Friday 24 September 2010

The John Tchicai Trio in Oxford

(John Tchicai: tenor saxophone, flute; John Edwards: bass; Tony Marsh: drums, percussion)

Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford
Thursday 23rd September 2010

One might not think of the still yawning gulf between the quality of the music and the size of the audience in the world of improvised music as particularly advantageous, and, broadly speaking, one would be entirely correct. Nonetheless, there is a more fortunate side effect resulting from this state of affairs: because of the music’s low profile, one can get to see such superlative practitioners of the art as John Tchicai in settings such as that in which he performed on this night – unamplified and close, not barking down at the audience from a stage on-high, his instrumental voice (mis-)translated through the electronic boom of a PA system, but at the same level as the audience, on the same floor, just a few feet away from the front-row chairs – where a movement from one side of the room to the other can create a perceptible shift in dynamics, in the weight of sound, where the ‘accidentals’ (the thwack and thud of feet on floor, the sound of breath, of the exertion evinced by total mental/physical commitment to the music) are not drowned out, but can take their place as a vital part of the music’s continuing argument, a kind of sub-plot to the main drama taking place in the world of notes, tones and harmonies.

I say ‘exertion’, and I have in mind Tchicai’s two accompaniments on this occasion, the English drum and bass pairing of John Edwards and Tony Marsh. Both Edwards, who at times let out a mumbling vocal murmur in accompaniment to his bass playing, Jimmy-Garrison style, and Marsh, who, like Tchicai, spent most of the performance with his eyes closed (so well does he know his way round his kit), dropped musical implements (Edwards his bow, Marsh a drumstick), during moments where their physical involvement with the music had reached its most fevered pitch. Tchicai himself, a striking figure with an elegant six-foot-plus frame, showed his involvement for the most part simply by playing beautiful, engaging and engaged music, though there were occasions where his knees bent in the kind of calisthenics for which John Coltrane became known in his later performances. His main instrument of choice since the 1980s has been the tenor saxophone, rather than the alto for which he became known in the 1960s: nonetheless, the particular quality of tone he extracts from both members of the saxophone family is remarkably similar, piquant and individual, like an extension of, or a musical complement and alternative to his speaking and singing voice (which he may also deploy in the course of an improvisation). Whereas many free jazz players emphasize the growling, honking lower register potential of the tenor, Tchicai mostly avoids such sounds, and even the multiphonics and altissimo that mark the opposite, high-register extreme. Instead, he plays inventively melodic and captivatingly open improvisations: lots of phrases are repeated, sometimes with shades of the ecstatic driving-to-abandon of the blues ‘gut-bucket’ honkers, though more often as if to tease out the full implications of the repeated phrase until it springs into a new phrase, a new area of investigation. He is no hurry, willing to let the music evolve and do its work at a speed which will do it justice, with no shortage of ideas but no need or wish to rush headlong through them all at lightning-speed.

There were a couple of sheet-music stands on ‘stage’, but the music was never governed by a simple theme/solos/theme structural template – Ornette Coleman’s great innovation in the 50s, playing on the ‘mood’ of the song rather than its chord-change structure bears fruit still, half-a-century later, in such contexts as these: melodic yet open, rehearsed yet elastic. ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ made a brief appearance in the first piece; the second was a calypso, Tchicai emphasizing with relish and almost humorous exaggeration the long, deliciously extended downwards smear that ended the melody. Edwards was –once again! – outstanding, his playing displaying, perhaps more than usual, overt jazz touches that meshed well with Tchicai’s vocabulary, but also plenty of ‘out’ techniques, all adapted to and from the emotional, colouristic and textural needs of the moment. Thus, we had strummed double-stops, punchy thwacks, and buzzing, vibrating strings, walking bass patterns, careening figures produced by sliding both hands in succession over the neck of the bass, and muted accompaniment, produced through variation in finger pressure on the strings, to Tchicai’s flute playing. Some of this was displayed in group work, some in solo spots, and Marsh was also afforded some solo time, his playing radiating a joyous sense of possibility and a sense of melodic invention, as he developed engrossing solo patterns on the kit and traded playful fours (or near-fours) with Tchicai. There was no supporting act on the evening, which seemed just right: wonderful that a band like this should be able to expand and develop their interplay over the course of a whole gig, rather than being squeezed into a single slot where everything has to coalesce instantly and at speed.

After an interval, the second set found Tchicai playing flute as well as saxophone (he brought things to a quiet close on this instrument, his repeated incantation shadowed by bowed bass), and reciting some lines of poetry. “Truth is found/ in between / the mother of all recipes” – these were lines intoned, almost song-like, which seemed to spur on a particular vigorous section of saxophone playing; later, some words about geography and direction (movements north, south, east, west), with a Coltrane reference (Giant Steps – though this was fleeting, and the poem was, thankfully, not another ‘Coltrane’ poem bulked up by quotations of song and album titles), and then a speculation on what it would be like if all those humans and animals whose feet and claws made marks on a beach were brought together at the same time, in that same place. Like Cecil Taylor, Tchicai has not had books or even pamphlets of his work published, though a poem does appear in the recent anthology ‘Silent Solos: Improvisers Speak’: like that recited in Oxford, it concerns itself with speculative and only-half rhetorical questions, dreams, imaginings – in this latter case, a visit to “that/ strange looking star in the lower Milky Way.” “On arriving,” continues Tchicai, “I put my ear to the rubbery surface of the star/ and I heard a sound as if a great crowd of people came toward me.” [1] The poetic concern in both cases seems to be with the imprints left by people in physical space, on physical surfaces, the history embedded in sand or soil or star, the sense that, in some way, the earth itself is voiced, in exchange with the multitude of speaking and singing humans who inhabit it: that travel is not simply a matter of temporal and geographic progress (though the lines about geography do indicate this as a thematic concern), but something that can be accomplished in the present moment, as a means of communication with the past, with ‘other worlds’ (other spheres of experience, modes of being and apprehension). The ‘here and now’ is thus revealed as more than just a banal present-ness in which we are trapped by routine and the force of circumstance: rather, it is a world of possibilities, echoes, prophecies, borrowings, sharings. Which transfers appropriately to this trio’s performance: it was all about communication with the audience, with each other, with the history, present and future of the music. “The mother of all recipes,” in/deed.

[1] John Tchicai, ‘untitled’ (pp.145-6), in ‘silent solos: improvisers speak’ (ed. Renate de Rin) (buddy’s knife jazzeditions, 2010)

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