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Rising to the avant-garde challenge, this trio offers free thrills

An early holiday present for fans of forward-looking jazz arrives next week in the form of the John Tchicai Trio, featuring Charlie Kohlhase and Garrison Fewell. While Tchicai, 67, a native Dane, and Kohlhase, 47, and Fewell, 50, both based in Boston, have performed together in pairs, they have not played as a trio. Their minitour to the region opens with a free performance at the Berklee College of Music on Wednesday and concludes with shows in Hyde Park next Friday and Amherst Dec. 13.


Tchicai's avant-garde pedigree includes projects with such 1960s innovators as Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and Roswell Rudd, in groups including the New York Art Quartet and the New York Contemporary Five. It's also likely that he's the only musician to have played with both John Coltrane (on "Ascension") and John Lennon (on John and Yoko's sonic exploration "Life With the Lions").

Tchicai and Kohlhase last played together in 1998 and recorded a subsequent quintet date, the strangely elegant "Life Overflowing." Fewell invited Tchicai to perform and record with him last summer in Italy, where Fewell makes his home for part of the year.

The trio's instrumental configuration -- Tchicai on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Kohlhase on alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, and Fewell on guitar -- is a first for all three. But the challenges of playing with Tchicai, who has long been a pillar of free jazz both in the United States and Europe, go beyond the instrumentation.

"His tunes are not easy," Fewell said in a telephone conversation. "It may not seem that way when listening -- they don't seem terribly complicated -- but it takes some getting used to. The parts we're working on for this tour are definitely challenging by any standards, whether it's reading or playing the changing time signatures."

Yet it's clear that these accomplished players relish the challenge. "John always has these wonderful motifs you can build off of," Kohlhase said in a separate call. "That's what I love about his writing."

Fewell agreed. "I think John's really a master of inspiration," he said. "The combination of his composed and improvised music is really beautiful. There are parts where everything's written, including the voicings for guitar and all the horn parts, and there are other places where there's nothing to go on but your ear."

"That's our specialty," Tchicai said, referring to the times when he might walk onstage, begin to improvise, and expect his bandmates to catch up. He spoke by telephone from Colorado, where he and his wife were in the midst of a cross-country drive. The couple relocated from California to the south of France two years ago.

"Charlie, Garrison, and myself, we can improvise freely and create a good piece of music just on the spot. We've been at it so long that we know what it takes to make a harmonious piece of music from scratch or just from one idea. Whatever idea comes out first from one of the players can be developed."

A full-time musician for 45 years, Tchicai has forged a career by playing music without compromise.

"The challenge is that you have to keep at it," Tchicai said. "If you want to put your ideas through, you have to keep working at it and don't sell out and try to make ends meet, even if you don't earn as much as the pop stars."

Making ends meet has been a little easier since 1990, the year that Denmark's Ministry of Culture awarded Tchicai a lifetime grant in recognition of his cultural contributions. The monthly stipend of about $1,600, he said, "made me sort of a free man. It paid for the rent and the food, and so I didn't have to worry too much about where the next money was going to come from."

According to Tchicai, there have been intangible rewards as well. "One of the things is the pleasure of being able to create freely without having to live up to certain fashion and ideals," he said.

Fewell said there's much more to Tchicai's music than the elements many people associate with the term "free jazz."

"He's a very melodic player," Fewell said. "He's not just making noises, he makes really beautiful sounds. He may play four notes, yet those four notes will leave you totally satisfied. The sound on his horn is very traditional, a really beautiful tone that goes all the way back to a cat like Lester Young."

The John Tchicai Trio offers a free performance and clinic, sponsored by the Berklee College of Music woodwind department, on Wednesday at 7 p.m., at 22 The Fenway. On Thursday at 7:30 p.m., they play a concert at Studio AG in Kittery, Maine (information is available at 207-439-3516). Next Friday at 8 p.m. they're at the Artists-At-Large Gallery in Hyde Park (617-276-3223); Dec. 13 at 8 p.m. they'll be appearing at the Amherst Unitarian Meetinghouse in Amherst (413-584-9592).

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