Tuesday, April 16, 2024

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Don Cherry

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You can tell Don Cherry wasn’t wedded to any one instrument, from the way he played the trumpet. OK, that sounds like faint praise, or arch — but it’s not. Sound came out of his horn in splatters and whistles, with a blend of playfulness and deep spirit that made it clear that the vessel he used mattered little. By the late 1960s, Cherry was playing flutes, keyboards, percussion instruments — anything he could get his hands or his lungs on. In 1978 he formed Codona with Collin Walcott and Naná Vasconcelos, multi-instrumentalists who were on a similar mission. Like Cherry, both sought to trace folk music traditions back far enough — and blend enough of them together — to find something like a universal language. That is certainly the idea on “Trayra Boia,” from “Codona 3” (1983), a smoke bath of half-whispered voices repeating a mysterious chant. The only instrument we hear is Cherry’s trumpet, in serene and simple harmony with another falsetto voice. Toward the end of the track, the trumpet goes away for a moment and a louder, brighter vocalist comes in, with that familiar playful spirit: Clearly, it’s Cherry — the voice that was behind that trumpet, all along.

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As I was researching spiritual jazz artists, I came across Don Cherry’s two-part “Eternal Rhythm” album. The first few seconds of “Part 1” felt like a type of calling: one where Cherry was calling for my attention and my patience, which then triggered curiosity and calmness. It was probably the drone on the vibraphone and the birdlike chirping on flutes that induced me into a trance. The flutes were having a conversation with each other. I assume that Cherry was playing both flutes simultaneously. Therefore, it was like listening to him have a conversation with himself.

I had high hopes of finding video footage of this session online so that I could see exactly who was playing what. I tried rewinding the audio over and over again to understand this sonic puzzle. Some of the sounds mimicked electronics, but there weren’t any listed. The electric guitar was the only electric instrument being played, according to the liner notes. And the prepared piano added an interesting timbre. Cherry was able to bring technology into this brilliant piece with acoustic instruments somehow. Years later, I’m still wondering about the process.

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In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the debate around fusion brought up questions about the future of jazz itself. For many on both sides of this debate, fusion was an uneasy proposition to navigate. Would the incorporation of electronic instruments and rock aesthetics into jazz erode the genre, or could fusion open new possibilities that would carry the music into the future? In a way, Don Cherry’s 1976 recording “Universal Mother” would answer the latter part of this question with a resounding “yes.”

On top of a soaring electric guitar, harp and a funky, syncopated groove by Neil Jason on bass and Steve Jordan on drums, Cherry holds down the center of “Universal Mother” with a sweet and playful spoken-word delivery. Shouting out the women in his family who came before him and the Watts, Los Angeles, community that raised him, Cherry offers a colorful and playful ode to motherhood, community and the karmic ties that bind all living beings. For 1976, the tune sounds surprisingly modern and could be posited as a precursor to genres like acid jazz and hip-hop. Today, the debate about the merits of fusion have largely receded into the past, and “Universal Mother” remains as a reminder of how fruitful the music was in the hands of a master like Don Cherry.

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By the time Don Cherry and Moki Karlsson settled in Sweden in the late 1960s, Cherry had gotten away from what some would consider jazz. Sure, it had the genre’s rhythmic and harmonic textures, but the music felt free — unencumbered by arbitrary titles. Don and Moki hosted improvised performances in an old schoolhouse they lived in. So when I hear “Summer House Sessions Side A,” I hear liberated adults playing gleefully with toys. One can hear actual children in the mix, cooing gently at the beginning, then fading away as the composition grows more intense. But even as the tune unfolds, picking up steam and settling into a raucous groove around the 14-minute mark, the proceedings never feel serious. Instead, it all feels light and carefree, like the sun peeking through the window. Ultimately, I think that’s the key to Cherry’s greatness: Just see what happens; let it be what it is.



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