John Tchicai at Cafe Oto in London
August 24, 2009
Having played with John Coltrane on his groundbreaking Ascension (Impulse, 1965), it was no surprise that Danish reedman John Tchicai attracted a large crowd on one of his infrequent London appearances at Dalston's Cafe Oto.
What was more of a surprise was the predominantly young audience, none of whom would have been born when Tchicai first made waves in New York City. Not only were there several musicians in the audience, but also the great writer and photographer Val Wilmer (whose seminal book As Serious As Your Life (Da Capo, 1977) is essential reading for anyone interested in free jazz).
Once described in Downbeat as the "calm member of the avant-garde," Tchicai nonetheless featured in many of the seminal groupings of the time, playing with the likes of Albert Aylerand Archie Shepp, and co- founding the New York Art Quartet and New York Contemporary Five. After a prolonged period in California, Tchicai has since moved back to Europe and is now residing in France, from where he maintains extensive collaborations with both European and American musicians. The reedman has over 50 dates as leader on his resume as well as illustrious sideman gigs with Cecil Taylor, John Lennon, Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath and Johnny Dyani.
Joining him tonight was the rhythm team of Tony Marsh on drums and John Edwards on bass, last seen just a stones throw away at the Vortex with reedman Evan Parker. But this was no mere pickup band, as Tchicai later alluded; he had recently toured Poland with Marsh, and was due in Frankfurt the next month with Edwards in a tribute to the late South African bassist Johnny Dyani.
Tchicai first became acquainted with the pair as part of the band assembled for his reappearance in Britain after a 30 year hiatus back in 2005, at the invitation of the Spring Heel Jackduo of John Coxon and Ashley Wales. Though Tchicai perhaps didn't share the near telepathic understanding Parker enjoyed with his confreres, they dug in for a thoroughly convincing display of freeform jazz spanning over 80-minutes spread between two sets.
There was no break between Tchicai's warm up on tenor saxophone and the start of the set. Working through the registers of his horn, he strolled from the rear of the performance area to the front center of the sparsely lit stage without a pause. Both sets stemmed from repeated phrases which could have been preconceived, but were sufficiently uncomplicated to have been invented on the spot. From these lowly origins evolved a universe of group invention.
When he paused, Marsh and Edwards leapt in tandem into the void, soon to be rejoined by the saxophonist. Towering above the rhythm team with his eyes clenched shut, Tchicai essayed a rich full-toned probing middle register stream. Into this he interpolated occasional strangulated shrieks, over a latticework of booming bass and fragmenting beats, played by Marsh with one stick and one brush.
Tchicai's modus operandi was to build his solos with short statements. By repeating and gradually evolving his lines, almost like a real time minimalist composer, Tchicai lent structure to the free-blowing setting. This penchant for obsessive repetition proved a great opportunity for Marsh and Edwards to lock into repeated rhythms, with the bassist strumming at hyper speed and Marsh accentuating the squawking climax of each proclamation with his tumbling yet incisive drumming.
At his most animated, Tchicai's blowing took on an almost sanctified air, with the reedman swaying from side to side, bending from the hips. When all three locked in synch, they created an almost visceral power trio kick, drawing excited whoops from the captivated audience.
After one molten passage, Tchicai paused to pick up sheets of paper which proved to be not music but poetry. In fact, in both sets he offered respite from the intensity by leavening the weighty fare with wood flutes and scatting, as well as poetry, over ongoing rhythmic interplay. On commencing his recitation, Tchicai discovered the mic had an intermittent fault prompting him, unphased, to incorporate calls for the soundman into his recitation.
As poetry morphed into scat, Marsh and Edwards seamlessly upped the complexity of their dialogue, before Tchicai switched to wood flute. Though not overtly African, the groove nonetheless exerted a trance-like ritual feel in a gently unceasing elemental cascade.
Tchicai rightly allowed plenty of space for bass and drums, provoking some wonderfully responsive duo interplay. At one point, Edwards launched into a percussive duet by way of his trademark alternation of energetic strums and slaps on the body of his bass in a jagged rhythm. Later, Marsh reflected Edwards' emphatic arco swipes after split seconds by detonating bass drum bombs. Even when Tchicai was involved, the nature of his cyclical language sometimes meant that the movement and complexity lay in the dense interweaving thickets of bass and drums.
Both men were equally switched on to Tchicai as much as each other, frequently taking their lead from the saxophonist, such as when Edwards' walking bass proffered buoyant support for a passage of bluesy outpouring. Later, the bassist conjured eldritch shrieks with his bow to provide appropriately atmospheric accompaniment to Tchicai's recitation.
In other examples of their interplay, after one explosive bass solo, Marsh waited poised until ready to pick up the thread by tolling on his cymbal edges alongside Tchicai's coolly breathily lyrical balm. Even in full flow neat simpatico touches abounded as when Tchicai's vibrato-full trills were echoed by Marsh on cymbals and briefly by Edwards rapid fire strumming.
Edwards has become one of the premier bassists on the scene, always in demand, full of energy and physicality, as exemplified by how he would pull the strings almost completely off the fingerboard to achieve the requisite bending of his notes. In his solos, the bassist cherry-picked Tchicai's motifs, taking them as the basis for endless mutation, stretching and speeding up the phrases until they blurred into a droning buzz.
Marsh celebrated his 70th birthday at Cafe Oto the previous week, but showed no sign of slowing down, with a whirlwind solo, beautifully constructed, in the first set. He was always seeking ways to vary the timbre of his kit, at one point placing a towel on his snare to dampen the pitch, then prosaically using it to wipe his face, before replacing it. Later, his search for the unconventional saw him striking the bass drum with mallets while modulating the tone of his snare with his elbow, then using one stick to muffle the vibration of the drum head as he struck it with the other.
Tumultuous, prolonged applause greeted the end of each set with the audience enthusiastically buying into the rapport of the group, apparent not only in their impassioned playing but in Tchicai's playful introductions. At the finish with nowhere to which to retreat, they rewarded the crowd with a short encore, summing up the set in miniature, starting at a fiery pace, only to slow to a movingly funereal elegy before a breathy conclusion.