Recorded by Todd Carter May 15th, 2011, live at the Hungry Brain, Chicago.
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.