The Book Cooks
Excerpt from

John Tchicai: A chaos with some kind of order
Margriet Naber
(Ear Mind Heart Media; Nijmegen, The Netherlands)

While teaching a workshop at Vallekilde Højskolen, John was approached by the Strange Brothers, a trio of drummer Ole Rømer, bassist Peter Danstrup and saxophonist Simon Spang-Hanssen who inspired him so much that he decided to form a band with them.

The Strange Brothers had been on their way home from winning a competition in France when Peter Danstrup heard the other two say that their next step should be to play with John Tchicai. “I didn’t know who John Tchicai was. Maybe I’d heard the name, but they were familiar with him. They said, ‘He’s world-famous, so if we play with him, it will be very fine.’ I thought, why on earth should he be interested in that? At that time, I think John had come out of some kind of isolation. He was very strange to me. Very nice and kind, and also kind of frightening when you saw him. He was so tall and very unusual and he was very aware of dirt and stuff. Every time he sat down, he would dust off the chair before sitting down, or if he was driving a car, he would wipe the steering wheel. He was afraid of getting dirty I think. I think he felt as if he was very pure.

“At that time it was really strange because you thought, well, he might think that I am dirty, too. I came from a very radical, political teacher-training college, and people who acted like he did, I would consider them to be crazy, more or less. So it was a big thing for me to act together with him. But from the very beginning when we started to play, he was extremely powerful, extremely inspiring. I actually never met anybody who could inspire me that much and encourage me. He encouraged us all the time from the very beginning: ‘Write some tunes, bring some tunes, what do you want to play?’ He would gladly play whatever we came with, and then he would do it his way and inspire, and it was really fantastic.

John Tchicai & Strange Brothers: John, Ole Rømer, Simon Spang-Hanssen, Peter Danstrup. 1978 © Peter Schandorf

 “I think one of the best things you can say about him is that he was a really good inspirer, a really good pedagogue, teacher, guru-kind of person. Not in a way like, ‘Do like me and you’ll be home free’ but ‘Do what YOU want to do and we’ll find out something together,’ and that was really fantastic. Suddenly we were playing a lot of things, and Simon, Ole and me started to compose, we started to be creative in a way we’d never been before. Then we played a lot of gigs, we went abroad, we made a record and a lot of things happened in one or two years. Suddenly everything was up and ringing and we were traveling around and he was here, he was very strange.”

The group John Tchicai & Strange Brothers soon made a record called Darktown Highlights, which sounds very different from John’s earlier records. The compositions, written by all the band members, have tight structures and a variety in themes and rhythms and once the written part is played, the improvisation goes in all directions. The four compositions by John are varied among one another as well: one is a jazzy theme with walking bass and drums playing swing; one is a modified Danish children song arranged on a groovy bassline; two others are typical John themes of short melodic motifs being repeated, modified and connected.

The band performed regularly in Denmark and in other countries. John was the leader and organizer. He did the bookings and all the business parts of it. The Strange Brothers were good players willing to execute John’s ideas, even though they often didn’t know what he was going to do next. Once they took part in a showcase organized by a Danish jazz organisation, where several top Danish bands got the opportunity to play three nights in a row in three different towns, one band after the other. Peter remembered that the group had rehearsed its programme – but when all was set to go, just before the gig started, John said they shouldn’t play what they had rehearsed. Instead they should turn the whole set into a free improvisation.

“John said, ‘The moment you start playing something you played the night before, I will stop you. It’s not allowed.’ The first night, it didn’t go so well, I felt a little embarrassed because everybody else was prepared and I had this in my head: ‘I must not repeat myself, it has to be new all the time.’ Then it changed. The next day we were really successful and the other groups suddenly sounded ridiculous. And the next evening they tried to put in some free (playing) and we were kind of all over the place. The last concert, I think it was in Copenhagen, we were by far the most interesting band and the other groups were like ‘maybe we should try to improvise some...’

 “John was really good at seeing the situation and getting something new out of it. Sometimes it seemed as if he was just going by intuition or by faith, but I think he was really thinking about things. Meditating -- ‘if I do this, they’ll do that; if they do this, I’ll do that’ -- and this contrary thing I think was a result of that. He felt that when things are in a groove, it’s going to be a certain way, then he would jump off the groove and run in the other direction. Sometimes it would be a terrible idea, sometimes it would be very good, but you could never know.”

John and the Strange Brothers sometimes performed in churches. Once John was interviewed by a journalist who was sceptical about a jazz group playing a programme with ten gospel songs in a church. Peter recalled his reply: “John said, ‘I don’t know about you, but I dedicate my work to God every day.’ I didn’t know that, he had never said that to me. ‘So, that means...?’ ‘Yes, it means this is actually something I thought about and it’s important to me.’ This kind of music as a religious thing was something that was also a part of John. He had a certain kind of seriousness about himself and his music that I never quite understood. But it was there, it was part of his image and part of his extreme power I think, that he was very sure about what he was doing. I’ve never seen him hesitate, never seen him be in doubt of anything. Maybe he has been in doubt but he didn’t show it to anybody. I think he was fearless, going for what he wanted to be. And that’s something I think everybody can learn from.”

© 2021 Margriet Naber


John Tchicai

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