b. 28 April 1936, Copenhagen, Denmark. Tchicai, the son of a Danish mother and Congolese father, was one of only two major non-American figures in the free jazz movement of the early 60s (the other was Joe Harriott). He studied violin at first, but then took up alto saxophone and clarinet. Since 1983 he has switched primarily to tenor saxophone. He spent three years at the Aarhus Conservatory of Music and then moved to the Copenhagen Academy. In 1962 he met Albert Ayler during Ayler’s stay in Copenhagen, led his own band at the World Youth Jazz Festival in Helsinki, and worked with Jorgen Leth’s quintet at the Warsaw Jazz Festival. As a result of his meeting in Helsinki with Archie Shepp and Bill Dixon he moved to New York and joined the New York Contemporary Five, which included Shepp, Dixon (later replaced by Don Cherry for a tour of Europe), Don Moore and J.C. Moses. On his return to New York he founded the New York Art Quartet with Roswell Rudd, Milford Graves and Lewis Worrell (or sometimes Steve Swallow or Eddie Gomez) on bass. He also joined the Jazz Composers Guild and worked with the Jazz Composers Orchestra and Carla Bley. In 1965 he took part in John Coltrane’s controversial and epoch-making Ascension.
On returning to Europe in 1966 Tchicai played with Gunter Hampel and Cherry as well as leading groups of his own, including Cadentia Nova Danica. CND was an extremely impressive nine-piece band that grew, reaching 26 pieces for its second recording, and finally split, some of its members forming the rock band Burning Red Ivanhoe. In the 70s he worked frequently with Johnny Dyani, who had emigrated to Denmark, and with the Strange Brothers (1976-81), the Instant Composers Pool, George Gruntz and Irène Schweizer. In the early 80s he played with Pierre Dørge, the New Jungle Orchestra, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood Of Breath (Yes, Please), De Zes Winden (an all-saxophone group) and, again, Dyani, with whom he was touring at the time of the bass player’s death. In 1991, Tchicai moved to California where he founded the fusion septet Archetypes. He continues to teach in schools and prisons while maintaining a busy touring schedule.
An impressive and personal improviser, Tchicai is a lyrical altoist with a rich tone, and his sound is equally distinctive since moving over to tenor. He also plays soprano sax and bass clarinet and has essayed occasional vocals and synthesizer programming on some recent sessions.