Here’s an astonishing fact: This album was recorded during John Tchicai’s first and only weeklong residency at a New York jazz club. Tchicai — co-founder of the New York Art Quartet, one of the most innovative bands of the 1960s; member of Albert Ayer's New York Eye and Ear Control; participant in John Coltrane’s Ascension, perhaps the most influential of Coltrane’s late works; practitioner of world music-jazz fusions in bands such as his own Cadentia Nova Danica, Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra, and Johnny Dyani’s Witchdoctor’s Son; winner of Denmark’s prestigious Jazz-Par Prize and first recipient of a lifetime grant from the Danish Ministry of Culture — would seem to have merited a week in New York well before 2007. He defied just about every “avant-garde” stereotype without ever compromising his integrity. He was an intensely lyrical improviser who balanced cool intellect and emotional heat. His solos were orderly, constructed with great care, yet he remained open to surprise and the spontaneous. And although he was a player of deep spirituality, there was always a touch of humor and a sense of jubilation in his music. In short, he was just the sort of innovative, swinging, prestigious jazz elder that in a perfect world one might expect to hear regularly in a jazz club. And yet, he had to wait until he was 71 for it to happen.
When, to their everlasting credit, Birdland finally gave him the opportunity to play a major club, he opted for a band that brought together musicians he knew well with players he’d never or rarely worked with before—he liked both the trust between regular partners as well as that edge of an unknown factor when he played. Boston-based musicians guitarist Garrison Fewell and saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase were partners in a trio of several years’ standing that played primarily in New England whenever Tchicai was stateside. Bassist Cecil McBee was new to Tchicai’s sound world. John and Billy had worked together years before as sidemen on Steeplechase albums by Pierre Dorge (Ballad Round The Left Corner, 1979) and Johnny Dyani (Angolan Cry, 1985), so they were renewing a passing acquaintance.
Tchicai, Kohlhase, and Fewell had come together as a trio four years previously at Tchicai’s suggestion. The lanky Dane knew Charlie from a New England tour he’d done with the Boston-based little big band, Either/Orchestra in 1993. He had also recorded with Charlie on his CD, Life Overflowing (Nada, 1999). Garrison and John met in Italy, where Garrison summers when he's not teaching at Berklee College of Music, and recorded Big Chief Dreaming for Soul Note in June 2003. Their chemistry as a trio was immediate and deep. They recorded what was only their third gig together on an outstanding double CD Good Night Songs (Boxholder). In the years following those December 2003 gigs, they played in New York, at Montreal’s Casa de Popolo and did other short tours that took them to Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and clubs and galleries in the Boston area.
When John secured a gig for the trio at New York’s Cornelia Street Cafe, Garrison invited Birdland Booking Director Ryan Paternite to come hear them. Several years earlier in 1998, Garrison had recorded Birdland Sessions (Koch Jazz) at the club, featuring a modern mainstream quartet with pianist Jim McNeeley, bassist Steve LaSpina, and drummer Jeff Williams. Impressed by both the music and the large audience the trio drew to the west village bistro’s downstairs music room, Paternite invited them to play at Birdland. His only stipulation: they had to bring a rhythm section.
John and Garrison discussed various candidates, but John especially liked the idea of McBee, with whom Garrison had played and recorded earlier in his career, including his debut album, A Blue Deeper Than Blue (Accurate). Since Hart worked so much with McBee and knew Tchicai from their work on the aforementioned Steeplechase sessions, he was the natural choice for drummer. “John wanted a rhythm section that could play time, could swing, and play free,” Garrison says. “He was very specific about it.”
Cecil and Billy certainly had that inside/outside flexibility that John required, but just as important was their ability to come into a situation that was new to them and make it work. Joining a trio of musicians who were so familiar with one another and figuring out how to sound like a quintet instead of a trio with a rhythm section is no small matter. They succeed magnificently.
The quintet played Tuesday through Saturday and the last two nights were recorded. (John was thrilled to see one of his saxophone heroes, Lee Konitz, in the audience on Saturday.) Over the course of five nights, the music covered a lot of ground, and this album doesn't necessarily capture the band’s full range. But it does provide a clear picture of the intimate, lyrical side of the band and its collaborative spirit.
Tchicai named the band after the opening tune on the album, a three-section original of Garrison’s in 7/4. In the more reflective opening section, Garrison solos over lines scored for baritone sax and the bass. It’s a relaxed, melodic statement, with a purposeful and compelling flow of ideas. “I feel like I’m not trying to fit into any genre,” Garrison says. “I’m still informed by my lyrical instinct, even in freely improvised settings.”
The second part is an open improvisation for Charlie and Garrison (with some judicious support from McBee). Garrison calls the final section the “playful ghost,” and certainly Tchicai enters into it with the right spirit, playing around with little variations on phrases in an especially joyful solo. “When John improvised, you’re in a sound world that is so different,” Garrison observes. “He could deconstruct and reconstruct the smallest melodic fragments, and he would be so logical in their development.”
Garrison wrote “Queen of Ra” for John, who over the years increasingly made it his own. It debuted on Big Chief Dreaming and appears again on Good Night Songs, but this may be the definitive recorded version. Charlie puts the cry of the human voice in his solo, a tightly structured improvisation that weaves just a few phrases played with that deeply human sound into a powerfully expressive statement. John’s solo is a tour de force of sound manipulation, ranging from tender sighs to full throated cries, and of melodic improvising that sounds inevitable but is full of surprises.
The short, but potent “Dark Matter” hangs together like a through-composed piece, but there’s flexibility built into composition and room for improvisation. “I was inspired by John Carter's Castles of Ghana,” Garrison says of the origin of “Dark Matter.” “I wrote the horn line intro as something majestic and princely, an overture to a processional out of Africa with a darkly anticipatory tone.
“The tune itself consists of repetitive melodic rounds that are meant to spin off as the players choose,” he continues, “and the repetitions or order of the rounds are decided by each player in the moment. Solos should emerge from that ‘dark matter,’ which is meant both as a reference to Africa and its diaspora, and also to the scientific phenomenon of dark matter, the invisible material that makes up most of the mass in the universe.”
The South American folk song, “Llanto del Indio,” is a favorite of Tchicai’s. He first recorded it in 1968 on Cadentia Nova Danica and again on 35th Reunion with the New York Art Quartet in 2000 as well as on Good Night Songs. John, Charlie, and Garrison practically sing the melody through their horns, then Cecil finds a groove that elevates the rest of the performance. “It’s completely improvised after the theme,” Garrison explains. “That groove we find was not planned and will never be heard again the same way. It's Cecil finding a hook and locking it down, which he often does. He once told me that his first goal when he steps onto the bandstand is to find that illustrious groove and lock it up.” Clearly the rest of the band loves Cecil’s illustrious groove. They let it carry them into a collective improvisation that gives way to a solo by Garrison and shows how much he’s been able to carry with him across the border from hard bop into free jazz.
It is astonishing—in a somewhat negative way—that this was John Tchicai’s only New York club date. But there are so many other astonishing things about this music that are positive, that perhaps it isn’t right to dwell on the negative. It’s astonishing, for instance, that a group of musicians who worked together for such a brief period of time—a mere five days—could create music of such lasting significance and beauty.
released March 1, 2013
All compositions by Garrison Fewell except Llanto del Indio by John Tchicai
Recorded live on February 9th &10th, 2007 by Vernil Rogers
Mixed by Garrison Fewell and Bob Patton, Thin Ice Productions
Mastered by Arūnas Zujus at MAMAstudios
Design by Oskaras Anosovas
1. TRIBAL GHOST
2. THE QUEEN OF RA
1. DARK MATTER
2. LLANDO DEL INDIO
John Tchicai - tenor saxophone and bass clarinet
Charlie Kohlhase – alto, tenor and baritone saxophones
Garrison Fewell – guitar and percussion
Cecil McBee - bass
Billy Hart – drums
Total mastery of patience, time, and drama create a constantly engaging journey that never gets tiresome or same-y: in fact the harder you listen the better it gets! Somehow Sorey et al. find a way to combine the deep listening and spontaneous interaction of the best jazz with the sense of every tone and sound being worth a universe of listening, which could be equally from Cage and Feldman or the accompaniment to an ancient ritual.
The recording/engineering is absolutely perfect as well. Giles