From The Times, 25 November 1981
John Tchicai arrived in New York from his native Denmark in December 1962. Over the next three and a half years the sound of his saxophone became one of the most distinctive elements in jazz’s turbulent New Wave. He was a member of two foundational combos, the New York Contemporary Five and the New York Art Quartet, and took part in New York’s celebrated October Revolution in Jazz in 1964. He appeared with John Coltrane on Ascension, with Archie Shepp on Four for Trane, with Albert Ayler and Don Cherry on New York Eye and Ear Control, and on the first album by the Jazz Composers Orchestra. Then he went home, with other work to do.
Home turned out not to be just Copenhagen, where he founded the group Cadentia Nova Danica. In the years to come he would live in an artists’ colony in Switzerland; in Northern California, where he taught at Davis University; and, from 2001 until his death in 2012, a small village near Perpignan, on the French side of the Pyrenees. His extensive travels also included visits to India, Afghanistan, Iran, Japan, Sierra Leone and Mexico.
The bands he played in and the recordings he made were many. But of equal importance were the lessons and workshops he gave, sharing with young musicians the philosophy developed during the years in which a man born in 1936 to a Danish mother and a Congolese father absorbed musical ideas from around the world.
It was at a workshop in Rotterdam in 1989 that he met Margriet Naber, a young Dutch musician who became his fourth wife and his collaborator for 20 years. She was with him in California — where they had a band called the Archetypes — and France, and although they split up in 2009 and eventually divorced, they continued to live in the same village and she was with him when he died in a nursing home following a stroke. It is from their conversations, her very clear memories and the material he left behind that she has assembled a book which answers the description of a biography in conventional terms but is also, thanks to the close personal and artistic relationship between the author and her subject, something more.
Tchicai’s stories of growing up as a mixed-race boy in a white world are fascinating. His much older half-brother, Kaj Timmermann, formed a popular band called the Harlem Kiddies in 1940, and in 1953 John saw the Stan Kenton Orchestra in Copenhagen. It was hearing Lee Konitz with Kenton that inspired him to take up the alto saxophone, leaving an influence on the lighter, purer sound that made Tchicai’s own alto stand out amid the maelstrom of 1960s free jazz.
Although his many adventures and countless collaborations are part of the narrative, this is not the place to look for a deep analysis of his music. Instead Naber gives us insights into his thoughts and his teaching methods. Like John Stevens (with whom he played at a famous Cambridge concert with Yoko Ono and John Lennon in 1969), Tchicai favoured an open and practical approach that encouraged musicians of all levels of ability to express themselves though improvisation, illustrated by the score of a piece which gives the book its title: “A Chaos with Some Kind of Order”. From another example, his instructions are very similar to those Stevens used to give: “…try to anticipate and play some of the same tones in the same moment as other players would do them…”
Poetry was important to Tchicai. He wrote it — a few of his poems are included — and he recited it in his beautifully modulated voice. Naber tells us that he only consented to record with John Coxon and Ashley Wales (of Spring Heel Jack) in 2005 if they agreed to let him read Steve Dalachinsky’s “These Pink Roses”, which appeared as a kind of epilogue to the wonderful album called John Tchicai with Strings. Naber uses appendices to give us his advice on improvising and on building a set list, lead sheets of a handful of his tunes, and an outline discography.
Tchicai also looked after himself, through yoga and other practices. Naber describes his routine: “He got up around 6am and sat down for a meditation of around an hour. Then he would make some tea and a piece of rye bread for breakfast before doing more exercises, for instance pranayama (yoga/breathing exercises). That could also take an hour. After that, he’d eat some more and tend to work. Sometimes this would be musical work, working with notes, with an instrument, a piece of paper, his keyboard or sequencer. Sometimes it would be business work, like writing letters. When he was done with that, often it was lunchtime and John liked to have a hot meal for lunch. We took turns cooking meals. In the afternoon he’d go out to get some air and do chores like going to the post office or to the copyshop to make photocopies of charts and send them to musicians he played with. Or he’d go into nature. In the evening he went to hear music, watched a movie on television, or turned back to music to continue working. He didn’t go to bed late, didn’t smoke and didn’t drink much alcohol. This was John’s rhythm. When he was on tour he also tried to maintain it as much as possible, at least by doing a meditation in the morning. He was always busy, and often it was work-related, but it was always in a relaxed way. He played his musical rhythms in a relaxed way and he did the same with his life-rhythm. It was a nice rhythm to live next to…”
Remembering all the pleasure John’s music gave me on record since the early ’60s and in live performance from the first encounter in Berlin in 1969 to the last at Cafe Oto in 2009, I was delighted to respond to Naber’s request to read and comment on her manuscript before publication. I was able to give a little help, but she had it all there. It’s her great feeling for what he represented, as well as her diligence and persistence, that courses through this intimate and valuable account of his life and work.
* John Tchicai: A Chaos with Some Kind of Order by Margriet Naber is published by Ear Heart Mind Media and is available from http://www.johntchicai.com. John Tchicai with Strings is on the Treader label. The drawing of Tchicai is by the Dutch artist Marte Röling and is from the cover of Mohawk, a 1965 album by the New York Art Quartet, originally released on Fontana.
The world needs a really great Don Cherry biography, one that would do full justice to the story of the man whose collaboration with Ornette Coleman brought a completely new set of attitudes to the business of playing jazz at the end of the 1950s and who then, rather than polishing his laurels, set out on a long and eventful mission to explore the music of the world. Until someone approaches the task with the sort the depth and sensitivity that characterised Robin D. G. Kelley’s study of Thelonious Monk or John Szwed’s Miles Davis biog, a new anthology titled Organic Music Societies will do to be going on with.
A 496-page compendium of pieces, poems, photographs and artwork, it was compiled and edited by Lawrence Kumpf — the curator of the Cecil Taylor exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York five years ago — with Naima Karlsson (Cherry’s granddaughter) and the writer Magnus Nygren, and published by Kumpf’s Brooklyn-based Blank Forms imprint. Writings by early champions Keith Knox and Rita Knox, the Swedish artist and musician Christer Bothén, the curator Ruba Katrib, the music historian Ben Young and the academic Fumi Okiji sit alongside contributions from Moki Cherry, Don’s wife, and Neneh Cherry, his stepdaughter.
It’s full of fascinating stuff, much of it coming from several interviews with Cherry conducted by Knox. In one lengthy reminiscence, he talks about Miles Davis borrowing his pocket trumpet to play on a gig in California, and about Monk coming to see the Coleman quartet at the Five Spot in 1959. Discussing the Argentinian tenorist Gato Barbieri, a member of his band in the ’60s, he says: “Gato is a fantastic man. He’s got so much love in him, automatically in his sound, and he’s paid a lot of dues, he’s come a long way from where he’s from, down in Buenos Aires. You can hear that in his sound — it’s one of those sounds that puts the wind in your face.”
One of those sounds that puts the wind in your face. What a great thing to say, and somehow it seems very typical of the way Cherry heard and felt music, as a part of the elements of the natural world — the response of a man who took as much pleasure from playing the doussn’gouni, the African hunter’s harp, as from his trumpet. Thanks to what he discovered during his travels to Turkey, Morocco, Sweden and elsewhere, he collapsed the distance between the supposedly primitive and the supposedly sophisticated more effectively than any musician I can think of.
There are diaries, a piece on Pandit Pran Nath and an interview with Terry Riley, a conversation with Cherry about his term as artist in residence at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and a description by Moki of her background in Sweden and how she and Don met in Stockholm in 1963 and what happened next. I suppose you could say it’s a bit of a random selection, but the parts are tied together by the visual element, which includes a large number of interesting photos and a lot of the paintings, fabrics and tapestries with which Moki gave such a strong flavour to her husband’s work when they were used as stage backdrops, costumes, posters and flyers and on the covers of albums like Mu First and Second Parts, Relativity Suite and Organic Music Society.
If the book has a strong flavour of the children-at-play utopianism of the ’60s, when many of the pieces were first published, so be it. You might feel, after leafing through it, that even now, against all the odds, utopianism deserves its chance.
* Organic Music Societies can be ordered from the publisher at http://www.blankforms.org ($20 paperback, $60 hardback). The photograph of Don Cherry is from the book and was taken by Moki Cherry.
A year and a half before his death in 2015 at the age of 75, the pianist Masabumi Kikuchi entered a recording studio for the last time. At the behest of the producer Sun Chung, he spent two days recording the series of solo pieces that make up Hanamichi, the final statement of a remarkable musician.
This certainly qualifies as the kind of late work in which ageing artists refine their work to the point where only the essence is left visible. Kikuchi started out playing conventional jazz, went through a fusion period, and eventually found a truly original voice. From the start of the 1990s he became engaged in a process of stripping away all ornamentation from his playing, something that became apparent in the 1990s in First Meeting, the debut album of Tethered Moon, the trio in which he was joined by the bassist Gary Peacock and the drummer Paul Motian, and in his solo albums, Attached, After Hours, After Hours 2, Melancholy Gil, and M. Two albums released in the last decade — Sunrise, a trio with Motian and the bassist Thomas Morgan, and a solo concert titled Black Orpheus — brought his discoveries to a wider audience.
Without wishing to fall for a cultural stereotype, it can fairly be said that Kikuchi’s playing in his final years recalled the process of Japanese calligraphy described by Bill Evans in his notes for Kind of Blue: the careful preparation of the brush and the ink and the stretching of the parchment, followed by the single spontaneous and indelible gesture. As he slowed his playing right down to the speed of meditation, weighting each note and balancing each phrase, obsessively repeating the lines of melody over and over again with minute variations, Kikuchi found new meanings within Carla Bley’s “Utviklingssang” and Luis Bonfa’s “Manhã de Carnaval”.
Hanamichi takes its title from a phrase meaning “the way of the flowers”, applied to the raised platform through an auditorium on which actors in traditional Japanese theatre enter and leave the stage. It is the most moving of valedictory performances. Kikuchi opens by lightly caressing and examining the romantic contours of the pre-war ballad “Ramona” before producing a mesmerising 11-minute “Summertime” fit to stand among my favourite versions of the great Gershwin song, alongside those by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Booker T and the MGs, Billy Stewart and Albert Ayler.
Two adjacent versions of “My Favourite Things” form the album’s centrepiece. Different in attack and trajectory, they’re like seeing an artist render the same object in aquatint and etching. And they make you think that that Kikuchi could have made an entire album out of this tune, holding it up and turning it slowly to watch the light catch it from different angles. (This is how he operated in solo performance: his 1994 version of “Manhã da Carnaval” was completely different from the one included on Black Orpheus, the 2012 recording of his last public recital, although recognisably the product of the same sensibility.)
They’re followed by a wholly improvised piece displaying the pianist’s characteristic use of the sustain pedal to build overtones, subtly hinting at the sound of bells and a gamelan as the single-note phrases coil around each other, gathering in force before resolving in tranquillity. The programme ends with “Little Abi”, a ballad Kikuchi wrote for his daughter in the 1970s, and which became a signature piece: another lovely tune within which he never ceased to make fresh discoveries.
All in all, this is the most affecting solo piano album I’ve heard since Keith Jarrett’s much-loved The Melody at Night, With You more than 20 years ago. Kikuchi’s lyricism isn’t as obvious as Jarrett’s, but the emotional commitment is apparent in every perfectly deployed note. A fine way to say goodbye.
* The photograph of Masabumi Kikuchi was taken by Tae Cimarosti and appears in the booklet accompanying Hanamichi, which is on the Red Hook label. Attached (BJL), After Hours (Verve), After Hours 2 (PJL), Melancholy Gil (Verve) and M (Media Rings) are now, sadly, unobtainable, although some of them are on YouTube. First Meeting is on Winter & Winter, as are other Tethered Moon albums. Sunrise and Black Orpheus are on ECM.
Summer’s here, more or less, and Joel Selvin’s new book, Hollywood Eden, is a good one to take to the beach, the park or the back garden. Subtitled “Electric Guitars, Fast Cars and the Myth of the California Paradise”, it’s the story of a group of white kids who poured out of the local high schools — Fairfax, University, Beverly Hills, Hawthorne and Roosevelt — intent on using the medium of the pop song to reflect a certain idea of life as it was lived by the jeunesse dorée of Southern California in the first half of the 1960s.
Employed as the pop columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1972 to 2009, Selvin also also contributed to Rolling Stone, the Melody Maker and other publications. His many books include biographies of Ricky Nelson and Bert Berns. It might seem strange to have a study of the Los Angeles scene from a San Francisco author, and indeed I’ve heard a grumble or two from native LA writers. But Selvin has certainly gathered enough information over the years to give credibility to his account.
This is a polyphonic tale switching back and forth between the stories of Jan and Dean, Kim Fowley, Sandy Nelson, Bruce Johnson and Terry Melcher, the Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Lou Adler, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, Johnny Rivers, the Byrds and the Mama’s and Papa’s as they proceed from the affluence and optimism of white America in the Eisenhower/Kennedy years to the dawn of the hippie era. The story of Jan Berry and Dean Torrence forms the spine of the book, much of it seen through the eyes of Jill Gibson, Jan’s girlfriend, who briefly replaced Michelle Phillips in the Mama’s and Papa’s and is the author’s principal source.
Berry himself was an interesting character: a confident, ambitious, driven young man who came from a rich family, studied medicine and had a fair amount of musical talent to go with his surf-god looks. In 1964 he and Dean had a hit with “Dead Man’s Curve”, a song about a fatal drag race along Sunset Boulevard between a Corvette Stingray and an E-type Jaguar whose morbid echoes gained an extra resonance two years later when Berry, a notoriously reckless driver, crashed his own Stingray close to that very spot, suffering injuries that effectively ended his career as a teen idol.
Other shadows dapple a mostly sunlit narrative: the motorcycle accident in which Nelson lost a leg, Wilson’s breakdown in 1964, and Adler’s cavalier treatment of Gibson when Phillips reclaimed her place in the group. They add a semblance of depth to a fast-paced book that reads like a proposal for a 10-part Netflix series and will certainly have many readers pulling out favourite tracks from the period (my random selection included J&D’s “I Found a Girl”, the Beach Boys’ “The Little Girl I Once Knew” and Bruce and Terry’s “Summer Means Fun”). The book ends without a hint of the horror that will soon erupt — in the form of the Manson murders — to demolish the security of the privileged caste whose golden hour it portrays.
* Joel Selvin’s Hollywood Eden is published by House of Anansi Press. The photograph is from a picture bag for Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” 45.
A peal of church bells is a familiar sound to most, yet full of strangeness. Listening to the baffling patterns created when a simple descending figure breaks up and reforms into a kind of Escher-like musical geometry, you might find yourself wondering if herein lies the true origin of the systems music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
The 30-year-old Sheffield-born pianist and composer Andrew Woodhead takes that sound not just as the inspiration but as the practical basis for Pendulums, a new album-length work subtitled “Music for bell-ringers, improvisers and electronics”. The result is a quite stunning achievement in which jazz yet again proves its unique ability to create a constructive interaction with all sorts of outside forms of music.
The bells of St Paul’s, Birmingham — installed 15 years ago in the 18th century church, not far from where Woodhead studied at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire — are the first things we hear in Pendulums, and the last. Eight bellringers are joined by two trumpets, two alto saxophones, two baritone saxophones and Woodhead’s electronic manipulation of the church bells and of various field recordings, including bicycle bells and the chimes of an ice-cream van. This film of a 10-minute section called “Changes” gives a view of the way in which the composer integrates his three basic building blocks, creating something more than just a sound-bed for the improvising soloists. Sometimes he transfers the characteristics of bell-ringing to the wind instruments, as at the beginning of “Tolls/Waves”, where the horns sound unison notes that evolve into a phasing pattern.
I particularly love the way Woodhead uses the four reed instruments to soften the metallic timbre of the church bells and the trumpets, and how he brings out the bells’ overtones to create a universe of sound. There’s quite a lot of free jazz practice here (a reminder that one of Albert Ayler’s most famous works was called “Bells”), notably in the sparring over a simple ostinato transferred from bells to saxophones on “Partials II”, but there’s also an saxophone-chorale introduction to a piece called “Plain Hunt IV” that recalls the Anglican hymnal (and the enigma of Thelonious Monk’s “Abide with Me”).
“Plain Hunt II” begins by processing the ice-cream van chimes into the sound of a spectral church organ before the horns take over with a passage of overlapping long tones, another example of how imaginatively Woodhead is transferring techniques from one set of musical tools to another. Towards the end of this piece the gentle hissing and sizzling of electronics is underscored by the tolling of a single bell: placed at the very heart of this compelling 68-minute suite, it’s a moment of beautiful simplicity.
* Andrew Woodhead’s Pendulums is released on June 11 on the composer’s own Leker label (www.andrewwoodheadmusic.com). Concert performances of the work are scheduled for 14 October 2021 at St Paul’s, Birmingham and 16 October 2021 at St Clement Danes Church, London WC2. The photograph of Woodhead conducting the recording is by Guri Bosh.