In ‘The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones’, Amiri Baraka remembers how “the trumpeter Don Cherry would announce his arrival by playing so clear it broke through the traffic noise.” Of course, as Baraka pointed out in relation to Albert Ayler, that quality can never quite be captured on record, only experienced as something live, in the flesh, but Cherry’s unique sound nonetheless manages to come across to a satisfactory extent as we see (and hear) him in a wide range of contexts. There doesn’t appear to be any footage of the electrifying playing which made his name during his participation in Ornette Coleman’s early ’60s groups, and so a performance with Sonny Rollins opens this survey of Cherry TV broadcasts spanning a good thirty years.
Sonny Rollins Quartet 1963
Following his return from a period in which he temporarily ceased public performance in order to ponder the innovations of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and their implications for jazz in general, Rollins came back with a style that did not explicitly cross over into free jazz territory, but which nonetheless absorbed a looser and freer approach. Indeed, he worked with musicians who had played with both Coleman and Coltrane, yielding a couple of recordings which some have reckoned his finest: ‘Our Man in Jazz’ and ‘East Broadway Rundown’. Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins are the Coleman sidemen here forming half of Rollins’ group; the other musician is Henry Grimes, not often seen in video footage, and taking a bowed solo somewhat reminiscent of Paul Chambers, early in the performance.
Don Cherry/ Johnny Dyani / Okay Temiz – French TV, 1971
A decade’s hiatus (in terms of footage, but not of performance – Cherry had recorded with firebrand tenor saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri in the interim) sees us leaping forward to 1971, and documentation of a complete concert by the trio that recorded ‘Blue Lake’ and ‘Orient’. This particular occasion was broadcast on the French TV programme ‘Jazz Session’, and must have been made at around the same time as those two albums. Things open with a recitation by Dyani, soon joined by a shaven-headed Cherry on flute and Temiz on hand-percussion. Throughout the set, Cherry plays as much piano as pocket trumpet, and things proceed leisurely through a series of vamps, riffs and melodies (often with a South African flavour). Cherry’s piano playing, as it was on ‘Mu’ (his duo with Ed Blackwell), is more ‘functional’ than soloistic, setting up propulsive grooves for the players to lock into; the free jazz moments are reserved for trumpet, and for Dyani’s arco bass solos. Something of the atmosphere of the occasion can be deduced from the way Cherry steps up to a celesta, runs his fingers up and down the keys to produce tinkling, chiming sounds, then quickly makes his way back to the piano and launches into yet another tune. Cherry goes hippie? Perhaps there is a little bit of that in the mix – “musique communale” as the TV announcer describes it, suggests impromptu groupings, jam sessions in the park – but, in fact, the roots are all there in Cherry’s work with Ornette from more than ten years earlier, that music so particularly connected to the mouth, to the lungs, to the gut. Highlights here: Cherry making horn-like sounds from a conch shell over roiling, tumbling percussion; or singing and playing the melody line at the same time like a more left-field George Benson; or blowing plaintive trumpet lines into the body of the piano to give the sound extra resonance; or the brief and unexpected appearance of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ for a matter of seconds.
Don Cherry/James Blood Ulmer/Rashied Ali
A very fine trio performance, recorded at Rashied Ali’s club Ali’s Alley in 1978, and excerpted from a Swedish television documentary entitled ‘This is Not My Music’. By the time his former employer Ornette Coleman had moved into his own ‘fusion’ period, soloing with R & B wails and a fresh, seemingly never-ending set of licks in a setting full of Beefheart-esque interlocking guitars and complex rhythmic structures, Cherry had moved more in the direction of ‘world music’ (although albums like ‘Brown Rice’ exhibited his own take on ‘fusion’: eerie combinations of tantric chanting, blasts of ferocious, burred saxophone from Frank Lowe, and supple, spacey grooves from Charlie Haden’s wah-wah’d acoustic bass). But Cherry was still more than capable of playing ‘harmolodic’ free jazz with Ornette sideman James Blood Ulmer in music that, like the blues that soaks through virtually everything Ulmer plays, is in equal parts ambiguous/‘abstract’ and astonishingly direct, stuffed to the hilt with gritty physicality. Ulmer’s choppy guitar, buoyed by Ali’s sparkling cymbal patter, creates a mobile, constantly-shifting texture, with Cherry working melodic lines where Ulmer’s guitar chords lead or launching into smearing and piercing runs which dictate their own directions into new territories. Some sense of the sense of movement that informs this music can be got from the cllose-ups of Ali’s face, eyes and mouth moving in a kind of gurning tandem with the music’s constantly dipping and diving course.
Janusz Muniak Quartet feat. Don Cherry
In the 80s, Cherry began playing once more in acoustic jazz contexts, as demonstrated by this fine guest appearance with a hard-driving Polish group led by saxophonist Janusz Muniak. The music is somewhere between the energy of hard-bop and the earlier, more adventurous strains of fusion, in which solos are collective and constructed of phrases with plenty of space left between them, to be filled by the onward-driving rhythm section. So here we have hammered, repeated piano chords, well-miked bass, churning drums and Cherry working in tandem with Muniak, alternating between smooth, yet unpredictable lines and sudden blurted bursts. Though this seems to have been a one-off guest appearance, Cherry works so well in this context that it sounds like he’s been playing with the regular group for years. (NB: The full TV broadcast is available: http://www.youtube.com/user/BibiAudiofil#g/c/E231F4CEC20839A6.)
Sun Ra All-Stars 1983
A great line-up of the free jazz stars of the day (billed as the Arkestra, but in reality a kind of expanded chamber group led by Ra). The presence of three percussionists and two bass players ensures rhythmic variety and textural contrast (Richard Davis is in particularly fine form), and even Archie Shepp, who stands out from the rest of the musicians by his retro-jazzman mode of dress (he was by now presenting himself as a kind of guardian of jazz tradition), slots in well to the more atmospheric and experimental moments in the music. Ra prowls around the stage, watching closely and listening carefully to ensure that no one gets into a soloistic ego-trip. Cherry’s moment in the spotlight comes around 18 minutes into the performance, playing simple melodic figures in tandem with Philly Joe Jones’ drum solo.
Don Cherry/ Sound Unity Festival Orchestra 1984
A short excerpt from Ebba Jahn’s ‘jazzfilm’ ‘Rising Tones Cross’, which, through a series of concerts, conversations and interviews filmed around the time of the 1984 Vision Festival, portrays the New York Downtown jazz scene as it appeared in its early days. (For a look at how the scene subsequently developed, see Daniel Huppatz’ article on William Parker in Issue 1 of eartrip.) The film as a whole captures the looseness of things at this time of organizational foundation-laying and financial struggle; there’s a real sense of place conveyed through establishing shots of the city (such as Charles Gayle’s solo performance underneath skyscrapers looming up through a grey-blue haze), as well as of the off-stage personal dynamics and interaction between the musicians. Some issues arise here around the relations that were slowly developing between European improvisers and their African-American counterparts – as George Lewis discusses in his article on ‘Gittin’ To Know Y’All’, Lester Bowie’s work recorded with a European group at the 1970 Baden-Baden Festival, things weren’t all rosy between the camps; there existed important musical and cultural differences (perhaps inevitably, given that the scenes had evolved on separate continents, in separate political and racial situations). More than a decade after that event, after the spree of recordings for the BYG label, and after the heady early 70s years during which the Art Ensemble of Chicago had based themselves in Paris, it seems that there was now a move in the other direction across the Atlantic. Cherry was, of course, part of this whole cultural exchange, having played all over the world and adopted a musical eclecticism akin to that of the Art Ensemble. However, given the fact that his music had become, in general, more melodic and less overtly tied to free jazz, it’s intriguing to witness the way he manages an ensemble which incorporates several fire-breathing European musicians. (Though one shouldn’t, of course, go for a stereotypical comparison of ‘melodic Americans’ and ‘atonal Europeans,’ a ridiculous generalization to which watching the film as a whole soon gives the lie.) At times, the likes of Peter Brötzmann and Daniel Carter do threaten to turn the piece ‘Kangaroo Hoople’ into another free jazz freak-out blowing session along the lines of Brötzmann’s ‘Alarm’, but Cherry manages this element carefully, treading a steady pathway through the whole thing with piano vamps, while Maria Mitchell’s dance and Ellen Christi’s vocals add a lovely theatrical, celebratory dimension to things.
Don Cherry/ Herbie Hancock 1986
This might not seem the most likely collaborative pairing, but, in fact, Hancock and Cherry had played together in the pianist’s pre-fusion days (on a fine, free jazz tinged record with members of the Heath family, influenced by Ron Karenga’s Black Nationalist ‘Kawaida’ philosophy). The choice of material also seems somewhat unlikely – Thelonious Monk’s ‘Bemsha Swing’ – but any doubts are soon dispelled. With stalwart Ron Carter on bass and Billy Higgins on drums, Cherry is in buoyant mood, giving Monk a shout-out (“what about Thelonious Monk…he said you can dance to my music…”) and proceeding to play the theme with suggestive smears and to solo in jaunty melodic phrases, supported by Hancock’s bouncy, almost down-home piano. It sounds like the players consciously touching base with older traditions, while throwing more than a dash of showmanship into the mix. “This is what we call a fade-out…we just fade right on out…”
Ornette Coleman Quartet – Spain, 1987
A reunion of the 1950s Quartet proves more than just mere nostalgia; if anything, hearing the group decades apart from the initial controversy surrounding its performances allows one to get a sense of just how easy this music is to appreciate, how much the looseness of its performances (playing on the ‘mood’ of the song rather than on the chord changes) came, in the end, from the same fundamental emotional impulses as the blues. Though ostensibly they’re playing a ballad here, Ornette’s solo sees the tempo quicken as he starts to spin out those R&B derived phrases he used to blare out over the rhythmic thicket of the Prime Time bands. Charlie Haden, meanwhile, rocks his bass from side to side as he plays, leavings odd pauses between the phrases in his solo, as if playing a duet with an imaginary, or silent partner. The theme with which the quartet open and to which they return has an ambiguously wistful edge to it, Coleman’s alto and Cherry’s trumpet like two yearning human voices, full of delicacy and grace. Listen in particular to Ornette’s ‘scream’ forty-three seconds in, and to the way he and Cherry reprise that scream as the final note of the piece.
Don Cherry/Orphy Robinson
World music with a delighted-looking Cherry singing and playing the doussn’gouni, a gourd-based stringed instrument which he’d brought back from his African travels (and which has now found another jazz-playing advocate in the person of bassist William Parker). Interesting to speculate on the permutations of this collaboration: Robinson, as a member of the Jazz Warriors, was part of an energetic British jazz movement creating music that genuinely arose from the black European experience (“Afropeans (definition): to be of African descent and to exist in Europe, culturally, spiritually, or in this case, musically”), rather than existing as a second-hand inheritance from American musicians, while Cherry fused all the continents (an African-American who’d been heavily influenced by Asian philosophy and had settled in Europe). And we mustn’t forget Cherry’s connection to the British punk/jazz scene through his step-daughter Neneh, a member of the group Rip, Rig and Panic (indeed, he guested on the group’s 1982 album ‘I am Cold’). These are connections between generations, nationalities and genres that don’t just exist for marketing purposes (ticking all the right cultural boxes) but arise from a genuine desire for collaboration and cross-fertilization; assertions of identity that don’t need to set up their own borders in order to compete with those already in existence.
Ekkerhard Jost had praised Cherry as one of the most formally innovative of the ‘New Thing’ musicians in his landmark 1975 study, ‘Free Jazz’. At the time, Cherry was working in suite-like forms in which a myriad of themes and fragments were united into long medleys, like one of the patchwork quilts designed by his wife Moki for his album covers, and perhaps anticipating the stretched-out structures of Miles Davis’ electric bands. As the 70s went on, Cherry became more interested in the music of other cultures, developing into a multi-instrumentalist rather than primarily a trumpet player, and can be seen as one of the pioneers of ‘world music’ through his incorporation of rhythms, melodies and instrumental textures from around the globe. Into the 80s, and this global melting pot was still very much a part of the plan, but there was something of a return to acoustic jazz (perhaps most significantly, with the group Old and New Dreams), as well as an embrace of contemporary pop technology. This early 90s date with Multikulti finds tightly-played unison themes following one another in quick succession, with the focus on melodies rather than extended soloing. In that sense it’s like an updated version of the Dyani/Temiz trio which preceded it by 30 years (this band even plays some of the same themes). Cherry plays a lot of keyboard (though with the usual array of other instruments as well: flute, pocket trumpet, doussn’gouni, melodica), imparting a bright, poppish sound to proceedings, while, in the multi-instrumentalist spirit of things, Peter Apfelbaum comes across as both a competent piano player and saxophonist. While not exactly Cherry’s greatest work – his trumpet playing sounds a little ropey, with a thin, slightly wavering tone, and some of the textures can sound a tad dated in the manner of much 80s and 90s fusion – the overall effect is pleasant and very much in keeping with the spirit of the rest of his music. (DG)