Giancarlo Nicolai / John Tchicai

The Giancarlo Nicolai Trio And John Tchicai
Leo / CDLR164

John Tchicai / tenor and soprano saxes, voice, Giancarlo Nicolai / guitar, Thomas Durst / bass, Ueli Müller / drums

It is is a credit to his instincts that Tchicai called in Nicolai’s trio when, one night in Switzerland, his Danish band were unable to get to a gig. Tchicai has a history of working with adventurous guitarists but this — a call to a man he had never heard or met — must have felt like going out on a limb. Perhaps there were few other options that night. Whatever, things went so well that he continued to work with the group, and this album documents their collaboration.

Tchicai has a long track record and, unusually, his compositions are often as valued as his solos. Here, he contributes two uncharacteristically blockish statements — faux-naif blowing vehicles, but successful for all that. This is, after all, a jamming band with plenty of common ground between the four men, who are happiest when given a theme and told to run around with it. Not for Tchicai this time, then, those brow-furrowing heads which make albums like Timo’s Message so rediscoverable.

Nicolai’s compositions are more complicated and less likeable, but his solo work is instantly involving. He has strong jazz credentials, having mastered the mercurial double-time flow so characteristic of players in the Joe Pass tradition, as well as developing an excellent ear for harmonisation which he has not always had cause to demonstrate in the past. Alongside these skills he places Sharrock-derived percussive fireworks and the the clicks and plops and scratches most often associated with Derek Bailey.

In his integration of these techniques, Nicolai is something of an original. Certainly he is a conservative: his playing seems always to strive to connect the abrasions of freeform with an image of bebop derived more from contemporary revivalists than from anything anyone was doing in 1940. Objections of self-appointed vanguardists notwithstanding, though, his is a strong voice and a sharp ear, always ready with the turn-on-a-ha’penny so essential to survival in music as underdetermined as this. If his occasional use of digital delay is rather gimmicky and mechanistic, it is no more so than any other effort along the same lines, and a lot more thoughtful than most. Strange to think of the pointy-scratchy stuff that he was doing with Hans Koch and Peter Schaerli more than ten years ago.

Tchicai meets the joint leader at least halfway. He would be most strongly reminiscent of Garbarek, were it not for his iron tone — a grinding, resonant yell which, on Ascension, made even Coltrane sound a little blanched — and deep jazz roots. Here, his solos are of top quality. In the presence of Nicolai, he does not feel the need to paint himself into a generic corner; instead, his solos rock gently from firey free jazz to tender ballad playing to random skronk, which sounds as if it’s just the way he likes it.

This is not an album which breaks any boundaries, but it certainly sounds like four people in perfect tune playing whatever they want to, without ideological constraints. This kind of session is a valuable reminder that there is more than one valid route in contemporary improvised music, and those for whom hardboiled abstraction is an unpalatable dish should order without hesitation. Richard Cochrane