The Engines w/ John Tchicai: Other Violets

Saxophonist Dave Rempis, trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Tim Daisy all run in Ken Vandermark’s circle of friends. They’ve all played in Vandermark’s various bands, and they’ve all led their own groups too. They also play together in a leaderless collective called the Engines, whose third album, Other Violets, is a collaboration with the legendary avant-garde saxophonist John Tchicai.

Tchicai, who died in October 2012, recorded this set with the Engines in May 2011 at the Hungry Brain bar in Chicago. The disc opens with a three-horn conversation that sounds like an argument among angry birds, until bass and drums kick in at full speed more than three minutes in. “High and Low” sounds like a completely free exchange of ideas, but there must be framework beneath the chaos, because the composition is credited to McBride. The entire set bridges the gap between written themes and freedom. There is clear songwriting buried beneath the cacophony of Tchicai’s own pieces, “Cool Copy” and “Super Orgasmic Life” (on which he plays flute); there is a pretty ballad obscured behind the harsh edges of Bishop’s “Looking.”

It is tempting to compare this quintet to the Vandermark 5, not only because of the personnel and instrumentation but because of the aesthetic: racing rhythms that stop on a dime; long rhythm-section-less sections; repeated grooves that that evolve into melodies (witness “Strafe”). The main difference is in Tchicai’s unmistakable tenor sax voice, which is less of a punch in the gut than Vandermark’s. “Gloxinia” is a showcase for him-his dry, quaking style in full focus, with passages that will bring you all the way back to New York Eye and Ear Control. Other Violets is probably not among the greatest moments for any of these five guys, but it’s a decent set and a worthy document of what was surely a memorable night.