April 14, 2006
The John Tchicai/Charlie Kohlhase/Garrison Fewell Trio performed on April 14 at Brookline Tai-Chi, host to an adventurous jazz series (other recent shows have included the Fully Celebrated Orchestra). The venue is an airy, vaulted studio with live acoustics that carried pleasantly the sound of the trio's reeds and guitar. On a concentrated regional tour, the three musicians had just arrived from Montreal to play that evening's concert.
Respected in his long career as an innovative and astute performer and composer, a pioneer in the 1960s, John Tchicai continues to be active in a number of ensembles. Originally from Denmark, Tchicai lives and performs in both the U.S. and Europe. Tchicai, Kohlhase, and Fewell started working together about fifteen years ago, and the trio recently released a live recording, Good Night Songs
(Boxholder Records). Tchicai has also worked with each of the others in duos and larger groups.
In this trio, Tchicai assumes the role of leader, more in the sense of centering than in directing. The three musicians appeared to communicate well through listening, with little need for glances or nods. Over his jazz career, Tchicai has played a number of reeds, including soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones and bass clarinet; this evening he played tenor sax for all except the final selection. Tchicai's manner was modest, reserved, almost diffident, but on solos his playing flowered, revealing a beautiful tone and effortless instrumental technique.
Tchicai's compositions were central to the evening, which opened with a rather pensive and yearning melody that he explained was based on the traditional melody "Auld Lang Syne . Tchicai showed a whimsical side in a delightful number that he announced was about two German brothers. On that he took an energetic solo full of arpeggios, modulations, and tricky phrases with unexpected silences.
An outstanding Tchicai composition was a long, two-section medley. Its first section was a spoken/sung rendition of three Tchicai poems and the second section an instrumental called "Long-Distance Unity . The instrumental Tchicai co-wrote via email (!) with Fewell, a process that he started to describe and then passed to Fewell for further comment. After an introduction in which Kohlhase blew through his alto to make a whistling-wind sound and Tchicai briefly blew across a bottle, Tchicai launched the first poem, which flowed into the second one. Tchicai delivered the verse in elongated, sometimes tremulous, speech-song, while behind him Kohlhase and Fewell developed a repeated, four-note motif. Although many of the words were not discernible, Tchicai's impassioned delivery conveyed longing and struggle. He used a more conversational style, contrastingly humorous and easily understood, to deliver his second poem, which celebrated a woman using surreal similes on the order of "sings like a whale . On "Long-Distance Unity , Tchicai played the song-like, modal tune on tenor, joined in unison and harmony by Kohlhase on alto. Kohlhase played a particularly inspired solo, with long lines that ended in short, repeated notes, with the effect of two-voiced polyphony. Returning to a few choruses of the melody as a group, at the end of some phrases the two saxophones landed on a tritone harmony, to powerful effect.
Garrison Fewell also plays in several other musical groups, some as leader, and has composed a number of works. Fewell and Tchicai recently teamed with some Italian musicians to record the disc Big Chief Dreaming
(Soul Note). Like Tchicai, Fewell spends part of his time in Europe. Fewell uses a hollow-body electric guitar to create a clear and well-articulated sound. In his shifting performance roles in the trio, he proved equally adept at coloristic intros and interludes, solos, comping, and occasionally producing a walking-bass part. That evening, Fewell added some occasional percussion, which included a small chime hanging from his guitar's pegbox.
Among the Fewell compositions on the program was the Sun Ra-inspired "Queen of Ra , also recorded on Good Night Songs
. On that Fewell played an improvised-sounding introduction, strumming the guitar with a stick, plucking chords, and sliding over wrapped strings. The two saxists played the irregularly-phrased, song-like melody that is reminiscent of Ornette Coleman. There was a memorable episode of descending scalar lines that closely overlapped like a canon, and Kohlhase played a fine solo in a similar style. During choruses of the recapped melody, Tchicai and Kohlhase played in harmony, with a tritone-harmonized phrase end like that used in "Long Distance Unity , and Fewell interjected short figures between the phrases. Another Fewell composition, the title of which sounded like "Tribal Ghost , was built on a four-measure line in 7/4 meter, over which the three musicians soloed.