Don Cherry – The Dozens

Don Cherry is a unique figure in the history of American music. Known primarily as a trumpeter, cornetist, and pocket trumpet player, Cherry was also an accomplished composer, one of the first to seriously merge American jazz with music from other parts of the world. He also eventually became a player of many small instruments from around the world, most notably the Malian stringed instrument, the doussn’gouni. As a trumpeter, Cherry played with a poignant, understated melodicism and an intensely creative sense of line that made him a one-of-a-kind player in the history of jazz.

Perhaps the most powerful and influential aspect of Don Cherry’s legacy was his approach to freedom in music. He was one of the first western musicians (classical, jazz, or other) to consider absolute freedom — the total absence of predetermined music — as a process of its own, on a par with notated compositions. This belief flowed directly from Cherry’s personality and lifestyle. He lived as spontaneously as the flow of his music, and that kind of improvisation is notoriously difficult to record. Freedom is not always polite, and the protean spirit does not always get to tape.

For that reason I have the feeling that a great deal of Cherry’s most important work went undocumented: his commitment to the ever-present moment as a bandleader, his insistence on blending all sorts of material subject to the vibrations in the room, and his mercurial will to create something fresh and new at all times. Cherry’s was a search for satisfaction and sheer fun in the moment of creation – a moment not separate from everyday life, but part of it. Recording devices have not been built to capture that.

Thankfully, many recordings of Don Cherry’s marvelous and magical music survive. These twelve tracks over a nineteen-year span of his career — from sideman with the world’s greatest saxophonists, to visionary bandleader, to venerable guest soloist — represent only a portion of the music Don Cherry dreamed up.

1. Ornette Coleman – 1959 – The Art of the Improviser
Just For You, with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins

This track was recorded in 1959 at the first Ornette Coleman Quartet session, but not released until some years later. Don states the beautiful and mysterious melody, sounding pretty conventional by 2009 standards. This is such a perfect example of the soulful lyricism in his playing that radiates simple but deeply felt emotion. In 1959 no other trumpeter played ballads quite this way, and because of Don’s idiosyncratic relationship to the standard practice of the trumpet, many players were afraid of him. But his is a radical and finely honed approach. Don was not afraid of sounding exposed and vulnerable, but there’s also a really “at home,” relaxed and down to earth quality to his playing. On many of the Coleman Quartet pieces Don Cherry exhibits a more buoyant and rhythmic puckishness in his playing. With this track, as on the better-known Embraceable You, we get his revolutionary take on melodic trumpet playing.

2. John Coltrane – The Avant Garde – 1960
Cherryco, with Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell

One of the great albums from this period, The Avant Garde presents Coltrane and Cherry in a true dialogue. As with most of Coltrane’s collaborative albums, compositions by both artists are featured, and the rhythm section here is more associated with Cherry, the three of them having played and recorded sessions with Ornette Coleman. His earthy blues phrases and pan-modal lines complement Coltrane’s approach well. Cherry’s solo starts with fairly clear minor pentatonic scale tones, but as it develops he begins to use neighboring and sometimes distantly related modes for variety. The sound mirrors the harmonic motion of the melody in a figurative, rather than a literal way. This track is also a good example of the kind of “shape” playing that Don had perfected by this time. It would become one of the most imitated features of his style.

3. Steve Lacy with Don Cherry – Evidence – 1961
San Francisco Holiday, with Carl Brown and Billy Higgins

This great album, which opens with Ellington’s The Mystery Song, is a real classic of the era. Lacy was one of the first bandleaders to cover Thelonious Monk’s compositions outside of the Monk ensembles. It is not often remarked that Don Cherry was also a Monk fanatic, often playing the tunes note for note on the piano. Aside from learning dozens of Ornette Coleman tunes early in his career, this recording makes it apparent that he also learned his Monk, and played on the forms and structures of the tune, something that might surprise those who think of him as “merely” a free player. This track displays some of his natural lyric sense, but also his playful approach to the rhythm. On this date they also recorded Work, one of Monk’s toughest melodies, showing that Cherry really did his homework. His pairing with Lacy’s sound is spectacular, the blend managing to sound simultaneously stark and droll.

4. Sonny Rollins – Our Man In Jazz – 1962
Doxy, with Bob Cranshaw and Billy Higgins

Don Cherry gets the first solo on this one, rare with Rollins, who was in one of his most ferocious moods on this recording. There is something really graphic about Don’s playing here – almost like a line drawing made up of shapes rather than notes. His imagination went beyond what one could potentially write down, and as a trumpeter he developed special techniques to do that. Among Cherry’s arsenal are half-valve notes, smears, ghost notes, microtones, and split tones, all adding to the expressive vocal quality of his tone. This is a particularly strong solo and an inspiring period in his career. To be touring with Sonny Rollins, after several years with Ornette Coleman, must have been quite a jarring change. For one thing, pairing with tenor saxophone as opposed to alto forces a trumpeter to play more forthrightly, as if to fill in the high frequencies missing in the lower reed. Also, Rollins’ repertoire was mostly standards and jazz classics, as opposed to Coleman’s book of originals. Cherry was pushed to play harder and faster, in a more conventional jazz language while still developing his own personal sound in this entirely new (and old) context. That’s the change I hear in his playing here.

5. Don Cherry – Complete Communion – 1965
Elephantasy, with Gato Barbieri, Henry Grimes, Ed Blackwell

This recording, along with the Symphony for Improvisers, represents a huge step in Cherry’s development. After spending a few years in Europe with a coterie of creative players devoted to learning his music (including Karl Berger, Aldo Romano, Jean-Francois Jenny-Clarke, and Gato Barbieri), Cherry returned to the States with a new compositional mode that merged all of his themes into longer, semi-improvised suites. He found that, given a group of musicians who’d learned his music, he could move through the themes freely using a system of musical and visual cues. Improvisation happened between the written fragments, and rather than solos sometimes consisted of collective playing. Blue Note allowed him to explore this concept on full record sides, roughly 20 minutes of uninterrupted music. Here Don’s use of freedom combines with his lyric sense and improvisational acuity, creating a new way of playing that became more standard towards the later sixties. Musicians today are still absorbed in the different possible applications for this process. Getting an ensemble to think, breathe, and feel together while freely accessing written material is one of the challenges to composers and players post-Don Cherry.

6. Don Cherry – Where is Brooklyn? – 1966
The Thing, with Pharaoh Sanders, Henry Grimes, Ed Blackwell

All of the pieces recorded on this session were parts of longer suites, and some of them are even truncated (by the composer) to fit in this format. This is an interesting facet of Where Is Brooklyn? – We get to hear the music Cherry was writing as discrete themes. Also, as opposed to the pocket trumpet he had been playing this date presents him on cornet, a larger, conical instrument. His playing here seems to take on a more seasoned tone, more plaintively expressive like a human voice. Perhaps to match Pharaoh Sanders’ powerful sound, he plays hard on this date and the cornet is subtle but important shift in his approach. Cherry’s bond with Grimes and Blackwell is by this point rock solid. Grimes understands these tunes deeply, providing strong structured support while leaving enough ambiguity to make space for conversation with the soloists. Blackwell charges right through a lot of the rhythmic figures, swinging hard. He manages to be at once the link to earlier jazz styles and a sharply defined rhythmic sound of his own.

7. Don Cherry – Live Ankara – 1969
Tamzara, with Selcuk Sun, Okay Temiz, Irfan Sumer

Starting around 1968 Don Cherry spent increasing amounts of his time in Europe, exploring different musical traditions and integrating them into his insatiable compositional palate. The Berlin Jazz Festival sponsored a project called Eternal Rhythms, featuring some of Europe’s top improvisers. During this period, Cherry also met up with several creative Turkish players and traveled to Turkey with them. This album was recorded during that trip. Aside from his own compositions, Don performs half a dozen traditional Turkish pieces with the group, his sound bringing a natural, unforced quality to the translation. This one is in a traditional 9/8 meter, and you can hear the audience respond with delight, clapping along, as the band kicks into the odd rhythm patterns. It was also during this period, with groups like Organic Music, that Cherry began seriously incorporating alternate instruments into his performance practice. Seriousness aside, you get the feeling this music was a lot of fun to play and to be around.

8. Ornette Coleman – Science Fiction – 1971
Civilization Day, with Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell

Revisiting Ornette’s group in 1971, it’s amazing how different the group sounds. Everyone is playing stronger, partly with the help of enhanced recording techniques, but also with a new assurance and power that reflects the 12 years that have passed since their first dates together. Kind of like putting on an old glove, there’s a feeling of warmth, of joy, in the reunion. Don’s playing is some of his strongest and most creative work on record. Every idea is clearly expressed and placed into rhythmic context. You hear traces of his work with various folk music sources, as well as the powerful mastery of what I have called “shape,” or graphic design playing. His rapport with Haden and Blackwell at this point is almost uncanny in their ability to create harmonic forms on the fly.

9. Don Cherry & The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra – Relativity Suite – 1973
Mali Doussn’gouni, with Carla Bley, and many others

The Relativity Suite represents a remarkable triumph both in Cherry’s career and in the music of the nineteen-seventies. In a mere five years, Don has managed to bring all sorts of music into his own language, incorporating instruments from many traditions in the sound. All of the compositional devices of making improvised suites are fully realized. This group is able to wander into and out of the material, following musical cues given by the trumpeter. Cherry has also set up a system of hand cues and conducted improvisations that make for the best combination of spontaneous ideas mixed with written themes. The trumpet playing is also strong and clear. The other soloists, among them Carlos Ward, Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell, are given perfect vehicles in their respective solos. This track also features Don Cherry’s singing and chanting, and it is astounding how closely his voice compares to his playing. This is some of his most beautiful trumpet soloing and I can’t recommend this record highly enough.

10. Don Cherry – Hear & Now – 1976
Universal Mother, with Cliff carter, Neil Jason, Steve Jordan, Lois Colin, Stan Samole, Sammy Figueroa, and Raphael Cruz

The mid-seventies were a fecund period for Cherry. A deal with Atlantic Records produced this album and several others that dealt with his interest in music of the world, in spirituality, especially Tibetan Buddhism, and in the rhythms and instruments of pop music. Universal Mother is essentially a rap song – Cherry tells the story of his family, his heritage and some of his realizations and aspirations. There is excellent trumpet playing on other tracks. But this one is unique in Cherry’s catalog, and it spoke powerfully to me as a musician coming up.

11. Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell – Old and New Dreams – 1976
Next To The Quiet Stream

In 1976 this super group was formed, going on to record seminal projects and live shows for many years. Cherry’s rapport with Haden and Blackwell is well established at this point, but with Dewey Redman, another Ornette Coleman alum, he steps into a new and incredibly powerful collaborative relationship. This track shows him at his most graphic. The lines in his solo are not transcribeable in terms of five-stave notation. Almost all of them fall in the cracks and use glissandos and smeared tones to leap from note to note. Another track on this album, Chairman Mao by Charlie Haden, sets up Cherry for one of his most beautiful and assured melodic improvisations on record.

12. Johnny Dyani Quartet – Song For Biko – 1978
Song For Biko, with Dudu Pkwana, Makaya Ntshoko

Bassist Johnny Dyani left his home in South Africa for London in the mid-sixties along with Dudu Pkwana, Monghezi Feza, Chris McGregor, and Louis Moholo, the members of the jazz group The Blue Notes. This recording brings Don Cherry into a quartet of expatriates that, while including the same instruments as the Coleman quartet, nevertheless has a radically different sound and language. Over the course of each track the musicians find each other, and it is interesting to hear Cherry in the role of guest soloist lending his approach to freedom to the structures of the tunes. A powerful elegy, the track begins with a melancholy theme but broadens out with input from the improvisers. In particular this seems like a piece that really bridges the language of a Xhosa composer with the vernacular of American melodic sensibility. It is quite fitting that Don Cherry, so committed to the idea that all music is one, brings all of those ideas and feelings to bear in his playing here.