“Yes, I’m being considered an elder; in Europe, I’m being called a godfather in free jazz, a teacher, a guru,” John Tchicai confesses with a hint of bewilderment from Darmstadt, where he is conducting an orchestra workshop at the German city’s renowned Jazz Institute. The Danish composer/saxophonist is no stranger to honors—Lifetime Grant Recipient, State of Denmark, is pretty good for starters. Yet Tchicai is a resolutely humble man, for whom “the only thing I can do is to keep the spirit of the music alive in younger musicians, and keep up my own work as a person and musician.”
The 64-year-old Tchicai is currently doing both at an impressively crisp pace. This year has already been an eventful year for Tchicai. The release of the New York Art Quartet’s triumphant 35th Reunion (DIW) is a long overdue reminder of Tchicai’s contributions to the ’60s new thing, which included membership in the New York Contemporary Five and contributions to both John Coltrane’s Ascension and Albert Ayler’s New York Eye and Ear Control.
Since moving to California in 1991 to teach improvisation and performance at U.C. Davis, Tchicai has also become such a formidable presence on the Left Coast scene that he was a California Artist-in-Residence in 1996-7, and was awarded a NEA fellowship for composition in ’97. He was certainly a presence at this year’s Eddie Moore Jazz Festival, as Tchicai not only performed with longtime colleague Pierre Dørge’s New Jungle Orchestra, but composed and performed new works integrating a jazz trio and a string quartet for a program shared with clarinetist Alvin Batiste.
One of the best recordings made under Tchicai’s leadership has also been issued recently. John Tchicai’s Infinitesimal Flash (Buzz) debuts Tchicai’s well-balanced, California-based quartet, with saxophonist/flutist Francis Wong, bassist Adam Lane and drummer Mat Marucci. In Wong, Tchicai has a flexible front-line partner: Their fervor on Johnny Dyani’s “Kippiology” recalls Tchicai’s sparring with Dudu Pukwana on Dyani’s ’70s classic Witchdoctor’s Son (SteepleChase), and Wong’s arrangements of traditional Asian materials emphasizes subtle shading and melodic invention. Lane and Marucci are assertive individually and as a rhythm unit. Most importantly, Tchicai’s originals reiterate the centrality of the song form and folk melodies to Tchicai’s compositional sensibility.
Tchicai’s enthusiasm for the quartet prompts some favorable comparisons with the venerable New York Art Quartet. “There are more similarities than differences,” Tchicai says of the two groups, adding, “all these musicians are great players, improvisers and personalities.” Given the logistics of bringing Tchicai together with his far-flung NYAQ colleagues, Tchicai appreciates “that I can get together with Mat Marucci, Francis Wong and Adam Lane at a moment’s notice, which is great. We can rehearse and play concerts much more than what is possible with the NYAQ.”
Marucci and Lane will perform with Tchicai on some of his concert and recording dates this fall. They are slated for Tchicai’s second disc for 8th Harmonic Breakdown, the Chicago label that released Tchicai’s encounter with poet Yusef Komunyakaa, Love Notes From the Madhouse. Marucci will also travel with Tchicai to a festival in Toulouse, France, where Tchicai will work in a variety of settings, including a saxophone ensemble.
To maintain a busy schedule that requires consistently high creativity, Tchicai balances a rigorous life style and conceptual openness. “What gives life to the music in all the different genres of live, nonmechanical music has always been the enlightened, gifted, spaced out, genial, original.” This requires discipline, according to Tchicai, and in his prescription to young musicians, he emphasizes that they “first of all have to keep themselves alive, keep themselves fit for living and for the music, keep out of trouble with clean, healthy living, no drugs, and concentrate on getting the work done. At the age of 97, Eubie Blake said, commenting on his longevity, ‘If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.’”
It will be interesting to hear what John Tchicai has to say when he’s 97.