Listening to John Tchicai in the Southern Folklife Collection

It is unfortunate that the catalyst for many of my forays into the Southern Folklife Collection archives is the death of an artist. Marion Brown, pictured above, has been on my mind lately because I recently picked up a copy of his brilliant 1973 LP, Geechee Recollections. Between spins I have been reading about Brown’s life and career (Brown died almost two years ago on October 23, 2010), and last night I heard via radio transmission from WXYC Chapel Hill, 89.3 FM, that saxophonist, composer and occasional Brown collaborator John Tchicai (also pictured above) had passed away on October 8.

WXYC human deejay Evan Davis (who occasionally programs the Southern Folklife Collection radio show, “Hell or High Water,” on every Sunday from 1-2PM on WXYC, and whose broadcasts I highly recommend; Davis regularly takes listeners deep down into the rabbit hole and through the other side with some truly innovative programming) hosted an excellent retrospective of Tchicai’s career (see playlist here), featuring some of his collaborations with Europe’s greatest contemporary jazz performers and composers of the 1970s. The loss of another free jazz giant and the sounds shared by Mr. Davis resonated with me and offered the necessary encouragement to look for recordings of Tchicai in the SFC.

John Martin Tchicai was born in Copenhagen in 1936 with a Danish mother and a Congolese father and his musical career reflects the broad scope of his Afro-Danish-American heritage. After moving to New York in 1963, and he quickly became a leading exponent of avant-garde jazz as it developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Tchicai co-founded the New York Contemporary Five with Archie Shepp and Don Cherry, and soon after, the New York Art Quartet. Along with Shepp, Tchicai joined the 1965 ensemble recording session for John Coltrane’s Ascencion, from which the photo above was taken. The SFC has a pristine copy of Ascencion, call number FC21590.

The LP held in the SFC is the original pressing of the album, known as “Edition I.” Edition I is the second recorded take of the composition and was originally released on Impulse in February 1966 (catalog number A-95). Tchicai takes the second solo  on side 2 of the original pressing, Edition I. However Ascension was quickly repressed with “Edition II,” the preferred take of Coltrane. On that version Tichai appears as the first soloist on side 2. Listen to Tchicai’s solo from Edition I here:

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In 1966, Tchicai returned to Denmark. He formed the collective orchestra ”Cadentia Nova Danica”, at one time a 30-piece ensemble, and recorded the groups excellent self titled album in 1968. Tchicai focused on teaching and his own spiritual practice in the 1970s, performing and recording less than the previous decade but still remaining productive. In 1978, Tchicai appeared on his first collaboration with South African bassist/composer Johnny Dyani and tenor saxophonist Dudu Pakwana, Witchdoctor’s Son, SFC call number FC24046. The ensemble’s recording of the traditional South African tune arranged by Dyani, “Magwaza,” remains a highlight of the record. Listen to an excerpt of Tchicai’s first solo below. (Click on photos to enlarge). 

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There are a few other recordings of Tchicai in the SFC but I wanted to close this post with an album he recorded with pianist Cecil Taylor in Italy in October of 1984, Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants), SFC call number FC23682. Tchicai plays tenor on this album, forming part of an 11 piece ensemble (including altoist Jimmy Lyons, basoonist Karen Borca, and bassist William Parker) that sounds as colorful and dense as the album’s cover art. A joyful noise indeed. Rest in peace, John Tchicai.