to his improvising and this subtle organization that really affected my thinking, he said. After that Tchicai formed a trio with Kohlhase and guitarist Garrison Fewell, appearing this month at Cornelia Street Café.