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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Cadentia Nova Danica by John Tchicai

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John Coltrane assembled a group of cutting-edge jazz improvisers for his composition, Ascension. Many of those players went on to become relatively well-known, while others, like Freddie Hubbard, already had made a name for themselves. One of the musicians, alto saxophonist John Tchicai, is less well-known. After Ascension he was not releasing stateside discs, but working in his homeland of Denmark (Tchicaiis an Afro-Danish-American). Prior to his work with Trane, he had started important groups in New York City with Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, but those were rare. I was happy when I discovered a British Polydor release in England led by Tchicai.

Cadentia Nova Danica was a big band in the same vein that Coltrane envisioned his Ascension collaborators to be a big band. Big bands which incorporate free jazz are not common--I can think of Sun Ra's Arkestra and a handful of European aggregations that filled that bill in the last 50 years. The group was first brought to England thanks to the writer Anthony Barnett, who also wrote the liner notes and later joined Cadentia Nova Danica as a percussionist (and currently runs an astonishing site about the history of jazz violin.) The live concert heard on the record was staged at the Aarhus Conservatory of Music in Denmark, shortly after their return from a sold-out engagement at London's Wigmore Hall.

Given the paucity of free jazz big bands, it's exciting that this document exists. Most of the tunes are piano-less. Brass and reed instruments and large drums predominate. The compositions run from brooding to lyrical to diffident. It's not background music; it's music to make you feel alive.

Tchcai, now living in Davis, California, teaches, does yoga and meditation, leads workshops in prisons and master classes at conservatories and occasionally performs. He has traded his alto sax for a tenor. Thank you for your dedication to the music, sir!

(Headphone warning: If you listen to the sample, please note that it starts soft and gets loud before getting soft again.)