Jazz Album Review: Charlie Kohlhase’s Explorers Club — An Exemplary “Second Life”

By Michael Ullman

Witty, varied, played warmly, and arranged dexterously, avoiding the glum, the explorations on A Second Life should please just about every jazz fan.

Charlie Kohlhase’s Explorers Club: A Second Life (Mandorla Music)

During 2015, “eight feet of snow winter” on the ground, Boston saxophone legend Charlie Kohlhase learned that he was HIV positive. During a recent phone call, the veteran member of the Either/Orchestra told me about that revelation and its aftermath: “My doctor said, ‘Look, it’s not a death sentence anymore’. But from what I’ve learned since, it takes seven years for HIV to turn into full blown AIDS. By then it pretty much kills you. I realized, at the beginning of 2022, that without the two pills I take every day, I would be dying right now. So I consider that I am living my second life. The album is dedicated to the 40 million people who died from AIDS. I am glad to be around.”

The other motivation for the new Explorers Club recording was purely personal. “I was inspired to record the band when (trombonist) Jeb Bishop told me he was moving back to Chicago. We were lucky that we had been playing through the pandemic shutdown. We were doing outdoor shows here and there for Alex Lemski and for a couple of other people. So we had a repertoire.” This repertoire, as played by his octet on A Second Life (which I am listening to on a download), can sound positively cheerful, as whimsical as its inspirations, which include a comic-tragic day when the saxophonist’s favorite coffee house was unable to make his espresso. They gave Kohlhase a piece of cake instead — hence his tune “Consolation Cake.” The band plays six Kohlhase originals, as well as individual pieces by the saxophonist’s musical heroes: Ornette Coleman and Lennie Tristano, Elmo Hope, John Tchicai, and Roswell Rudd.

The album’s lineup is remarkable for the variety of textures and groupings Kohlhase creates, as well as the quality of the playing from each member. There are group improvisations but, for instance, a drum-tuba duet as well. I asked the saxophonist, who is now “almost 68,” how he mapped out this kind of eclectic multiplicity. You must keep the whole thing in your mind before you start, I suggested. And yes, he starts with an overall plan: “For every gig I write what we call the GPS. I try to make sure that everyone has a chance to solo and a chance to play in a duo or trio setting. That kind of variety has been my mission for the last 30 plus years. I try to make sure that everyone has a spot to play and a spot to improvise with other band members…. Sometimes we’ll do a whole group improvisation. I make that my business. It’s a way of exploiting the musicians who are there.”

The first sounds we hear on the album are Kohlhase’s baritone sax over the guitar and bass and drums. It’s a slow blues that he calls, amusingly, “Character Building Blues.” The title came from a bass player (Scott Kiefner) who he played with. “I don’t think he was used to playing the blues in A, and he said, ‘Oh, this is a character building piece.’ It was written during the Trump administration. I couldn’t write anything but the blues.” This is an enthralling performance that leaves room for almost everybody: the second solo is by trumpeter Dan Rosenthal, at first over the rhythm section and then backed by long tones from the band. Trombonist Jeb Bishop provides a conversational tone: it sounds as if he is lecturing the guitar and drums, who answer with wholesome chatter. Praise is due throughout to drummer Curt Newton for the subtlety of his playing.

Kohlhase’s “Lennette” is a tribute to an odd couple, Ornette Coleman and Lennie Tristano, who probably never played together. The track begins with a simple two-note figure, in sixths, that the band passes around. (It reminds this listener of Monk’s “Misterioso.”)  As in many Coleman pieces, the second section is wilder — it feels like a kind of release. The Explorers Club version supplies a simultaneous improvisation by sax and tuba and a section of out-of-tempo improvising starring muted trombone and guitar. The inspiration for “Lennette” came from Kohlhase’s high school days, when he and a friend would dream up “fantasy” jazz groups, each as unlikely as possible. Then they’d try to imagine the music this or that band would play. In this case, the Kohlhase composition reflects Coleman’s tune “Poise” (found on This Is Our Music).

“No Such Explorer” begins with a bass solo. Kohlhase “copped” the melody from a Burundi field recording that “sounded for all the world like Delta Blues to me.” Even less likely is the inspiration for “Airport Station,” which is a real-life station on the T.  It begins with an oddly rocking, sing-song, short rhythmic phrase that was inspired by two escalators in that station. Kohlhase was walking by and felt that the dual sounds were somehow in sync. Guitarist Eric Hofbauer solos here via an enigmatic hush — except when he is picking out staccato tones. No bebop clichés for him. Later, saxophone and trombone duet over the rhythm section, with drummer Newton rattling on rims before becoming more expansive. It is as if he is driving the pair with his cymbals.

The Explorer’s Club, from l to r: Dan Rosenthal, Seth Meicht, Jeb Bishop, Eric Hofbauer, Curt Newton, Charlie Kohlhase, Tony Leva, Josiah Reibstein.

“No Dogs, No Bikes” (the title comes from an injunction in front of  a Korean convenience store on the lower East Side) is what Kohlhase considers an old tune. He played it with his Quintet, revising the arrangement (which he discovered in his basement) for octet. “Man on the Moon” begins with synthesized spacey sounds — otherworldly winds. It’s a Don Cherry tune that the trumpeter recorded in his early ’70s duet albums with drummer Ed Blackwell; they called the original two LPs Mu.

“Berlin Ballad” is by Danish saxophonist John Tchicai, with whom Kohlhase played repeatedly in Boston. (The first phrase of “Berlin Ballad” sounds a little like “In a Sentimental Mood.”)  Kohlase says that hearing Tchicai “changed my life.” He first encountered Tchicai — who was born in Copenhagen in 1936 and died 76 years later in Perpignan, France — in 1980 when the saxophonist was in NYC for a weekend. Kohlhase heard the Julius Hemphill big band one night and then Tchicai performing in a program of duets the next. He approached Tchicai, raved about his music, and gave him a cassette of his own playing. Later on, Kohlhase visited Tchicai at his home in Davis, California, where  the older man gave him his book Advice for Improvisers. Kohlhase still sounds a little awed when speaking of his relationship with Tchichai: he notes that there was an eclipse in Davis when he was there. After that, the two musicians would play together in Boston whenever Tchichai showed up on his way to or from Europe. Many of us heard the two in various venues around Boston.

The band performs “Eyes So Beautiful as Yours” by the late pianist Elmo Hope. They finish the disc with a tune by another Kohlhase hero: trombonist and composer Roswell Rudd. His “Tetraktys” features a four-bar melody that Rudd attributed to Greek philosopher Pythagoras. (A tetraktys is a four-line geometric shape that forms a pyramid.) Kohlhase previously recorded “Tetraktys” with Rudd, on 2000’s Eventuality. Like the trombonist’s version, Kohlhase’s take begins with drums that refrain from the exuberant. This is a farewell piece (perhaps like Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony). The band plays the simple melody repeatedly and, one by one, its members start to sing the melody until the octet turns into a choir. They are pretty good vocalists. Witty, varied, played warmly, and arranged dexterously, avoiding the glum, the explorations on A Second Life should please just about every jazz fan.

For over 30 years, Michael Ullman has written a bimonthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. He has emeritus status at Tufts University, where for 45 years he taught in the English and Music Departments, specializing in modernist writers and non fiction writing in English, and jazz and blues history in music. He studied classical clarinet. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. He plays piano badly.


  1. Sally Harris on June 10, 2024 at 11:57 pm

    I enjoyed reading about The Explorer Club and have a new appreciation for your part in it…glad to read your 2 nice shoutouts!

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