From the very beginning, Los Angeles-raised Don Cherry (1936) displayed an
anti-virtuoso attitude that contrasted with the ruling dogmas of jazz music.
Cherry shunned both acrobatic exhibitions and radical experiments in favor of
humility and pathos (thus appealing more to the rock crowd than to the jazz
His style focused on the idiosyncratic timbres of his pocket trumpet and on
languid phrases that evoked ancestral worlds via the abstraction of exotic
styles, predating Jon Hassell's "fourth world" music (and the whole world-music
bandwagon) by more than a decade.
His first major statement was The Avant-Garde (july 1960) with John Coltrane on sax, Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums.
When Cherry left the memorable Ornette Coleman quartet that had recorded
Something Else, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Free Jazz,
he joined the New York Contemporary Five, a quintet with Archie Shepp on tenor and John Tchicai on alto saxophone that implemented the principles of Free Jazz on their Consequences (october 1963).
The Complete 1963 Copenhagen Concert (january 1963) featured the quartet of Sonny Rollins, Don Cherry, Henry Grimes (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums), mainly playing an extended version of Thelonious Monk's 52nd Street Theme.
Cherry's new musical and philosophical direction was dramatically different
(especially for someone who always professed to abide by Coleman's "harmolodic"
He assembled a quartet with Argentinian tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, drummer Ed Blackwell and bassist Henry Grimes, and
structured Complete Communion (december 1965) as two side-long improvisations,
each structured as a sort of improvised suite: four melodic themes each
(Complete Communion/ And Now/ Golden Heart/ Rememberance and
Elephantasy/ Our Feelings/ Bismallah/ Wind), and
each theme delivered to the players for "communal" improvisation (i.e., on
Cherry (at the ostensible leader) is quite subdued, his pocket trumpet unable
to stand up to Barbieri's exuberant saxophone and to the creative and sometimes
chaotic rhythm section: but that was precisely Cherry's point. Cherry marked
the end of the "melodramatic" phase of jazz, in which the leading instrument
was supposed to set the world on fire, and opened a more "existentialist" phase,
in which the leading voice is one of downcast meditation.
The Symphony For Improvisers (september 1966) was the next logical step. With
a septet that now included Karl Berger on vibraphone and piano,
Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone and piccolo,
and a second bassist,
Cherry constructed two suites just like the previous ones,
Symphony for Improvisers/ Nu Creative Love/ What's Not Serious/ Infant Happiness and Manhattan Cry/ Lunatic/ Sparkle Plenty/ Om Nu, except that the melodic themes were
downplayed and the primal energy was emphasized. The resulting soundscape
was a color version of the chiaroscuro of Complete Communion.
Where Is Brooklyn (november 1966), for a quartet with Sanders, Blackwell and Grimes, closed that first creative season in a more conventional way, with five
independent pieces highlighted by the 18-minute Unite.
Cherry moved onto his pan-ethnic phase with Eternal Rhythm (november 1968), featuring a looser, extended chamber orchestra with
Albert Mangelsdorff and Eje Thelin on trombone,
Bernt Rosengren on tenor, 0boe, clarinet and flute,
Sonny Sharrock on guitar,
Karl Berger on vibraphone and piano,
Joachim Kuhn on piano,
Arild Andersen on bass, and several of them (plus Jacques Thollot) also
Cherry managed to bestow an aura of dignified elegance
and an almost religious sense of communion with far-away civilizations
onto the two medleys composed/improvised by the musicians
(Baby's Breath/ Sonny Sharrock/ Turkish Prayer/ CR and Autumn Melody/ Lanoo/ Crystal Clear).
Cherry must have felt that a large ensemble was somewhat a contradiction in
terms for his music of humility and cut the double LP Mu (august 1969) as a series of duets
between himself (on pocket trumpet, piano, flute, percussion and vocals) and Ed Blackwell. The music was less chromatic, less cinematic, and less melodic,
but it sounded a lot less abstract and a lot more personal. Cherry was pouring
the artist's soul into each and every sound. The five improvisations
(Brilliant Action, Amejelo, Total Vibration, Sun of the East, the simple apotheosis of Terrestrial Beings)
harked back not to the tradition of Louis Armostrong or Duke Ellington
but to the tradition of Saint Francis or Daoism.
Bamboo Night and Teo-Teo-Can (on the second volume) extended the
symbiosis to distant musical cultures.
Mu was instantly a hit with the rock intelligentsia (especially in
Europe) but largely ignored by the jazz community (especially in the USA).
On one hand there were superficial similarities with the hippy ideology,
and on the other hand there was none of the narcissistic virtuoso-oriented
show that the jazz world expected from a jazz musician.
Around the same time Cherry was involved in projects that shared a similar
"utopian" view of music, such as
Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra (april 1969),
Carla Bley's Escalator Over The Hill (june 1971) and even
Human Music (november 1969), a duet with electronic composer Jon Appleton on synclavier.
On the live European albums of that period Cherry continued to expand his ethnic horizons, from Indian karnatic chanting (he studied with Pandit Pran Nath) to Native-American percussion:
Togetherness (his live warhorse) on Orient (august 1971),
the 26-minute East on Blue Lake (april 1971),
and Humus on Actions (november 1971), that featured an all-star cast under the moniker New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra
(Manfred Schoof, Kenny Wheeler, Tomasz Stanko, Paul Rutherford, Albert Mangelsdorff, Gerd Dudek, Peter Brotzmann, Willem Breuker, Gunter Hampel, Terje Rypdal, etc).
Under the aegis of the Jazz Composer's Orchestra, Cherry scored for large ensemble the Relativity Suite (february 1973) that had debuted on the live Organic Music Society (august 1972).
The players included saxophonists Charles Brackeen, Carlos Ward, Frank Lowe and Dewey Redman, violinist Leroy Jenkins, bassist Charlie Haden, pianist Carla Bley, two cellos, two violas, trombone, tuba, drummers Ed Blackwell and Paul Motian.
A smaller (and European) ensemble helped out on Eternal Now (may 1973), an album that continued his world-music travelogue. From the purest of his "folk" albums Cherry proceeded to a virtual sell-out:
Brown Rice (1975), featuring a multitude of players (including
Haden, drummers Hakim Jamil and Billy Higgins, tenorist Frank Lowe),
wed his world-music to jazz-rock,
although the format remained loose and extended (Malkauns and Chenrezig).
Having thrown the poetry out of the window, Cherry retargeted his world-jazz
for the new-age crowd of the 1980s with
the atmospheric world-music of: Hear And Now (december 1976),
the three volumes of
Old And New Dreams (october 1976, august 1979, june 1980), quartet sessions with three other Coleman alumni (Haden, Blackwell and tenorist Dewey Redman),
and the three volumes of Codona (september 1978, may 1980, september 1982), a graceful trio with Collin Walcott on ethnic instruments and Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos.
Tibet (Sonet, 1981 - Piccadilly, 2008) employed gamelan and African instruments.
The new duet with Blackwell,
El Corazon (february 1982), tried in vain to recapture the charm of Mu.
In 1985 Cherry formed Nu with altoist Carlos Ward bassist Mark Helias, drummer Ed Blackwell, and Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, documented on the live Nu (july 1986).
Art Deco (august 1988), for a quartet with
tenor saxophonist James Clay, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins,
was free jazz played in the baroque vein of fusion jazz.
Multikulti (february 1990) returned to world-music but the sound was truly
These albums still had their charm, but contained too many unfocused tracks
and too many mediocre interpretations of other people's compositions.
Cherry died in 1995 at the Spanish home of his stepdaughter Neneh Cherry.
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