Alyn Shipton, in his recent book A New History of Jazz, puts forth John Coltrane's Ascension as the first major exposure for many mid-'60's "newer New Thing" horn players. All but one of the six frontline musicians under Coltrane would go on to have successful careers as leaders, established before the recording of Ascension but firmly cemented thereafter.
Thirty-six years after this monumental recording, where can these six be found today? Freddie Hubbard, suffering from a debilitating lip condition, plays infrequently and, sadly, unconvincingly. Marion Brown has been ill for a long time and no longer performs. Archie Shepp, fancying himself a pianist and singer, is a shell of his former self. Pharoah Sanders' performances are haphazard. Dewey Johnson has nor been heard from since the mid-'60's.
Has John Tchicai, the one non-American of the group, suffered a similar downturn in either circumstance or chops? His first appearance to New York in three years shows no trace that he has lost anything, in technique or vision, from the avant-garde heyday of the mid- to late-'60's.
Mr. Tchicai (dressed more for the links than for a performance) was featured in a quartet with fellow individualists Barry Altschul (supposedly their first encounter since the early '80's), and Paul Smoker. The group was Adam Lane's, a relatively young upright player, whose similarity to John Pattitucci in looks, style and mannerisms is uncanny. He can be counted to be very fortunate to have the opportunity, not just to play with these three veterans but also to place his compositions in their very capable hands. The well-attended sets turned the basement Old Office of the Knitting Factory in a contented steam bath.
The evening's performance was made up exclusively of Lane's works. He, as a composer, evokes the days when jazz was exploring new tonalities and textures while not wholly abandoning melody and structure. All his pieces have a plaintive air, heavy on the use of whole notes while utilizing irregular intervals. If you do not like his style, he can be faulted for writing material that all sounds similar. Perhaps in the hands of the lesser musicians, the compositions would not be effective but this was certainly not the case here.
Each set began with the piece "Free". After the wistful head, Tchicai played an extended solo that was remarkable for its unpredictability. His lines are sharp and angular, never resolving comfortably. His tone is so rich and firm, it seems to be too big for him or his instrument. Propelled forward by Altschul's frenetic drum work, Tchicai seemed to be struggling with music that was coming out almost too fast-an engaging instance of a musician seemingly controlled by the music rather than controlling it. Smoker's solo followed, calling to mind Kenny Wheeler's sound but with much more aggression. Suffice to say, Lane has his hands full the entire night trying to keep up with these three.
"New Piece in G" came second in both sets, anchored firmly by a pedal point from Lane in - you guessed it - G! Breaking away from discrete solos, Tchicai and Smoker played feverishly over each other, the trumpet blasting quick staccato notes, while the saxophone used contrapuntal long tones. As the solo section progressed, Tchicai began to speed up to create a maelstrom of notes with Smoker. Very few drummers could keep time and still play free without the music falling flat. Luckily, Altschul has many years of experience in doing just that.
The highlight of the second set was a duet between Lane and Tchicai on bass clarinet. Lane's sorrowful writing style was well suited to the textural mix of these two instruments. The bass lines were quite busy while Tchicai used the bass clarinet to its full wailing potential. The music seemed appropriate for a dark forest early in the foggy morning. This was a ballad in terms of emotional content rather than leisurely pace. The set closed with "7/4" (all titles presumably made up on the spot). This piece gave Tchicai and Smoker another opportunity to solo in tandem. Smoker used his plunger mute to great effect while Tchicai wailed until he looked as if he was going to burst. Barry Altschul seems to only have two ways of playing: intense and more intense. He never let up for the almost two hour performance. Lane's strength is his exquisite ability to create palpable tension with the rest of the instruments. Coupled with the unpredictability of his band mates, the music never lapsed into banality.
It is invigorating to hear someone still firmly in control of their instrument, years past their supposed prime. Tchicai, probably one of the least known of the Ascension participants, is the only one in whom the spirit of that album and that period is still vibrant.