John Tchicai was cooler than the other vanguard saxophonists of the 60s. Less expressionistic and less explosive than Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, in classic ensembles like the New York Art Quartet and the New York Contemporary Five–where he shared the front line with Shepp and trumpeter Bill Dixon (later Don Cherry)–and on albums like Ayler’s New York Eye and Ear and John Coltrane’s massive Ascension, Tchicai tended to handle his alto with an even temper, supple phrasing, a pinched tone, and extremely coherent melodic ideas. (Writer Dan Morgenstern captured this in a 1966 feature for Down Beat tellingly titled “John Tchicai: A Calm Member of the Avant-Garde.”) Born in Denmark, Tchicai moved to New York in 1962 and made his mark as a prime member of the initial wave of American free-jazz musicians; he was a founder of the Jazz Composers Guild and a member of Carla Bley and Michael Mantler’s Jazz Composers Orchestra. In ’66 he returned to Europe, where he pushed his arrangements and compositions even further from late-60s virulence with his stunning ensemble Cadentia Nova Danica, whose startling 1968 debut featured plainchantlike pedal point and a homophonic reed choir. Tchicai also worked with the cream of the free improvisers, including pianist Misha Mengelberg, trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, guitarist Derek Bailey, and pianist Irene Schweizer. In the early 70s he retired to teaching, but reemerged at the end of the decade to make great records with Danish guitarist Pierre Dorge (with whose New Jungle Orchestra he appeared at the 1986 Chicago Jazz Festival) and work extensively with the late great South African bassist Johnny Dyani (with whom he played Link’s Hall the same year). Now playing an array of horns, including tenor and soprano saxes and bass clarinet, Tchicai has been leading ensembles of younger musicians–often not anywhere near his musical caliber–such as the Archetypes, which released the synth-heavy Love Is Touching (X-Talk) in ’95. I caught him playing his own tunes with pianist Marilyn Crispell at the Du Maurier festival in Vancouver a few years ago, and he still has a staggering authority and profound presence. For these extremely rare Chicago dates, Tchicai teams up twice with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa (“Neon Vernacular”) and once with a quartet coled by New Orleans tenor saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan. Friday, Tchicai and Komunyakaa will be joined by bassist Fred Hopkins, Danish drummer Benita Haastrup, keyboardist Margriet Naber-Tchicai (John’s wife), guitarist Jeff Parker, and Aaron Getsug on baritone sax. Saturday it’s just Tchicai and Komunyakaa; the performance with the Jordan group is Sunday. Friday and Saturday, 8:30 PM, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division; 312-719-1679 or 773-278-2210. Sunday, 8 PM, Unity Temple, 875 Lake, Oak Park; 708-383-8873. JOHN CORBETT
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by David A. Guastavino.