John Tchicai Dons Asian Mantle For Infinitesimal Flash

CD is a new flavor for the adventurous tenor saxophonist.

Saxophonist, composer, performer and teacher John Tchicai continues to stretch his musical language with his latest release, Infinitesimal Flash (Buzz), this time incorporating Eastern influences.

But, Tchicai says, "I don't think of this album as the next step forward, but rather one of many steps. I think that the album [Angolian Cry, released in 1987] is filled with African steps, and this one is filled with Asian steps."

Though Tchicai, 63, is still — and probably always will be — best known for his groundbreaking avant-garde jazz work in the '60s with players such as saxophonist John Coltrane and trumpeter Don Cherry, he's a true world musician.

Born in Denmark to a Danish mother and a Congolese father, he studied for two years at the prestigious Conservatory of Music in Aarhus, Denmark, before coming to the United States in 1962.

Throughout the past three decades he has toured the world in various bands — including Denmark's New Jungle Orchestra — and he's taught in France and Japan. In 1991, he finally settled near Sacramento, Calif., where he teaches improvisation at the University of California at Davis.

Tchicai received a lifetime grant from the Danish Ministry of Culture in 1990 and has been a California Artist-in-Residence and a National Endowment for the Arts fellow.

A World Of Styles

His first instrument was the violin. "I played classical music, Mozart and stuff like that," Tchicai said. "My favorites were 20th-century classical composers like Bartók and Prokofiev and Webern — all those guys."

He got a swift jazz education in the early '60s when revolutionary artists such as saxophonist Archie Shepp and pianist Cecil Taylor came through Denmark. Infused with the fervor of those bands, Tchicai came to New York and fell in with the cutting-edge jazz scene.

In 1965 he played alto sax on Coltrane's landmark album Ascension, and around that time he co-founded two seminal bands of the era, the New York Contemporary Five and the New York Art Quartet, which featured drummer Milford Graves, trombonist Roswell Rudd and bassist Reggie Workman. Last year the group re-formed for a tour and CD, 35th Reunion, released on DIW.

Tchicai has released about 35 albums as a bandleader, and dozens more as a sideman.

In the '80s, Tchicai switched from alto to tenor sax. "It's just a different technique playing the tenor horn," he said. "You have to be stronger, you have to have a bigger physique, bigger lungs. It's more of the same attitude I had toward the saxophone and toward the song I had. Of course it's not an alto song, it's a saxophone song that is just bigger. When I started out, I didn't really have any specific idea in terms of how it should sound, but I guess it just grew little by little." Tchicai also plays the bass clarinet.

As in previous works, the influences in Infinitesimal Flash — featuring Francis Wong on saxophone, Adam Lane on bass and Matt Marucci on percussion — meld together gracefully, highlighted in the duets with Wong.

Inventive Dialogue

Wong, who has recorded several albums for the Asian Improv label, brings a unique flavor to the album.

"It was a great vibe, especially trying to match, to be in dialogue with such an inventive person such as Tchicai, " Wong said of making the CD. "He really had me going. There is no real laying back when you're in a group with Tchicai." "Autumn Moon" (RealAudio excerpt) is probably the best example of Wong's dialogue with Tchicai.

The most striking aspect of the collection is the way the pieces ebb and flow into each other. With such diverse and different cultural pulls, one might expect bumpy transitions, but not here.

"He is the master of cross-cultural, in that space, but at the same time being his own voice," Wong said of Tchicai.

As ever, Tchicai is keeping busy. He performs twice this week at the Eddie Moore Jazz Festival at Yoshi's in Oakland, Calif. — with clarinetist Alvin Batiste on Thursday and with the New Jungle Orchestra on Sunday. On Sept. 1 Tchicai will play with the Yo Miles! band, which interprets mid-'70s Miles Davis tunes, at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, and he'll also record with the band. In December Tchicai will release a CD featuring sax, two basses, keyboard and two drums.