In the 1960s, John Tchicai was one of the undersung heroes revolutionising black music. Now he's back with his own take on 90s world fusion. This article originally appeared in The Wire 142 (December 1995).
When John Coltrane's raw, turbulent free jazz assault course Ascension was released In 1965, the contribution made by altoist John Tchicai provoked much dispute. For some he threaded a thin strand of coherence through an insane experiment, for others he was the man standing in the doorway of the kitchen, daunted by the heat.
A year earlier, similar controversies had arisen over The New York Art Quartet. Somewhat sidelined by official histories, the short-lived NYAQ remains one of the most important units in improvised music. Its relative neglect by critics and the general public may be because it allegedly represented the cool face of free jazz, out of step with the mainstream energy music.
Neither Tchicai nor his NYAQ colleagues (Roswell Rudd, Lewis Worrell, Milford Graves) were too timid to embrace the revolution: they could be fierce and fiery when they chose. Nor were they closet counterrevolutionaries, biding their time before bringing jazz back to more secure territory. Crucial innovators, they indicated several potential new roads, one of the most influential of which would be travelled by the Chicago school of soundwrights. What was always really unnerving about Tchicai's approach was its genuine democracy. Shunning the arm-wrestling, swill-it-down-and-spew-it-out machismo which frequently passes for adventurousness, the challenge that his music issues to his co-performers, his audience and, indeed, himself, concerns self-development. Non-adversarial, it still challenged participants (performers and audiences) to engage in debate with it.
Tchicai was born in 1936 in Copenhagen of Danish Congolese parentage. After studying in Aarhus he moved back to Copenhagen where, in 1962, he met Albert Ayler. Later, in Helsinki, he encountered Archie Shepp and Bill Dixon. With their encouragement he moved to New York In 1963 and joined Dixon's band, then formed The New York Contemporary Five With Shepp, Dixon, Don Moore and JC Moses. Returning to New York after touring Europe With The NYC5, he founded The NYAQ.
In 1965, after jamming with Coltrane, he was invited to play on Ascension, which was, perhaps, the energy music session to end them all. "I was looking for the sources of that kind of intensity,' Tchicai told me, "searching in several ways, through the study of yoga, both the breathing techniques and the philosophy, looking for the core of where that orgiastic intensity came from. You can find intensity in different ways, not just through that kind of cacophonous method. Coltrane knew that religiousness was needed as the basis of the music."
In 1966 he went home again and led the magnificent Cadentia Nova Danica. Then, for most observers, he disappeared from view for a quarter of a century. While people were looking the other way he was, in fact, keeping pretty busy. In the mid-70s he rarely performed in public, concentrating on teaching music and studying yoga, although there were some notable collaborations with The Strange Brothers and Johnny Dyani. By the end of the 70s he was revvlng up his performing career again.
The recordings Tchicai has made over the last decade are
compelling and varied, but there were important personal milestones
too. He mentioned meeting his wife Margriet in Rotterdam in 1989,
getting a lifetime grant from the Danish state in 1990 (he was the
first jazz musician to receive such a stipend), seeing his two
daughters grow up (they're now 12 and nine), changing home base
from Denmark to California in August 1991, becoming aware of yoga
master BKS Iyengar and getting acquainted with Danish painter
The last two were particularly illuminating: spiritual components have always been strong in Tchicai's music, and one can see why he impressed Coltrane. Was this why they gravitated together? "Consciously our connection was only musical," he says, "but it's possible that unconsciously we were both directed on the same paths and were pulled together through that." Tchicai is also a painter of vibrant, iconographic, African-tinged canvases which echo the quality of his saxophone playing and his compositions. I recalled Amira Baraka's comment that Tchicai's playing "reminds one of Mondrian's geometrical decisions, or lyrical syllogisms". Since late 1991 his principal group has been The Archetypes, though he has been involved in a dazzling parade of other ventures and plays regularly as a guest with many Bay Area groups.
The Archetypes comprise his wife, Dutch pianist Margriet Naber, and five young local musicians (two guitars, electric bass, congas and drums) recruited through an ad on a music shop wall. They cover the genre waterfront. "The music we play is a kind of global fusion, a mixture of jazz, rock, African and other influences," Tchicai explains, which is an accurate if rather dry account of the group's seamless and organic mix.
Their debut CD Love Is Touching (reviewed in The Wire 141) was recorded nearly two years ago. "Since then we've been doing regular gigs. In the summer we toured Germany, and did a session for Nord Deutsche Rundfunk." In concert there is a strong theatrical element (recalling the ceremonial side of Cadentia Nova Danica)which, perforce, the studio recordings largely ignore.
The album, though very contemporary in sound, draws together elements from most of his earlier work. "Yes, it was meant to develop concerns that I have been working on for many years." The Archetypes function as a co-operative, which sounds like a throwback to the kind of idealistic democracy pursued by The NYAQ.
"Yes, we work in that way. Everyone makes a contribution of equal value. It comes closer to a religious and social kind of experience. It doesn't matter how good or famous an individual member of the band is, it's more important to see things from the point of view of individual souls and how they can contribute and fit into the whole in terms of philosophy and religion. There's not much verbal conversation, but musically everyone contributes, and beneath the musical level everyone is supportive, with great honesty and the will to make things work."