On Top of Your Head
Ninth World Music 024CD

With a curriculum vitae as one of the original New Thingers stretching back to 1960s membership in the New York Art Quartet (NYAQ) and an appearance on John Coltrane’s ASCENSION, reedman John Tchicai has never lacked for playing partners.

Adapting orchestral sequencing plus variations on different ethnic musics to a formula that already reflected his Danish-Congolese background and American experience; Tchicai was a unique presence on the scene. Moving back and forth from Europe to the U.S., he was as apt to turn up on discs featuring Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer or South African bassist Johnny Dyani as Calfornian bassist Adam Lane or committed Asian-American improviser saxophonist Francis Wong.

That’s why this temperate set of avant-bop is an anomaly. Recorded in 2001 in Denmark, it’s one of the few times in recent years that the saxophonist has hung with his homies. All of the 16 tunes, feature Tchicai on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet plus veteran associates bassist Peter Friis Nielsen and percussionist P.O. Jørgens, best known for their membership in the Pan-European Wild Mans Band with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and SKRÆP, a local experimental music forum. Half of the pieces pair the tenor saxophonist with multi-woodwind player Christian Kyhl, who in 1969 was part of Tchicai’s large Cadentia Nova Danica orchestra and who worked with Nielsen in the early 1980s. The other eight have a front line featuring Tchicai and alto saxophonist Laura Toxvæd, 41 years his junior, whose current reputation is limited to Copenhagen. In all, the CD showcases four generations of Danish improvisers.

One noteworthy point is how little this cross-generational mix affects the overall sound picture. Kyhl, the only musician pictured not smiling, does bring his band room full of woodwinds to the studio, while Toxvæd is limited to alto saxophone. But Jørgens’ miscellaneous percussion and Nielsen’s balanced electrified rhythm do more to shape these in-the-main instant compositions than anything from the three reedists.

Interestingly enough, the CD’s first and final pieces composed by the tenor man and the bassist’s “Interiør” and “The dream” appear to reference one of the few American visionaries with whom Tchicai didn’t play: Ornette Coleman. On them, Toxvæd sounds as if she’s fronting Coleman’s Prime Time band, while the double sax front line — with Tchicai on tenor — recalls Coleman’s quartet with Dewey Redman. At the same time, both of Tchicai’s compositions are particularly sunny and happy sounding, maybe as a result of his California tenure.

Alternately, pieces like “Mokuto” show that Toxvæd is able to mix it up in Aylarian fashion with the older saxophonist. It’s she who comes out with horse whinnies, serrated split tones and tongue flutterings, while the tenor saxophonist forges ahead in a straight line. “Going up” unrolls the same way, with a brassy tone emanating from the alto and the tenor sounding as if he’s starting to play Sonny Rollins’ “East Broadway Rundown” until blurred tenor tones mix with clear alto sounds.

In spite of his woodwind collection, Kyhl makes his biggest noise (sic) on contrabass clarinet. He uses its woody resonance to suggest African reeds on “Witchdoctor of Accra”, probably doubled by Tchicai’s clarinet. But as well as he plays, tongue slapping and modulating his tone with the lumbering clarinet beast, “Calling Coltrane” doesn’t seem to have much to do with John C.

Jørgens’ ethnic percussion experiments with the Global Guaranty Orchestra are on show with a gong sounding on the later tune, and used to create what could be oil drum-steel pan percussion on the former. Elsewhere, he proves he can use natural materials to create legitimate percussion, mixing wooden blocks and glockenspiel on “She went straight to Heaven”, and what sounds like the pealing of church bells, the shaking of a tin sheet and the clip clop of wood on “Rysteribs med fløde”. His skill extends to drum’n’bass portions on other numbers and pure jazz syncopation when it’s needed. Nielsen, probably playing a bass guitar, cleaves to the rhythm when necessary or offers quick, guitar-like decorations when he has a chance.

Still the disc could have been shortened by at least three tracks. Marla Van Hoose adds some pointless poetics on two of them and Tchicai’s vocalized sentiments on “Sought” probably could have been best left to someone like the former LeRoi Jones who brought his poetics read to the first NYAQ LP.

All and all, though, everything seems to be going great in the state of Denmark, at least where improvised music is concerned. This meeting of four generations certainly proves it without argument.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Phedoo and Wibke* 2. How to stop the Bus+ 3. North Ridge Hotel* 4. Call and Response+^ 5. Interiør* 6. She went straight to Heaven+ 7. Mokuto* 8. Calling Coltrane+ 9. The dream* 10. To+^ 11. Witchdoctor of Accra+ 12. Going up* 13. Rysteribs med fløde+ 14. Eat that Horse* 15. Sought+# 16. On top of your head*

Personnel: Laura Toxværd (alto saxophone)*; Christian Kyhl (clarinet, alto clarinet, contrabass clarinet, soprano saxophone, C melody saxophone)+; John Tchicai (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, voice#); Peter Friis Nielsen (electric bass); P.O. Jørgens (drums, gongs, glockenspiel, metal, stone, wood and percussion); Marla Van Hoose (voice)^