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The Engines with John Tchicai - Other Violets

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Artist: The Engines with John Tchicai

Album: Other Violets

Label: Not Two

Review date: Apr. 17, 2013

If you measure a musician’s worth by the names he’s played with, John Tchicai is gold. You’ll find him on records with Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Johnny Dyani, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor; a deluxe vinyl boxed set by the New York Art Quartet, his mid-1960s combo with Roswell Rudd and Milford Graves, is the doorstop du jour amongst those with some cash to drop. But I don’t think Tchicai thought that way. He didn’t record promiscuously, but he made his share of recordings with less-than-heavy hitters whom he thought had something to offer. In May 2011, just 17 months before he died from complications of a stroke, Tchicai made one such session with The Engines, a Chicago-based quartet that comprises trombonist Jeb Bishop, drummer Tim Daisy, bassist Nate McBride and saxophonist Dave Rempis.

These aren’t exactly unknown players, and each has led his own solid bands. The point of The Engines is to pull their resources as composers; their reach on two previous albums encompasses pneumatic meters, rock-ish grit and free improv scatter. Their dalliance with Tchicai grew out of a bill that he and Rempis shared three years earlier. This turned into a partnership that was only cut short by the Dane’s demise.

Other Violets is definitely the work of a solid unit. Tchicai, whose softer tone and sometimes quizzical phrasing set him apart on vein-popping blow-outs like Ascension and New York Eye And Ear Control, isn’t the kind of guy who walks in and takes over a situation, but neither is he overly deferential. And while no one in The Engines ever played with one of The Beatles, they all have decades of experience playing with the best that the U.S. and European jazz and improv scenes have to offer. Everyone contributes at least one tune, which guarantees a bit of variety. Daisy’s “Gloxinia” is a ballad with a destabilizingly quick rhythmic undercurrent; Tchicai’s “Cool Copy” has a jaunty swagger that could walk into a Charles Mingus session and take it over; and Bishop’s “Planet” boots fleet horn unisons in the butt with a quick, swinging groove.

Tchicai’s tenor sax is brighter-sounding than Rempis’s playing on alto or tenor, which guarantees that you’ll always be able to tell them apart. But more important is the way their contrasting solo styles seem to cross-examine each tune, tugging light-footed playfulness or go-for-broke passion out of the same scrap of melody. Bishop plays up both the hoofing and the slither; I’m especially charmed by his quick pirouettes around Tchicai’s dry-toned flute on “Super Orgasmic Life.” Both Daisy and McBride entertain opposing perspectives within their playing, reaching for either contrarian undertow or spring-loaded propulsion. The result is music that contains a myriad of options, yet feels unified.

By Bill Meyer

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