Saxophonist-composer John Tchicai continues to explore the outer regions of jazz
Jazz, it’s often said, is a democracy.
Yeah, sure. But it’s also a language, one that requires its more fluent speakers to develop their capacity for intuition and non-verbal communication. Because of the music’s requirement for a certain level of sophistication and skill, most of its accomplished players gravitate to places like New York City, where a large pool of fellow speakers of the language can be found.
However, because jazz has become an international tongue, its speakers can be found everywhere. Even here. And one of its most fluent exponents lives among us.
His name is John Tchicai.
The European-born saxophonist-composer resides in Davis, where he’s been teaching a class in musical improvisation at the university—though he’ll soon take time off to go to Europe to play gigs with several lineups of musicians with whom he’s had a longstanding association. He also finds time to work with a few groups here. (One of those, a quartet calling itself Infinitesimal Flash, with Tchicai on tenor and soprano saxes and Francis Wong on tenor and flute, Adam Lane on bass and Mat Marucci on drums and percussion, will perform at the Palms Playhouse this Saturday.)
For the past four decades, Tchicai has worked the outer edges of jazz’s avant-garde movement. He’s played with such mainstays of ’60s free jazz as John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. One of his groups, the New York Art Quartet, performed from 1964-66, then reunited two years ago; it teams Tchicai with trombonist Roswell Rudd, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Milford Graves, along with poet Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones.
Tchicai’s discography lists 77 albums: 33 as a leader, an additional 26 as a sideman (including one experimental album with John Lennon and Yoko Ono), and 18 more as a collaborator.
But name-dropping and raw numbers can only hint at the story. The real narrative is in the grooves.
Take the album John Tchicai’s Infinitesimal Flash, released on a Dutch label, BUZZ/Challenge, last summer. (Most of Tchicai’s records seem to be available from small European labels that specialize in free jazz.) While many people may find jazz of a highly improvisatory nature to be intimidating or off-putting, like abstract painting, once you’re willing to open your mind and spend time with the music, it may begin to give up its treasures.
On Infinitesimal Flash, the music ranges from the kind of squalling that scares off people with aggressively mainstream tastes to placid, accessible and often intensely lyrical melodic lines. Wong provides motifs drawn from Chinese music, some of it sourced from traditional folk melodies; Tchicai draws, rhythmically, from African music (his father was Congolese, his mother Danish) and, musically, from all over. “My style of playing is probably more rhythmic than it is melodic,” Tchicai admits. “When I improvise, I do it rhythmically—more so than other players. They play more melody, and not so much rhythmically.”
And the music’s democratic ethos is readily apparent. As a descriptive metaphor, think juggling surfer: Marucci’s drumming provides the board riding the ever-shifting wave underneath; upon it stands Lane’s bass, which continually adjusts to the changing pulse while keeping the wind instruments—Tchicai and Wong—airborne.
Naturally, it takes a lot of stamina to keep up with music so physically demanding. Tchicai, who turns 65 this month, credits much of his conditioning to the longtime practice of hatha yoga and its breathing analogue, pranayama. “It makes you more whole,” Tchicai says. “It makes you connect with what is around you and what is in you, in a better way.”
That, he does. And the result is challenging music that can be deeply satisfying—for any adventurer intrepid enough to grapple with it.
Are you game?