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Seven Sets, Eight Sides

John Tchicai, Hartmut Geerken & Famoudou Don Moyé
West Africa Tour (Sierra Leone, Liberia & Guinea), April 1985,
 4xLP (Sagittarius A-Star – SAS #21), 2012 —

John Tchicai

The history of jazz is too often Americentric, focusing on the epicenters and forgetting the aftershocks, no matter how devastating, and leaving the impression that no one south of the Rio Grande or east of the Atlantic ever blew through a saxophone reed. Indeed, both Gioia’s History of Jazz and Shipton’s otherwise excellent A New History of Jazz devote fewer than thirty pages between them to the practice outside North America. Europe, South America, Africa, Japan, and everyone else barely happened you might think.

In fact, European jazz traditions began heating up in the post-WWII years, having mingled with black American servicemen, and with many European jazz musicians travelling to the USA to learn, but it was not until the 60’s and 70’s, with the trans-Atlantic explosion of free jazz, that Europe really disengaged and began to innovate alone. These were the years of FMP, Instant Composers Pool, Globe Unity Orchestra, Wolfgang Dauner, Albert Mangelsdorff, Andrea Centazzo, Peter Brötzmann, Eje Thelin, Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill, and so many more. The tone, color, plod, and humidity of these jazz practitioners was deeply (and unsurprisingly, for having absorbed different folk styles) rifted from their American contemporaries, many of whom travelled to Paris, Stockholm, and Berlin, to combine forces and pick up on what was happening there. The definitive book on this subject has yet to be written (though Ekkehard Jost’s and Jürgen Arndt’s chapters in a recent book are great starts), but when it is, I am confident this little known yet significant event in transnational jazz history will be drawn further into the light.

Recorded April 6, 1985 British Council, Freetown, Sierra Leone

In April of 1985, Afro-Danish saxophonist John Tchicai (who died last month), German multi-instrumentalist Hartmut Geerken, and American percussionist Famoudou Don Moyé embarked on a five week tour of West Africa to find out whether there could be any artistic reconciliation between European free jazz and African jazz roots. The trio, often joined by local musicians, visited Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, playing at least seven shows in the capital cities but also in small towns and village music halls. These concerts, recorded direct to metal cassette on a WM-D6C Sony Walkman by Geerken’s wife, Sigrid Hauff, have, 27 years later, been resurrected and released in a quadruple-LP box by Sagittarius A-Star. ‘Available’ might not be the best term. Given only 134 copies of this edition exist (a truncated CD edition was released in 2001 by Leo Records’ Golden Years of New Jazz imprint; and as well two Praxis LPs from 1987 and 1988 also document these performances) it was born difficult to find.

Famoudou Don Moyé

This expedition was not the first made in the name of circling back to the African roots of jazz music. Don Cherry toured West Africa informally with his family circa 1975, and Sun Ra’s cosmo-comic theatrics in Egypt with Salah Ragab in 1971 are well known. But this was the first time the trans-Atlantic post-modal free jazz sound met ears in Conakry, Freetown, and Monrovia. The reception was enthusiastic and at times of deeply astonishment, especially in the smaller towns where showcases of individual virtuosity were unheard of. Perhaps the most intense tracks (sides D and E) come from the Town Hall show in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city. That day, a flatbed carrying Tchicai and Geerken playing drums was driven around town to advertise the show. When it began, hundreds of people poured in through the doors and windows, dancing and watching, excited and bewildered; eventually the distinction between stage and audience dissolved completely, with local people bringing in their own instruments to take part. In Freetown they were joined by Ebenezer Calender’s Milo Jazz (Ebenezer had died the day before the concert, so the whole show was dedicated to him), who then accompanied them throughout Sierra Leone.

Recorded April 20, 1985 Town Hall, Sangaredi, Guinea

By contrast, when the band arrived in Sangarédi, a mining town in western Guinea, the reaction was quite different, for the band opened their concert with deep, sustained tones on a Tibetan horn, a conch, and Tchicai’s tenor sax. The audience immediately jumped up and covered their ears or fled the hall. It turned out that they had inadvertently mimicked a traditional religious rite in which masks were called up from the forests—a taboo for the uninitiated. It was explained to the audience that the music had no meaning and would have no magical effect on them, but nonetheless the band felt it better to continue with an evening of Monk pieces.

Hartmut Geerken

Very little else is known about the programming of the concerts except to say that whenever Hartmut Geerken is involved, everything will be as free as possible. This may be why the sounds from the seven concerts on eight sides of vinyl range so dramatically, from Bembaya Jazz-style workouts, passages that sound like Sun Ra on a stripped-down Saturday afternoon in Germantown, long percussion solos, and full frontal free jazz in that dank style ripened in European jazz clubs. The ringing brushstrokes of Tchicai’s sax are as recognizable as those of Coltrane or Ayler (and at times quite a lot like Ayler), full of violence and touched by melancholy, sometimes reveling in and sometimes ignoring the drum kit. His introspectiveness doesn’t always touch off Geerken’s extroverted experimentation, but nevertheless the whole is cohesive. Regrettably, it’s often difficult to find Geerken since his performances (on such instruments as the angklung, watergong, singing tube, and balloon) weren’t quite picked up on tape all the time. His presence is much more palpable on another recorded collaboration with Tchicai, the mighty Kabul and Teheran Tapes.

These African sets are demanding not only for their rough recording and programmatic obscurity, but because we are dealing with improvised forms under improvised circumstances (who knows how many times the power went out), through which we can nevertheless easily walk around the pratfalls of parochial categories, and sit in the space of an ever-expanding universe.


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