Fountain of Chi

By Jackson Griffith in the Sacramento News & Review

January 4, 2007

On the last Sunday in October, I visited New York’s Museum of Modern Art for the first time. Later that evening, 83-year old Altantic Records founder and chairman Ahmet Ertegün would fall at a Rolling Stones show at the Beacon Theater 20-something blocks uptown from MoMA; he died from the injuries from that tumble in mid-December.

In 1960, Atlantic Records released an album by saxophonist/band leader Ornette Coleman’s double quartet titled “Free Jazz”, and on the cover was a reproduction of “White Light”, a painting by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.

I’d looked at that cover, with its intense squiggles and bursts of color, many times while listening to the music of Coleman, or John Coltrane, or Archie Shepp. Free jazz and abstract-impressionist paintings seemed to go together like, oh, milk and cookies.

But a four-color reproduction is nothing like the real thing, and Sunday, as I stood gazing at the massive 1948 painting “Number 1”, I was overcome with the powerful feeling of wind blowing right through me.

Later, when searching online for an image of that painting, I found, on the Web site of an artist named Harley Hahn, a perfect explanation for what had happened to me that afternoon. Hahn, upon facing “Lavender Mist”, a Pollock painting at Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, was knocked breathless; he acknowledged that the painting changed him forever. (I, too, was transformed for life upon viewing Pollock’s “Number 1”).

Hahn then explained that the purpose of great art is to provide us with a window into our inner psyche, a vehicle to evoke unconscious feelings, and that abstract art provides a more direct connection than narrative art can.

“The reason abstract art has the potential to be so powerful is that it keeps the conscious distractions to a minimum,” Hahn wrote in an essay titled “Understanding Abstract Art”, posted at his site, “When you look at, say, the apples and pears of Cézanne, your mental energy mostly goes to processing the images: the fruit, the plate, the table, and the background. However, when you look at ‘Lavender Mist’, you are not distracted by meaningful images, so virtually all of your brainpower is devoted to feeling. You can open yourself, let in the energy and spirit of the painting, and allow it to dance with your psyche.”

So what’s Pollock doing in a music column? Simple. What artists like Pollock did with paint, musician John Tchicai does with music. Tchicai, the Belgian-Congolese saxophonist who recorded with John Coltrane in 1965 (on the album “Ascension”), who later lived in Davis and now lives in France, is back in Northern California. He’ll be playing the ongoing Sunday Evening Jazz series at Savanna’s Lounge at the Red Lion Hotel, at 1401 Arden Way, on January 14 from 5 to 8 p.m. Admission is something like $8–in this case, a remarkable bargain. Accompanying Tchicai will be drummer Mat Marucci, bassist Winston Berger and pianist Margriet Naber Tchicai.

Having witnessed the magic of Tchicai’s live performances in the past, the parallels with abstract impressionism seem apparent. Pollock’s paintings get inside you and move the molecules around; so does Tchicai’s music. And listening is like showering in a pure stream of what Taoists call chi.