Engines & John Tchicai | Other Violets | Not Two Records

Not Two, 2013 | MW 895-2 | CD

John Tchicai – tenor saxophone and flute – Dave Rempis – alto and tenor saxophones | Jeb Bishop – trombone | Nate McBride – bass | Tim Daisy – drums

Recorded by Todd Carter May 15th, 2011, live at the Hungry Brain, Chicago. Mixed and Mastered by The Engines and Todd Carter, January 2012. Thanks to Mike Reed and Josh Berman who made this concert and recording possible during the year-long 10th anniversary celebration concerts they organized in 2011, as part of the ongoing Sunday-night Transmission Series at Chicago’s Hungry Brain. Thanks to Marek Winiarski for his unwavering support of this music, as well as his relaxed demeanor, sly sense of humor and impeccable dance floor maneuvers.

Tracklist: 1. High and Low (McBride) / Strafe (Rempis) [15:14] 2. Gloxinia (Daisy) [13:37] 3. Cool Copy (Tchicai) / Looking (Bishop) [19:32] 4. Super Orgasmic Life (Tchicai) [08:32] 5. Planet (Bishop) [10:34]

In memory of John Tchicai, 1936-2012

It was with great sadness that I heard of John Tchicai’s passing in October of 2012. I’d been familiar with his music since the early 1990’s, when as a high school saxophonist I first heard him on recordings with John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and Don Cherry that truly changed my own life path. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2008 that I actually heard him in person, and had the opportunity to get to know him more personally.

At that time, I had just left for my first tour of Europe leading one of my own bands, the Rempis Percussion Quartet, on a double bill tour with Mike Reed’s band Loose Assembly. Our first concert was in Hasselt, Belgium at Kunstcentrum Belgie – one of my favorite venues in Europe. As I didn’t have all of the details about the trip until we arrived, I didn’t realize that evening’s concert would be a triple bill with a band led by John until we walked into the soundcheck, and I heard that incredibly personal sound that I knew from so many different records. The experience was similar to seeing a famous painting or statue in person…some sense of disbelief that this presence could actually exist before you.

Also at that time, Mike and I were helping to organize the Umbrella Music Festival in Chicago, and had been searching for someone special to feature that year. Having not heard John in recent years, I didn’t know what to expect from the concert. The brief soundcheck was great, but maybe he wasn’t playing as well as he used to – many musicians don’t meet expectations after decades of work. As the concert began, Mike and I stood across the bar from each other. After twenty minutes our eyes met. Nothing needed to be said.

After the concert John and I talked a bit, particularly about the incredible record John made with Johnny Dyani – “Witchdoctor’s Son” – one of my favorite recordings. (The front line of John and Dudu Pukwana on that record is one of the great alto pairings of all time…) His calm and gentle presence, warm eyes, and deep laugh as he described how “energetic” those particular South African musicians had been (perhaps an understatement based on other anecdotes about Pukwana….) made a perfect match for the gorgeously honest and understated saxophone sound I knew so well.

So it was a huge pleasure when John accepted our invitation to come to Chicago that fall. That visit would be the first of two that John made to Chicago in his last few years – once for the festival, and once as a guest of this working quartet. Both times he made an impression on musicians and audiences here that still resonates.

As you can hear on this recording, the expressive strength of John’s sound endures – the tender, searching, bittersweet, yet playful lilt of his phrasing; the tart crispness of his tone; the meandering yet purposeful sense of pitch. All of these were a part of the vision that enabled him to stand up to the sheer force of players like Coltrane, Ayler, and Shepp; not by out-muscling them, but by presenting a completely different idea of what was possible on the instrument. A conception unique enough that although it wasn’t about force or power, it carved out a space in the music that was strong enough to create its own gravitational field.

This uncompromised sense of self in the presence of some of the most compelling artistic visions of the last century is what will keep John’s own vision alive for many years to come. That vision stands unflinchingly, shoulder to shoulder amongst his peers, and his presence in the music, and among the musicians, will be greatly missed. – Dave Rempis, December 2012

Unfortunately we lost one of the great innovators in the free jazz world

in October 8, 2012. John Tchicai had been a face on the scene for many years, although sadly for many he was often just remembered as the man who played on John Coltrane’s Ascension along with other saxophone greats Marion Brown, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. In reality he made many great records that were quite easily accessible, yet remained firmly committed to the art of music and freedom of expression. One of my favourites is ‘Satisfaction’ with bassist Vitold Rek where Tchicai not only played some sublime saxophone and bass clarinet but also recited some of his poems to great effect. Somehow I guess for me he wasn’t a free-jazzer, just someone who had a large palette of sounds and was open to playing in all musical situations.

So it’s a welcome return to hear The Engines featuring John Tchicai on one of his last recordings. It’s also a chance to hear John Tchicai in the very capable company of these great players, also a real band that’s been in existence since 2008. For all that don’t know ‘The Engines’ it’s a group made up of Dave Rempis (saxes), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Nate McBride (bass) and Tim Daisy (drums). The music, which isn’t much different in style from earlier albums, is post Ornette meets Mingus meets the Vandermark 5 …. which isn’t surprising as they (Daisy, Rempis and Bishop) were part of the Vandermark 5! Their compositions are often mini-suites which develop throughout a piece taking the soloists into new areas where they are required to develop ideas that lead towards the next sections, hence the Mingus connection. Furthermore that means the music is very organic, the themes are small gems of development in melody and rhythm.

It’s great to see that Tchicai isn’t used as a ‘featured’ soloist, but as a true member of the band. He blends perfectly into the working sound of the group, so well you’d imagine that he’d always been part of that ensemble. As on all ‘Engines’ releases it’s a co-operative effort with compositions from all members, and the same applies here with Tchicai adding two tunes to the bands repertoire. On tunes like the opening ‘High and Low/Strafe’ or ‘Cool Copy/Looking’ (tk3) Tchicai plays like a Dewey Redman, blowing bluesy growling lines over swinging free-bop. He duets on flute with Jeb Bishop on the beginning of his own ‘Super Orgasmic Life’ (tk4), but the main point of this group is being ‘a group’, and soloists come and go like trains in a station bringing new ideas and then leaving to make space for others, everything seemingly timed perfectly. The energy of the group is as always top notch, helped by the live recording (*) to inspire creativity, focus and direction for the group and each player. The glorious ‘Gloxinia’ (tk2) drifts over rubato rhythms which dance away with great energy giving the soloists a stormy ride clearly inspires them. Dave Rempis blows up a storm on his saxes on several of the pieces, often reminding me of Thomas Chapin mixed with Ornette. It seems that he takes fewer solos than normal on this recording leaving more space for John Tchicai. Tim Daisy is a marvel as always showing (for me) that he is one of best kept secrets in the history of the drums! Always creative with bassist McBride these two are certainly part of the success of this group, constantly full of energy and new ideas.

A highly recommended album for fans of the Chicago jazz scene, free-bop, Mingus, melody and swing.– Joe Higham

If you measure a musician’s worth by the names he’s played with, John Tchicai is gold.

You’ll find him on records with Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Johnny Dyani, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor; a deluxe vinyl boxed set by the New York Art Quartet, his mid-1960s combo with Roswell Rudd and Milford Graves, is the doorstop du jour amongst those with some cash to drop. But I don’t think Tchicai thought that way. He didn’t record promiscuously, but he made his share of recordings with less-than-heavy hitters whom he thought had something to offer. In May 2011, just 17 months before he died from complications of a stroke, Tchicai made one such session with The Engines, a Chicago-based quartet that comprises trombonist Jeb Bishop, drummer Tim Daisy, bassist Nate McBride and saxophonist Dave Rempis.

These aren’t exactly unknown players, and each has led his own solid bands. The point of The Engines is to pull their resources as composers; their reach on two previous albums encompasses pneumatic meters, rock-ish grit and free improv scatter. Their dalliance with Tchicai grew out of a bill that he and Rempis shared three years earlier. This turned into a partnership that was only cut short by the Dane’s demise.

Other Violets is definitely the work of a solid unit. Tchicai, whose softer tone and sometimes quizzical phrasing set him apart on vein-popping blow-outs like Ascension and New York Eye And Ear Control, isn’t the kind of guy who walks in and takes over a situation, but neither is he overly deferential. And while no one in The Engines ever played with one of The Beatles, they all have decades of experience playing with the best that the U.S. and European jazz and improv scenes have to offer. Everyone contributes at least one tune, which guarantees a bit of variety. Daisy’s “Gloxinia” is a ballad with a destabilizingly quick rhythmic undercurrent; Tchicai’s “Cool Copy” has a jaunty swagger that could walk into a Charles Mingus session and take it over; and Bishop’s “Planet” boots fleet horn unisons in the butt with a quick, swinging groove.

Tchicai’s tenor sax is brighter-sounding than Rempis’s playing on alto or tenor, which guarantees that you’ll always be able to tell them apart. But more important is the way their contrasting solo styles seem to cross-examine each tune, tugging light-footed playfulness or go-for-broke passion out of the same scrap of melody. Bishop plays up both the hoofing and the slither; I’m especially charmed by his quick pirouettes around Tchicai’s dry-toned flute on “Super Orgasmic Life.” Both Daisy and McBride entertain opposing perspectives within their playing, reaching for either contrarian undertow or spring-loaded propulsion. The result is music that contains a myriad of options, yet feels unified. — Bill Meyer


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