Multikulti Soothsayer Player: On a Late Diptych
By W. C. Bamberger
In July of 1976, I travelled (began as a hitchhiker, gave up and caught a bus in Kansas City) to Boulder, Colorado to attend Naorpa Institute as a summer student. I could only afford two classes, a poetry class with Allen Ginsberg and a jazz class with Don Cherry. In 1968, I had purchased Cherry's Eternal Rhythm because of the presence of outre-guitarist Sonny Sharrock (his first album, Black Woman, remains a favorite of mine; "Blind Willie" remains a constant on my own guitar-playing repertoire, despite the bother of having to go into the eccentric tuning it uses), Cherry's album was filled with clashing metallophones--gamelan orchestra instrument from Indonesia--Sharrock's sproinging guitar, prepared piano, horns, percussionist, all playing free, all clearly being directed by Cherry on trumpet and double wooden flute. The sound was hard on the ears, but even harder to dismiss. Soon after I chanced upon his Relativity Suite (JCOA records, now criminally unavailable), and I was hooked. The piano pounded out repetitive rhyhtms, there were Chinese instruments, shouting, fierce solos.
I knew Cherry had played with Ornette Coleman, but I had been "born too late," to find Coleman's music very interesting. I followed Cherry's forward progress instead, album by hard-to-find album, through the hypnotic other-worldliness of Eternal Now, an import, and its more accessible follow-up on A&M, Don Cherry (in reissues now unfortunately retitled Brown Rice). The opportunity to take a class from him (despite the fact that my own instruments, guitar, harmonica, a little primitive piano, were not good fits for his music) was irresistible.
The class was held in a small room with a piano in the middle and seats around the walls. Some of the poets at the school attended--including (after he returned from attending his father on his death bed) Allen Ginsberg, who banged away gamely with his Australian song sticks, evidencing very little idea of where the beat might be. Cherry's long-time collaborator Ed Blackwell, wearing a dashiki, sat to one side, playing a small wooden slit drum. The buoyant "plonk" of the notes of the drum, a sound somewhere between a marimba and a taut trampoline, helped the student crowd keep time. Cherry taught mostly by example. He would play a phrase on his trumpet or on the piano, announce the notes for those who understood notation, and even hang up tapestries made by his thyen-wife, artist Moki, which spelled out the notes in Indian notation. He would then begin to lead everyone through the piece, repeating it again and again until all the players and singers had joined in to the best of our abilities.
I shared the piano bench with poet Diane de Prima's son, Alex--he got the bass side of Middle C, and I got the treble. We played and played over an insistent two-chord pattern (Dm and C) in 9/8 which turns up under several titles on Cherry's later albums, and a tune in E with a two-note bass line and a simple four-note melody played round-style. This last piece included singing, with Cherry leading the group in "Oh, oh-oh-oh-oh, Oh, oh-oh-oh-oh, oh Su-ma-la...." This is as close as I can come to transcribing the word he sang; I have never found this piece on any of Cherry's recordings (I still play this compelling little mystery piece, either on piano or guitar, at least once a month. A brief snippet of this can be heard somewhere on YouTube, in a Cherry video I once chanced upon but have never been able to find again; the internet IS Borges' "Book of Sand." Another song we played turned up in a funkified version on Cherry's album Hear and Now, known in the vernacular as "Disco Don." Horrible).
Each class was supposed to last two hours, but Cherry rarely played beyond fifty minutes or so. He did stay after class and talk to students, so I was able to speak with him briefly one afternoon. He was standing against a wall smiling, and he told me, "This has been the greatest day of my life." When I asked him why, he replied that he had been granted an hour-long personal audience with the Rinpoche. Chogyam Trungpa, The Rinpoche, a Tibetan holy man in exile from his home country, was the founder of Naropa and its spiritual leader. The Rinpoche was a controversial figure. He rode around Boulder in a Mercedes, accompanied by bodyguards, and was an obvious alcoholic. The year before, on Halloween, there had been a notorious incident where he had ordered his guards to strip poet W. S. Merwin and his girlfriend naked during a spiritual retreat (when I asked Ginsberg about it after the Cherry class one day, he got a pained-looking smile on his face and said something to the effect that even the best teachers are not immune from human mistakes. I didn't press the matter).
With all the world travelling Cherry had done, with all the tremendous music he had made, and all the brilliant musicians he had played with, to hear him say that his audience with the Rinpoche was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him was, for me, as jarring as finding out, one early Sunday morning, that William S. Burroughs wouldn't cross an empty street against a DON'T WALK light. This certainly says more about my spiritual limitations than about Cherry.
In addition to the class, Cherry and Blackwell played a couple of concerts at the school. Their 1982 duet album El Corazón captures much the same spirit and interplay as those concerts. Their tour in support of this album was the last time I saw Cherry. The concert was held in a low-ceiling second-story loft, with wooden walls and ceiling. Blackwell created a constantly shifting rhythmic base that allowed Cherry to wander from piano to his dusso-ngouni (the African instrument from Mali that he had been playing since his stint in Scandanavia in the late 1960's and 1970's) to his trumpet, or to just sing as he prowled the small stage. Between sets Blackwell walked to the refreshment bar to get a water; Blackwell had been ill for years and his hands shook so badly that he could hardly hold the bottle, but when he had drum sticks in his hand his movements were sure and precise. While I never saw him perform again, I continued to keep up with his recordings--to the point of buying Lou Reed's 1979 The Bells, on which Cherry figures prominently. A fine album, in fact.
In 1988 and 1990, Cherry released two albums on A&M Records. These amount to a diptych portrait of the entire span of Cherry's career to that point (he would live five more years. He died of liver cancer in Spain in 1995). The first of this pair, Art Deco, gathers together musicians he first played with in California in the 1950's, in the bop combo The Jazz Messiahs. Drummer Billy Higgins, in fact, first met Cherry when they both attended a "problem student" high school in East Los Angeles. The bassist is Charlie Haden, with whom Cherry played in the classic Ornette Coleman Quartet in the late 1950's and early 1960's. The fourth member of the Art Deco group is tenor player James Clay. Clay had arrived in Los Angeles from Dallas, Texas in the mid-1950's, and Cherry and Haden were both taken with what they felt was his progressive approach. But after a short period of practicing Coleman's music with Cherry and Higgins in the Jazz Messiahs period, Clay moved in a more conservative direction, recording a straight-ahead album with fellow-Texan David "Fathead" Newman, and playing in the saxophone section of Ray Charles' big band for a time. In his contribution to the liner notes, Clay makes it clear that he is uncomfortable playing in even a mildly free context; suggests he feels lost with no piano guiding the chord changes. His playing here doesn't betray this discomfort: it is assured, particularly on the ballads, although nothing here makes clear what Haden and Cherry's excitement was about.
The album opens with its most memorable track, Cherry's composition "Art Deco." One of the pocket trumpets Cherry owned had previously been played by a member of Josephine Baker's jazz band, and this track deliberately evokes the slightly ticky-tack rhythms and changes of that period. "Art Deco" opens with Cherry's open trumpet playing a staggered melody line, one with a gently stuttering rhythm, and then as the tune moves into a steadier rhythm he quickly slips a mute into his horn and plays the rest of the piece muted. This gives the trumpet a beautiful vocal quality and Cherry's solo is one of his most teasing and beautiful. Cherry played "Bemsha Swing," Thelonious Monk's joyful, body twisting late-bop tune throughout his career. The take here shines with the pleasure the group takes in its leaping lines.
"Body and Soul" begins (as would be expected, considering the tune's jazz pedigree as a Coleman Hawkins classic) with Clay's breathy descent into the melody. Clay solos for the first four minutes, then turns it over to Haden, who plays beautifully filigreed variations on the melody for one chorus. Clay then returns and closes the track. Cherry doesn't play a note. "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face," another ballad standard, is also dominated by Clay, with another Haden solo. Though Clay's playing here is a little more disjoint than on "Body and Soul," it still comes across as warm, romantic music--full of cigarette smoke and starlight. Again, Cherry sits out the track.
"Folk Medley," Haden's short solo feature, is dominated by a melody that sounds like "John Henry"--or like Leadbelly's subtly syncopated "John Hardy." Higgins and Cherry each take an unaccompanied solo outing as well. The album is fleshed out with three of Ornette Coleman's tunes, and at this remove they come across as very much in the bop lineage. By the 1980's, it had become difficult to remember why Coleman's music was once seen as revolutionary. The tunes are solid, particularly "The Blessing," and "When Will the Blues Leave," both of which Cherry also played regularly for years, but these recordings don't remain long in the memory.
Aside from the title track, Art Deco comes across as an exercise in nostalgia, a nod to Cherry's early influences. The follow-up album, Multikulti, banishes nostalgia entirely, and only a few old friends--Ed Blackwell, Karl Berger, Nana Vasconcelos--participate. The album begins by building music from the ground up: Cherry plays "Trumpet" unaccompanied, showing listeners how melody and rhythm, swing and power can all be carried by a single player. Cherry then takes up the Doussn' gouni and, accompanied by some quiet but rattling percussion (including, so it sounds, a kazoo!) and trumpet overdubs, tells the story of going into the shop of a soothsayer to try to get some remedy for his "troubles with his honey." In a hilariously dry recitation, Cherry tells us that she sells him magic powders, roots, miracle candles, some gold dust and more; "Then we went to the till, where I paid my very, very large bill," he says. She tells him to come back next week for "part two, of what you must do." This is musical of wry self-identity--Cherry showing himself possessed of a contemporary ironic attitude and yet squarely in the grand African Griot tradition. Cherry then offers another solo piece, this time on wooden flute.
Track four is a brilliantly rhythmic electro-acoustic piece titled "Birdboy." Synthesizers and drum machines sent up a polyrhythmic variation on a reggae beat, and Cherry plays a lovely spare line that scoots over the hopping and skittering rhythms with great confidence. The use of the mute here moves the timbre of the trumpet closer to that of the electronic sounds, a very interesting blend. This track was producer by Cherry's son, David. Cherry follows "Birdboy" with a solo on melodica, a keyboard that is powered by the player's breath.
Next up is "Dedication to Thomas Mapfumo." Mapfumo is a Zimbabwean singer and guitarist whose political songs forced him into political exile in the U.S. "Dedication" is the first track that resembles a "jazz tune" as we usually think of such, but it has differences. Twin marimbas and Vasconcelos' shaker evoke Mapfumo's music, placing the tune somewhere along the path between Africa roots music and jazz. Carlos Ward (a Coltrane veteran and long-time associate of Abdullah Ibrahim) and Peter Apfelbaum play saxophones here, and Ward and tuba player Bob Stewart are carried over onto the next track, "Pettiford Bridge," also written by Ward. This is the first straight ahead jazz tune, a very bop track with the kind of leaping, rhythmic lines that Cherry favored. Cherry, however, seems a little absent here, a little tired on his first chorus. Ward's soloing is much better, pushing against the bar lines but never losing his melodic sense. Cherry plays a second, shorter solo with more energy and invention. Cherry follows this with "Piano/Trumpet," an overdubbed duet with himself. This is a slow, bluesy piece with Cherry's muted trumpet again taking on a vocal quality.
At the time this album was recorded, Cherry was spending much of his time on the West Coast. There he met up with Apfelbaum, a former student. Apfelbaum plays piano and tenor saxophone, and is a prolific composer. On the two tracks that follow, Cherry plays with Apfelbaum's group, the Hieroglyphic Ensemble. The first of these is "Until the Rain Comes," the longest track here at more than twelve minutes. This begins with a sway, a slow stroll with a descending highlife-style guitar part over Apfelbaum's piano and Cherry's muted trumpet. Ingrid Sertso begins telling a story about a romantic scene and as she finishes, repeating the title over and over, the band--saxophones, brass, guitars, percussionists, organ, fourteen players in all--slowly enter. After a brief knot of free noise, the track more than doubles in speed and tears along with solos from Cherry and Apfelbaum on tenor. The playing is energetic, the rhythm infectious, but it is the lovely sway of the opening that will stick with you (and this may be the point to mention that Cherry was particularly fond of the alap section of an Indian music performance, this being the slow, contemplative opening where the player investigates the possibilities of the composition before beginning the improvisations).
The second track with the Hieroglyphics Ensemble is "Divinity-Tree." This is a more Latin-influenced version of the same sound as "Until the Rain Comes," and is the weakest band track. This is followed by a rootsy, out-and-out Latin shout, "Rhumba Multikulti." Here Apfelbaum and Cherry overdub themselves to form the band, and this is reinforced by a choir that includes Karl Berger and Allen Ginsberg. This too begins with a slow, contemplative section, with Cherry's trumpet tone coming straight out of mariachi school. They then drop into a section of chanting and clapping. The Latin rhythms slip over one another with hard-to-count but easy to dance to overlaps. Cherry's trumpet interjects here and there rather than dominates.
The final track is again Cherry multi-dubbed. He plays Doussn' gouni, chants and plays muted trumpet and percussion (there is also an uncredited synthesizer rumbling below his instruments, but it adds nothing; someone's mistake...). On this quiet but rhythmic note the album draws to a close.
The ECM album Dona Nostra from 1994 is often listed as Cherry's last album, but there he shares co-leader credit with Lennart Åberg and Bobo Stenson and most of the tracks are group compositions. The album features some fine playing by Cherry, but it lacks his distinctive stamp and it's more reasonable to see Art Deco and Multikulti as the last true Don Cherry albums. For me, they are Cherry's gathering in of his legacy, his hopes and his ambitions. The first tells us where he came from, but the second tells us where he still hoped to go and, more importantly, how he hoped to travel: with all tributaries of music flowing into his work, with friends old and new, in a collaborative spirit where he didn't have to write all the music nor take all the solos, where he could as easily be a sideman as a leader, just as easily a singer as a trumpet player, as easily a folk musician as an "avante-garde jazz musician." Viewed as individual albums, these two are solid, though perhaps for the most part unremarkable, entries into the continuum of jazz history. Taken as musical expressions of where Cherry's journey into the many facets of the world's music and his own humanity had led and would still lead him (he played new music with new people almost to the day of his death), these are the summation and explication of a long and remarkable passage.
ALSO SEE OUR OTHER TRIBUTE TO DON CHERRY
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