Often the best and most fruitful of artistic collaborations are the least exclusive.
Take, for instance, the musicians making up the free jazz and improvisational music communities in Chicago – artists who have become frequent performance guests in Lexington over the past decade with the Outside the Spotlight concert series. These are players who regularly cross-pollinate one another’s touring and recording projects.
Building on that work philosophy is a quartet called The Engines. The group – saxophonist Dave Rempis, drummer Tim Daisy, trombonist Jeb Bishop and bassist Nate McBride – have played Lexington for OTS in more than a dozen group configurations. But on its newest recording, Other Violets, The Engines enlisted a collaborator from another jazz generation – Danish saxophonist John Tchicai.
“I’ve been really lucky to play with some fantastic musicians over the years,” said Rempis, who will return to Lexington with The Engines for a concert tonight at Mecca (with bassist Kent Kessler substituting for McBride). “I think John was really of the legend status in a lot of ways. The thing that was most striking about working with him was he was somebody who had all these great credentials under his belt, but he was working his entire life as a musician. He was out touring with a lot of different people. He was playing the same clubs that all of the musicians I know were playing. He’s staying with his fellow musicians and not in some 4-star hotel. He was just somebody who worked his whole life as a musician and was very open and very interested in contributing to his own artistic development by working with other people.”
A veteran of recordings with Albert Ayler (1964’s New York Eye and Ear Control) and John Coltrane (1965’s Ascension), Tchicai teamed with The Engines in 2011 for an evening at The Hungry Brain, one of Chicago’s more established performance homes for improvisational music. Other Violets is a recorded document of that concert.
But there is a bittersweet catch to the project. Tchicai died in October after suffering a brain hemorrhage in June. He was 76.
“For me, John was very influential,” Rempis said. “And not just in his playing, but also as an artist with this really unique voice. I have an immense amount of respect for him. So it was really a pleasure to get a chance to work together.”
Indicative of the teamwork between Tchicai and The Engines is a 20-minute suite on Other Violets that piggybacks Tchicai’s song Cool Copy with Bishop’s more fractured Looking. It begins with spacious, unison lines between Tchicai and Rempis and a sense of swing that rapidly deflates. But even as the exchanges dissolve into free improvisation, the resulting music is never hurried. Such a pace, Rempis suggested, just wasn’t part of Tchicai’s style.
“I think part of that is John’s influence. The warmth and beauty of his sound were some of the most striking things about his playing. In the times I heard him, he was somebody who never felt rushed. In a lot of ways, he’s kind of like a free jazz-era version of Lester Young, who established a completely different conception of how to play saxophone with the existing paradigm at the time. I think John, in a lot of ways, really filled that role for a later generation.
“Working with him felt very natural. John was like a band member, not a special guest.”
Rempis is open about the almost mentoring influence of Tchicai, but one can only assume that Tchicai was equally inspired by the drive and enthusiasm he found in the many young players he collaborated with.
“I’d love to think that’s true. I would also think part of the reason he continued doing these collaborations throughout his career was that he did find new inspiration and new thoughts in the music. I think that’s something that happens with a lot of established musicians. A lot of times they end up working with younger musicians because of the energy and life they bring to the music, as well as all the new ideas.”
The Engines perform at 8 tonight at Mecca Dance Studio, 948 Manchester St. Admission is $5.