John Tchicai: Two New Trios

Eyal Hareuveni By

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The Danish-American saxophonist John Tchicai, now resident in France, should need no introduction. He began building his reputation forty years ago on John Coltrane's Ascension (Impulse!, 1965), and even now, at over seventy years old, he's still going strong.

On two fine new releases—Witch's Scream, recorded in New York in September 2004, and Good Night Songs, recorded in Amherst in December 2003—Tchicai proves himself still to be a compelling and spirited player, gifted with a sense of humor and drama, whose approach to any given musical piece is always fresh.

John Tchicai, Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille
Witch's Scream
Tum Records

In his humorous liner notes to Witch's Scream, Tchicai wonders whether it was such a good idea to bring him, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille into the same room—even though that was a dream he kept alive for more than a decade. All three, notes Tchicai, have total awareness of the moment and always know exactly where they are in the tonality and rhythm, but all three understate this knowledge.

Happily, Tchicai put aside his doubts: after one week of rehearsals and a gig at the Tonic Club, the trio recorded a disc so powerful and energetic that Tchicai advises us not to attempt deep meditation while listening to it. To do so, he writes, would work against the "aural activity."

"Andrea Calling", the opening piece, dedicated to Cyrille's daughter, is a free improvisation that establishes the tone of Witch's Scream—familiar, elegant, intense, exploratory and still paying debt to close relatives and past heroes. Tchicai adds his own optimistic lyrics to Thelonious Monk's standard "Monk's Dream", on which Workman firmly takes the lead. Cyrille's "My Lady Lodie", dedicated to his wife, is a beautiful ballad with a heartfelt tenor solo by Tchicai.

Tchicai dedicated his harmolodic "The Secret" to the late South-African bassist Johnny Dyani, who forced him to exercise in the difficult key of F Sharp. Cyrille's ballad, "Proximity", dedicated to the late trombonist John Gordon, features Tchicai's sombre and breathy tenor tone.

"Anders On The Loose" is another vocal piece by Tchicai, dedicated to a Danish painter and friend, with some Monkish curved lines that are articulated masterfully by Workman and Cyrille, and the useful advice by Tchicai: "don't go hurrying and worrying, but do some loving and enjoying."

The standard "Beyond The Blue Horizon", originally the hit song from the 1930 film Monte Carlo, and later memorably interpreted by Eric Dolphy, gets a muscular arrangement, with some spirited bass clarinet playing by Tchicai. Tchicai's vocal reading of "Alice In Wonderland", the title song from the Walt Disney animated film, is touching in its innocence.

The arrangement of Monk's "Pannonica" is plain speaking in a way well suited to this familiar tune. On "Heksehyl (Witch's Scream)" Tchicai imagines his bass clarinet to be a witch's broom, since it can take you to "great flights" and "screams like a witch." It's a witty piece distinguished by attentive group interaction. The concluding piece, Workman's "Current", is a fifteen minute open-ended improvisation that percolates slowly and again presents all three players as creative collaborators.

With more than 120 years at the sharp end between them, and after playing with some of the most adventurous minds on the planet, this line-up shouldn't be missed. An astonishing meeting of experienced players with youthful souls.

Visit John Tchicai on the web.

John Tchicai, Charlie Kohlhase and Garrison Fewel
Good Night Songs
Boxholder Records

The two-disc Good Night Songs is another intimate and emphatic conversation between old friends, but by no means bedtime music. There is plenty of energy invested in this music, even if most of the time it's subdued. Tchicai has collaborated before with Boston-area reed player Charlie Kohlhase and guitarist Garrison Fewell, and it was Tchicai who suggested that all three should tour and record together. This recording from the last night of the tour was beautifuly recorded in the resonant hall of the Amherst Unitarian Meeting House.

Fewell's harp-like lines add an eastern touch to his slow tone poem, "The Queen Of Ra". Tchicai's "Thriftshopping" features attentive duets between Tchicai's bass clarinet and the soft lines of Fewell, and later between the expressive tenor saxophone of Kohlhase and the deeper bass lines of Fewell.

"Undercurrent", penned by the young Finnish saxophonist Mikko Innanen, a Tchicai collaborator, is a slow, dark and severe piece that highlights the close interplay of the trio. The last piece on the first disc is much more playful, Tchicai's "Ramana Maharshi", where Tchicai sings some wordless song, and all three musicians sound as if they enjoy the call and response game.

The unusual and sparse instrumentation—two reed players and a guitarist who adds some bass lines—forces the trio to focus on immediate dynamics, space, colour and intuition. Kohlhase's boppish "Start To Finnish" is another well-arranged piece that highlights the unison lines of Tchicai's tenor and Kohlhase's baritone. The ethereal arrangement of the South American folk song "Lilatno Del Indio" features Tchicai as a shamanic percussionist and vocalist, and foregrounds Kohlhase's emotional tenor.

Kohlhase's "Consolation Cake" presents some angular spiky lines from Fewell that mediate between the colliding lines of Kohlhase's alto and Tchicai's bass clarinet. It's is a majestic conclusion to an impressive concert.

Visit Charlie Kohlhase and Garrison Fewell on the web.

Tracks and Personnel

Witch's Scream

Tracks: Andrea Calling; Monk's Dream; My Lady Lodie; The Secret; Proximity; Anders On The Loose; Beyond The Blue Horizon; Alice In Wonderland; Pannonica; Heksehyl (Witch's Dream); The Current.

Personnel: John Tchicai: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, vocals; Reggie Workman: bass and percussion; Andrew Cyrille: drums.

Good Night Songs

Tracks: CD1: Floating; The Queen Of Ra; Thriftshopping; Undercurrent; Ramana Maharshi. CD2: On Fait La Taille; X-Ray Vision; Start To Finish; Lilanto Del Indio; Consolation Cake.

Personnel: John Tchicai: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, voice, percussion; Charlie Kohlhase: tenor, alto and baritone saxophone; Garrison Fewell: guitar, chopsticks, slide and percussion.

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