Avant-garde thinker takes a turn with a trio

Boston Globe, February 8, 2008

Improvised music never happens in a vacuum. It’s the product of an encounter, when musicians listen and respond together in a way that none could have achieved alone. The deeper the encounter, the more fully present the players, the greater the liberties they can take with conventions and still produce beautiful music.

That’s what the saxophonists John Tchicai and Charlie Kohlhase and the guitarist Garrison Fewell have done in a trio where the unusual instrumentation, with overlapping saxes and no rhythm section, creates a warm, contemplative sound through an elegant balance of melodic elements and free improvisation, as well as judicious use of quiet.

The combo released an album, “Good Night Songs,” in 2006, on the Vermont label Boxholder Records. It’s a live recording of a concert they gave at a Unitarian chapel in Amherst, arguably a spiritually propitious setting as well as one that offered nice acoustics. They reunite Sunday at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis.

With both Kohlhase and Fewell stalwarts on the Boston scene, this is a project with numerous New England aspects. But it’s the presence of the 71-year-old Tchicai, an elder revered in some avant-garde circles but whose nearly five-decade career has been spent in relative obscurity, that gives the trio its creative focus and center of gravity.

Tchicai, who is Danish and whose father came from Congo, played in New York during the fertile moment in the mid-1960s when free jazz took wing. Along with fellow saxophonists Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Marion Brown, he took part in John Coltrane’s “Ascension,” the benchmark 1965 session.

But he went on to spend the bulk of his career back in Europe, except for a stint in California in the 1990s. Much of his work has been with European collaborators little known here. He now lives in a village outside Perpignan in the far south of France.

Reached on the phone during a recent visit to New York, Tchicai says he’s been unexpectedly busy of late, experiencing renewed interest from musicians and promoters.

“I’ve been getting calls from all over the place,” he says. “I think it comes from all the musicians that are finally seeing the light, the differences in the way I play, the way I make music. They want to experience that way of making music together.”

One aspect of the Tchicai way is that it eschews the traditional format of successive solo turns. “I don’t very much like to hear that stuff with a saxophone solo or a trumpet solo and the rest of the guys accompanying,” he says. “I like more the collective and social aspect of some people together, not having one guy in front and the rest to pick him up.”

To this Tchicai adds a spiritual dimension that separates his approach from that of drier, more theoretically minded improvisers. Whether it comes from his 1960s experiences, his longtime involvement with yoga and meditation, or his interest in folk music of many backgrounds, his playing remarkably combines a lightness of spirit and a searching feel. He’s liable to break out singing, as he does a couple of times on “Good Night Songs.”

This group was Tchicai’s idea. He had already known Kohlhase for a few years – they first met, Tchicai recalls, when Kohlhase approached him after a concert with a tape of music to listen to – and later met Fewell at the home of a mutual friend.

As for the trio: “I don’t know how I get these ideas,” Tchicai says. “Sometimes they just don’t work, other times they’re fruitful. I just got the idea that trying two saxophones and the guitar could be tasteful and economic. The thing about not having any drums, you can go to some other places and not have a lot of cymbals ringing in your ears.”

One aspect of “Good Night Songs” that stands out is its versatility, as Tchicai and Kohlhase switch among an array of saxophones and, in Tchicai’s case, a gorgeous bass clarinet. Meanwhile, guitarist Fewell performs a multiplicity of roles.

“Sometimes I cover the bass, and play from that perspective,” Fewell says. “Other times, I’m just another horn, playing not chords but single lines. The direction of the music expands so that the guitar can be a small orchestra.”

Fewell cautions against pigeonholing Tchicai as simply a product of the ’60s avant-garde.

“A lot of people took it out, but John brought it back in,” he says. “He’s evolved. He still has his sound, the essence is still there. But the way in which he applies himself to his music is different. He concentrates on the composition, the details of the tunes. The improvisations are there as part of the music, but it’s a more melodic direction.”

Working with Tchicai, Fewell says, is a rare opportunity for an improviser. “You don’t even know what is going to come out,” he says. “He enables you to play those things that you can’t find.”