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Chris Searle on jazz A jazzman of precious unity's beautiful saxophone songs

Christopher Dell, Jonas Westergaard, Christian Lillinger and John Tchicai
Dell, Westergaard, Lillinger featuring John Tchicai
(jazzwerkstatt 128)

THE tenor saxophonist John Tchicai was born in Copenhagen in 1936 to a Danish mother and Congolese father, who had met when they were both waiters at the city’s Aarhus Pleasure Gardens. 

He studied at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory, heard the touring avant-garde jazzmen Archie Shepp and Bill Dixon at a festival in Helsinki and pursued them to New York, where he played alongside them as a member of New York Contemporary Five. In 1965 he played with John Coltrane on the epochal Ascension album session. He also recorded with Albert Ayler, and in 1969 found himself in Cambridge, performing and recording with John Lennon and Yoko Ono: altogether, a beginning in professional music of many dreams. 

During the next two decades, Tchicai spent much of his career in Europe, teaching full time. In 1982 he joined Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra in Copenhagen and made some powerful records with them. In the ’90s he returned Stateside to southern California, but kept a presence too in France. Always a free spirit who bonded closely with young musicians, he died in October 2012. 

One of his final recordings was the live 2010 session at the Jazzwerkstatt Cafe in Berlin, which, combined with a studio session three days later, composes this album, with Tchicai blowing with his compatriot Jonas Westergaard, a bassist of a new generation and two Germans; vibist Christopher Dell, born in Darmstadt in 1965 and the young drummer Christian Lillinger, born in Lubben in the German Democratic Republic in 1984. 

Lillinger’s dazzling percussive power is prominent on the opener Fortune at Zou Feet, and is followed by Traveller, which could have been Tchicai’s life story. His tenor, full, authoritative and resonating, simmers alongside Dell’s trickling vibes, ending in long, seemingly lifer-reflective, almost hushed notes. 

Tchicai was 76 when he recorded this album, but plays with an astonishing youthfulness. On the age-defying track Share the energy and crystalline lucidity of his sound meshes with the vigour, vitality and range of ideas of Lillinger, some 50 years his junior, so much so that they could be sonic brothers. 

Dell is the solo voice of the following track, Fond, his mallets seeking “time blocks in the improvisation” as his notes cascade and climb up and down the cafe walls. Tchicai enters chunteringly on Wet, beside Lillinger’s battery of drums. On A Double Mescal he blows a breathy flute while Westergaard’s bass delves out a springing riff and Lillinger clips the rhythm forward. 

Double Exposure is the album’s longest track, its 14 minutes full of the Tchicai-Dell duo. There are two complex mind-processes here inventing the notes. Both men dig deep and Tchicai’s rare artistry pours out of his horn: all those years, all those virtuosi who crowded round his youth. You hear echoes of Ayler and Coltrane, a cluster of notes from Shepp — but mostly his timbre is his own, airy, clear, ever-inventive, sounds you can see through to the truth about life and its music, with Dell, the other voice of the palaver, receiving and responding, even during a final sublime Tchicai burst. 

Who is the Intangible Doorman who gives the title to the next track? He’s sprightly and lively and Westergaard gives him an agile gait before Tchicai springs in to characterise his cordiality in a human sketch of humour and reality which may be a remembrance of his father, who, among many jobs before he met his mother, was a nightclub doorman. 

Strange, almost heroic, that a septuagenarian saxman should be casting his horn into a piece of music called New!!!, composed by a drummer still in his 20s, and still sounding as if he is an essential part of the new wave. 

Through the last track, Venus, Tchicai sounds like a bird, a travelling bird like one of the millions that journey and migrate every year between Africa and Europe, bringing the sounds of two continents together, while his European companions play next to him, embracing and enhancing his beautiful saxophone song. A pioneer of musical concord was John Tchicai: a jazzman of precious unity. 

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