We Remember Tchicai
…as does Ches Smith


John Tchicai’s Five Points
One Long Minute
Nu Bop : 2008

TC, tenor sax; Alex Weiss, alto sax; Garrison Fewell, guitar; Dmitry Ishenko, bass; Ches Smith, drums.

John Tchicai died a year ago last week; October 8th, to be exact. We were reminded of this sad fact by drummer Ches Smith, who submitted the following guest post reflecting on Tchicai’s influence, and Smith’s own time playing with the tall Congolese Dane in his later days. We thank Ches for allowing us to post his words, and the sweet tune above. Thanks, too, to Stephen Buono for facilitating. By the way, for those in the NYC area, there is a memorial concert tonight (Friday, 18 Oct) honoring Tchicai, taking place at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, at 7pm.

Take it away, Mr. Smith…

When I was 17 or 18 and living in Eugene, Oregon, my metal friends and I decided to hear John Tchicai play a concert at the local hall. Our curiosity was piqued because his association with John Coltrane was advertised. After a solo set by Derek Bailey, Tchicai took the stage, playing duo with a Bay Area-based drummer named Spirit. A few minutes into the set my friends were at the door, frantically motioning for me to leave with them; worn out by the Bailey set (no metal riffs there), they couldn’t deal with this at all.

I decided to stay. It sounded much different from the only reference point I had that was even close to what I was hearing — John Coltrane’s Om. Tchicai would accentuate the multi-directional rhythms of Spirit in a simple and direct way; often diatonically or even pentatonically, picking out elements of the storm of rhythm to match up with, or creating riffs. It stood apart from a cathartic “energy music” approach.

Perhaps this is what makes him so identifiable on seminal recordings in creative music. On both John Coltrane’s Ascension and the Albert Ayler-led New York Eye and Ear Control, Tchicai employs a sparse, melodic approach (not without humor) that stands in sharp relief to Coltrane and Ayler’s religious fervor, and the visceral noise-sonic textures of Sanders, Shepp, and Brown. The recent Triple Point box set, Call it Art, which contains largely unreleased material of the New York Art Quartet, shows the powerful alliance of Tchicai and Roswell Rudd: together they show what a succinct approach such as Tchicai’s can mean for an ensemble if developed by like-minded musicians dedicated to a unified aesthetic.

Tchicai insisted on fully exploring the options of the moment. At that Eugene, Oregon, concert described above, he noticed someone dancing in the audience, and spent the next 5 minutes of his set exclusively accompanying her. When I played with him for the first time, in a trio with Mary Halvorson, he walked over and, in a whisper, asked Mary if she sang. He then asked me, in front of the audience, if I spoke French. At the end of the great recording Willi the Pig (a 1975 Willisau date co-led with Irène Schweizer), Tchicai, seemingly in a state of great alarm, instructs the audience to refrain from clapping — it is clear they really want to. He then humorously berates them in German for a minute, finally allowing them to applaud — which they do, vigorously. Exploration of possibilities could even mean recalling his own history: on a gig by his working NYC-based sextet Six Points, he and I slipped into a sax/drums duo, and I immediately felt the historic weight of a sound-energy that was coming directly from an original source — given my previous experiences listening, I was surprised to find he also possessed a firebrand tenor sax player’s intensity that would rival the energy music of the best of the 60’s “new thing.”

When Tchicai formed what I think was his last working group, Five Points (with Alex Weiss, Garrison Fewell, Dmitry Ishenko, and myself, soon to be Six Points with the inclusion of Rosi Herlein), he chose a diverse group of improvisers without an abundance of renown, who were open and friendly as people and players. Each member was encouraged to bring in compositions, giving us insight into each other as musical thinkers, and also fostering a sense that the group belonged to us all. Many compositions of John’s stood out. The tune above was written as a drum feature, but I like how it works as a melody — it’s a good example of his melodic sense. And this is the score for a quite economical piece of John’s called “One of Those” (copyright 2010 John Tchicai):

1. Fast (tutti) pp
2. Slow (tutti) mf
3. Solo/s: _______
4. Fast (tutti) + main soloist ________
5. Solo/s: _________
6. Slow (tutti) decrescendo

In rehearsal he specified that we should loop material in the “tutti” sections, leaving the pitch and rhythm content up to us. After 45-plus years of Tchicai composing plenty of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic material, this piece stands out for its open-endedness. It is also notable that you can immediately identify it in a set, given how little is on the page. Coming as I was out of the early 2000’s SF Bay Area noise scene that placed a premium on cathartic repetition, this was, to me, what music was supposed to sound like. This late piece in his repertoire makes me wonder what was to come next for John Tchicai.


You can hear Ches Smith on a vast array of tremendously good recordings released this year, chief among them Shadow Man (ECM), with Tim Berne’s Snakeoil (see them on tour now!); Hammered (Clean Feed), by Ches Smith and These Arches; Illusionary Sea (Firehouse 12), by Mary Halvorson’s Septet; and Your Turn (Northern Spy), by Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog group. Coming up for Smith: handling the music for Xiu Xiu’s album of Nina Simone covers, and a concert 10 November at the Bimhuis, in Amsterdam, billed as “A Meeting of Haitian Drums and Creative Music

And finally (h/t to Doug):

Category Ches Smith, guest posts, John Tchicai