Monday, September 1, 2014


John Tchicai, Toronto July 1988

I WAS A MUSIC JOURNALIST at the same time I was starting my photography career, and like most music writers I reached that dread, inevitable point where I "got into jazz." At around the same time I became friends with saxophonist/flautist Jane Bunnett and her husband, trumpeter Larry Cramer, when I moved into a loft just around the corner from their Parkdale home. They had a residency of sorts at a goofy little Mexican restaurant on Bloor Street, and one week they brought in John Tchicai, a Danish sax player who had legendary status among fans of avant-garde jazz.

Tchicai was a kind of Zelig of free jazz, playing on John Coltrane's Ascension and Albert Ayler's New York Eye and Ear Control, and with ensembles such as the New York Art Quartet and the New York Contemporary Five. He also played on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Unfinished Music 2: Life With the Lions, but please don't hold that against him. If I'd known more about jazz at that point I'd probably have been in awe of him, but when Jane asked me to come and take a few shots of a friend who was in town playing with them, I just grabbed a roll of expired Kodachrome I had in the fridge and walked over.

We shot in their backyard, where the mature trees overhead filtered and softened the summer sunlight, though I'm sure some of the cool cast on the film comes from the outdated film. Kodachrome, introduced in the mid-'50s and virtually unchanged until it went out of production five years ago, was famous for its grainless texture and vivid colours, but was rated at just 64 ASA.

I'm sure I was working at the limits of my very limited technique at the time to get a sharp image at a slow shutter speed and slim aperture. I ended up with a sheet worth of slides I thought worth saving, though I think this is the first time anyone's seen them after they've sat in a binder for over 25 years; Tchicai might have been a free jazz legend, but the market for portraits of musicians like him has always been scant.

The show was pretty wild, full of all the skronk a free jazz fan would expect, with the bonus of singing by Tchicai, who liked to vocalize onstage. I'm sure I didn't get it at all, and my patience for this sort of thing hasn't improved with time, but I did know that I was seeing one of the last moments when most of the key figures in '60s avant garde jazz were at work and under full steam. Truth be told, the '80s were a great time to "get into jazz."

Tchicai made nearly sixty records as a leader and as many as a sideman. He recorded with electronic music ensembles like Spring Heel Jack - if someone knows where I can get a copy of their John Tchicai with Strings record I'd be grateful - and his last record, Tribal Ghost, is a beautiful example of very contemporary jazz, with decades of influences going back to the '50s, fully accounted for and digested. I'm a bit of a mouldy fucking fig, though, so I have a soft spot for In Monk's Mood, his very mainstream album of Thelonious Monk standards recorded fronting an organ trio.

John Tchicai died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in 2012.

John Tchicai, Toronto July 1988

No comments:

Post a Comment