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John Tchicai: John Tchicai

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The late Danish saxophonist John Tchicai lived and recorded predominantly in Europe, although he’s best known for several 1960s projects, some named for the American

city that housed him during those heady seminal years of the avant-garde: John Coltrane’s landmark Ascension, the New York Contemporary Five (with Archie Shepp), the New York Art Quartet (with Roswell Rudd) and New York Eye and Ear Control (an Albert Ayler-led film soundtrack session). This two-disc reissue, however, combines two albums recorded in Copenhagen in 1977 and 1987.

Released as John Tchicai & Strange Brothers, the first disc finds the leader playing alto as well as some soprano sax and bamboo flute. Simon Spang-Hanssen’s tenor sax makes for a solid frontline foil, and the rhythm section of Peter Danstrup (bass) and Ole Rømer (drums) drives this often-grooving and swinging music along. Everyone gets a chance at composing, with music shifting between pensive tone poems and vamps marked by uninhibited solos. Danstrup’s “Gromyko Lik Lak” is one of the best examples of the latter: Over a double-stop bass ostinato that recalls Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’,” the two saxophonists trade twos bursting with jagged lines. The second half of the album, culled from a Café Montmartre performance, consists of a suite of brief pieces that change shape abruptly while holding together like prime Art Ensemble. And a version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” reveals Tchicai’s romantic side.

Put Up the Fight sounds like the work of a completely different band despite retaining all but one of the previous session’s players. This time Danstrup plays bass guitar and synthesizer and Rømer adds electric guitar. In Spang-Hanssen’s spot comes Bent Clausen on vibes, guitar and synthesizer. This was the ’80s, after all, but the slick funk in the title track still comes as a shock from Tchicai, now on tenor. It doesn’t help that his high-pitched vocalizing sounds alternately like Bootsy Collins and David Thomas of art punks Pere Ubu. To be fair, the electric arrangements and limpid keyboards are not what ultimately make this album such a disappointment. The quartet relies a lot on simple grooves-originals as well as works by Fela Kuti and Antonio Carlos Jobim- that don’t seem to inspire any worthwhile interaction between Tchicai and the rest of the band. This is especially noticeable after Strange Brothers, which is such a strong example of a group in which everyone has an active role in the music.

Originally Published