Capsule jazz histories tell us European harmony and African rhythm came together west of the Atlantic. Yes, but: North Americans may forget that Africa and Europe are close neighbors whose cultures were interacting long before Columbus; even now, their musical mixes may bypass direct American mediation. In September and October 2012 two great and very different Afro-European saxophonists passed away: Denmark’s John Tchicai, well known to American fans, and the South Africa-born Dutchman Sean Bergin, who deserves much wider fame.
Born in Copenhagen in 1936 to a Congolese father and Danish mom, Tchicai struggled with bebop’s demands as a young alto player. When free music hit around 1960, he heard greater opportunities for self-expression. In 1962 he moved to New York, and soon was in the thick of the scene, recording with tenor Albert Ayler on New York and Ear Control and with John Coltrane on his big-group blow-out Ascension. Tchicai co-founded the New York Contemporary Five, where he was sandwiched between bugling cornetist Don Cherry and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, notorious for hogging solo space. (John also played on Shepp’s four-horn Four for Trane: rearranged Coltrane tunes.)
The altoist got more space in the New York Art Quartet, where – as on their 1964 debut – his thin tone contrasted with Roswell Rudd’s thicker trombone sound; that band also featured a new drummer with a dry, logrolling sound: Milford Graves. Tchicai’s sound is oddly cool, given free jazz’s usual heat. His long bent notes suggest Ornette Coleman’s influence, but where Ornette’s elasticity brings out his blues strain, Tchicai’s note-stretching sounds more like a straight taffy pull.
In hindsight, he sounds like he’s straining on alto, not least when competing with bigger horns. In the early ’80s Tchicai switched to tenor, and his sound became deeper, earthier and more confident: a new beginning.
But we get ahead of ourselves. In the mid ’60s he’d returned to Denmark, and began collaborating with other luminaries of the new European jazz – Holland’s Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink, Switzerland’s Irene Schweizer, fellow Dane Pierre Dørge – and with South African exiles like Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo.
Later Tchicai made several weird, overlooked albums with pianist Kristian Blak, from Denmark’s far, far Faroe Islands. Blak’s music (as on 1982′s Ravnating with Tchicai on alto and soprano saxes and bass clarinet) is an unlikely amalgam of fake medievalism, early Keith Jarrett rolling and Canterbury rock, with some nature sounds thrown in. He and Tchicai were still at as late as 2000′s Anybody Home? under John’s name.
Tchicai’s tenor sounds great, voicing Curtis Clark’s catchy but curve-bally melodies on 1987′s Letter to South Africa, recorded in Amsterdam by an international quintet. As composer or pianist, Clark can be romantic but never sappy, and can go “outside” without forsaking lyricism, making him a good match for Tchicai, the lone wind player here. Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger alternates among sweet/sour/scratchy solos, frisky rhythm strumming, and syncing with Ernst Glerum’s bass. Moholo brings his South African swing to the drums.
John Tchicai spent much of the 1990s teaching at UC Davis, and recording with many younger American players on three coasts. His 1999 Infinitesimal Flash recalls his roiling ’60s New York bands; its sensibility reflects fellow tenor Francis Wong’s interest in traditional Chinese material as well as John’s own broad curiosity. His old slippery alto feeling returns on soprano sax, for the traditional “Autumn Moon.” There’s also a little spoken-word stuff, echoing Amiri Baraka’s recitation back on the first New York Art Quartet album.
Back in Europe, he made 2007′s Coltrane in Spring with three younger Danes: cornetist/pianist Jonas Müller, bassist Nikolaj Munch-Hansen and drummer Kresten Osgood. With its poetry recitation (the title track), one-world pentatonics and South African echoes (“Dashiki Man,” “Row Your Loveboat”), Ornetty/New York freebop (“Ude I Det Fri,” “Double Arc Jake”) and push-pull quartet dynamic (“On Top of Your Head”) it showcased John’s lyrical and blustery sides, and felt like a career summing-up.
In Holland, the soft-spoken Tchicai crossed paths with Sean Bergin, a volatile, cantankerous charmer in the Charles Mingus mode. Bergin was born in Durban in 1948 and settled in Amsterdam in the 1970s, where he too worked with Reijseger, Bennink and Mengelberg, and schooled younger players in workshops and weekly jam sessions. He stayed connected to South African roots, working with fellow exiles Moholo and bassist Harry Miller. Bergin may be best known Stateside for his go-for-broke alto and tenor playing on drummer Barry Altschul’s 1985 That’s Nice. But Sean’s greatest achievement was recorded two years later, the first and best album by his little big band the M.O.B. (My Own Band).
Kids Mysteries isn’t just one of the great documents of the amazingly fertile Amsterdam scene, it’s one of the great jazz records of the last 25 years, period, with an uncanny balance of loose feeling and precise execution. Bergin’s international tentet all but bursts out of the charts, yet the players are fully in tune in every sense: They nail the melody statements, delve deep into the written material in their solos, and never knock each other off balance for all the elbowing they do. Han Bennink’s whipcrack drumming snaps everybody’s rhythm into line.
Concertos for soloists include “Monkey Woman” for donkey-braying trombonist Wolter Wierbos and the penguin-sleek “Beach Balls” for clarinetist Michael Moore, but it’s all sterling. Sean’s orchestral writing can be knotty and clever, but there’s a strong whiff of South African streetcorner kwela in his catchy tunes; even the three-chord bassoon bassline to “Thoko’s Tune” will have you whistling. (The howling lead alto is Sean’s.) Kids Mysteries is a near-perfect masterwork.