Don Cherry: Trumpet Innovator
photo © 1955 James Radke, courtesy of Lee M. Cohen
Fabio Rojas (December 1997)
Don Cherry died over a year ago and jazz lost one of its greatest voices. On a more positive note, in honor of Don Cherry, let me take a few moments to say something about his trumpet playing.
The more I think about it, the more he'll be remembered as being one of the defining voices of the jazz trumpet. I think he is one of those figures that is part of the great lineage from King Oliver, Louis Armstrong right up through Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan and the moderns like Wynton Marsalis (the neotraditional) and Leo Smith (the avant garde).
For starters, he was the first great free trumpeter. On Shape of Jazz to Come and the other great Atlantic recordings, he produced the first competent examples of the bebop style played independent of traditional harmony. He also had a truly distinctive voice on the horn - kind of tight and astigmatic but at the same time large and open. Very much like Ornette Coleman's sound, but in its own way much more warm. It was this combination of Coleman's bluesy sound and Cherry's bop that gave the first great Coleman quartet its truly distinctive sound. It is so remarkable that in one interview, Wynton Marsalis said that if a person were to listen to just one jazz album, it ought to be The Shape of Jazz to Come.
Then in the mid 60's he pushed the frontiers of free jazz with John Tchicai, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and his own recordings as leader. Recordings such as Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers demonstrate that beauty is an integral part of free music - not just honking and screeching. These records are remarkbale for their ensemble playing and some of the first examples of the playing of soon to be famous sidemen (and women) such as Gato Barbieri.
In the late 60's and 70's, he began to experiement with Indian and African musics. As always, his music aimed at a combination of beauty and playfulness. One of my favorites from this era is Mu in which he plays alls sorts of traditional instruments as well as cornet. Fans of drumming will enjoy this because of Ed Blackwell who, for an entire hour was constantly producing new and edgy accompaniment for Cherry's music. In the 80's, Cherry began to experiment with electronic instrumentation as well as continuing to be a virtuoso acoustic musician.
He also helped introduce the pocket trumpet to jazz and was constantly experiementing - succesfully - with traditional instruments as well as electronics.
In this light, it is easily seen that Cherry was a figure that connected the bebop of the late fifties to the experiementation of the 60's and 70's. He was not just a dilletant, he had a beautiful sound and his music was a pleasure to hear. In short, he created a new approach for trumpet and extended the range of the jazz aesthetic. He truly deserves a place in the pantheon of the great jazz trumpet players.
If you have never heard Don Cherry, then I recommend hearing:
The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman
Complete Communion by Don Cherry
Symphony for Improvisors by Don Cherry
Mu, the Complete Session by Don Cheery and Ed Blackwell
Also see our 2013 article about Cherry's late work
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