Don Cherry and John Tchicai will draw most listeners to this first-time release of Musical Monsters (Intakt), an hour-long set from the 1980 Jazzfestival Willisau, but the titular ‘musical monsters’ are the band that played behind them: pianist Irène Schweizer, bassist Léon Francioli and drummer Pierre Favre.
Schweizer and Favre were local musicians, involved with the festival from its inception in 1968. By 1980, along with Lausanne-based Francioli, they had become its virtual ‘house band’, though Schweizer alone co-led with Tchicai the 1975 set subsequently issued on vinyl as Willi The Pig.
The Copenhagen-born Tchicai, then resident in Switzerland after four years in the mid 60s in NYC, fed back into the Zürich jazz scene his experiences of playing and recording with Shepp, Ayler, Coltrane, and the New York Art Quartet, among others. His influence is key here, and of the compositions embedded into the albums four collective improvisations three are by Tchicai, the fourth by Danish avant-jazz guitarist Pierre Dørge, Tchicai’s closest collaborator at the time.
It’s very much Tchicai’s date, but Cherry is in fine lip, if rather self-effacing at times, and here’s a fine example of him playing out in an ensemble informed by, but not tethered to, his ‘multikulti’ ethnocentric sensibilities. Still, this is music with much in common with the outernational strand in European jazz, cf. the roughly contemporaneous Brotherhood of Breath in Britain: necessarily not as authentically South Afro-centric, but similarly earthy and celebratory in spirit, and very different to the music-school-inculcated deliberation that informs much modern European jazz.
“Musical Monsters 1” is instantly upbeat and occasionally frenetic, trumpet and alto sax trading pithy, Ayleresque clarions and liquid licks. Tchicai solos, briefly, in a slightly sour register with occasional hints of Shepp and, more surprisingly, latter-day John Surman, over a stop-start but funky groove, with Schweizer’s keys tumbling and chinking inside. She and the ceaselessly, inventively propulsive Francioli and the restlessly bustling Favre also get some much deserved solo/duo space, and pianist and horns play as an exposed and exploded trio around nine minutes in, leading to a thematic close on Tchicai’s theme “Real Kirsten”.
“Musical Monsters 2” kicks off with a sour Tchicai solo, then builds from a slightly unstable vamp through a freewheeling middle passage, prodded on by Tchicai’s vocal exhortations. Later his “Transportation of Noodles” gets folded in (sounding rather like Albert Ayler paraphrasing Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair”, when not explicitly citing “Three Blind Mice”). Schweizer is superb, again, finding space for melodic irruptions of sprightly, Cecil Taylor-influenced ivory detonation. After an exploratory exposition, the performance is capped by a lengthy but masterfully creative, polyrhythmic, kit drums and percussion solo.
Both “Real Kirsten” and “Transportation of Noodles” were revisited by Tchicai and Dørge in 1981 for their duo album Ball at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Dørge’s “Xongly”, which provides the spinal vamp of “Musical Monsters 3”, appeared on the guitarist’s Tchicai-featuring 1980 album Ballad Round The Left Corner. Cherry plays some of his best licks on this jauntily rambling cut, particularly with the core Monsters trio in a frenetic late breakout (Schweizer playing another standout solo): but it’s Tchicai and the others who sound tightest-and-loosest throughout, as Tchicai occasionally breaks into Afro-song/scat to the tune of its loping groove.
“Musical Monsters 4” is a relatively short (seven minute) piece incorporating “Pà Tirstag”, a Tchicai tune dating from 1965’s visit to Denmark by a reconstituted New York Art Quartet (with Louis Moholo on drums and bassist Finn von Eyben alongside founders Tchicai and Roswell Rudd: witness Cuneiform’s Old Stuff). It’s a knotty, intense and essentially percussive performance, with Cherry probing all the interstices before pulling out the melodic thread for Tchicai to chew to a nub.
This is a magnificent, fresh-sounding set, and another superb, sadly retrospective addition to John Tchicai’s modestly burgeoning discography: see also Treader’s recent Clapham Duos with Evan Parker. Parker, incidentally, back in the 60s, formed a quartet with Schhweizer, Favre and bassist Peter Kowald. Musical Monsters is the sort of compulsively enjoyable and revelatory release that encourages plenty of this sort of crate-digging. Thanks and kudos to Intakt (co-founded by Schweizer) for negotiating its release.
Don Cherry trumpet; John Tchicai alto saxophone, voice; Irène Schweizer piano; Léon Francioli bass; Pierre Favre drums.
John Tchicai and Evan Parker – Clapham Duos.
Long Story Short – Wels 2011 Curated by Peter Brötzmann (feat. Tchicai with Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet).
Neneh Cherry and The Thing – The Cherry Thing.
Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath – Procession.
Buy Musical Monsters direct from Intakt.