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Artist Profiles

The Humus of Don Cherry

By Published: October 20, 2005
"Don Cherry had an effect on people everywhere he went, because whenever he was in town, everybody would show up... things started happening around him because he was such a fun person to be around," so the words of Swedish percussionist Bengt Berger, who met Cherry in the early 1960s during the trumpeter's initial stay in Scandinavia. Indeed, Cherry's music is often associated very closely with the Scandinavian new music community, including such luminaries as Swedish reedmen Bernt Rosengren and Bengt 'Frippe' Nordstrom (whose album of duets with Cherry is the scarcest European jazz album), multi-instrumentalist Christer Bothen (noted for his playing of the dousson'gouni) and Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen. As a leader, Cherry recorded two sessions for Swedish labels Sonet and Caprice (including the eponymous Organic Music Society, 1971) in addition to having a huge structural influence on groups like Gunnar Lindquist's G.L. Unit (Orangutang!, EMI, 1970) and the work of Danish trumpeter-composer Hugh Steinmetz, who met Cherry in 1963 when the New York Contemporary Five visited Copenhagen. Cherry and his then-wife Mocqui bought a one-room schoolhouse in Togarten, Sweden, which became one of his principal home bases (this, in fact, was where Carlos Ward began working with him). Bengt Berger also began working with Cherry around this time: "I had been to India and had studied tabla, which he got very interested in, so we got to playing a lot, and I stayed for a long time at his house in Sweden and going on European tours [with him] as well." One of the focal points for the new music in Sweden was Stockholm's Moderna Museet, which had a geodesic dome at the time that the musicians played in — Cherry, Rosengren, Berger — allowing many of the young musicians to meet one another, as well as play with visiting musicians from other countries. Certainly, Cherry was galvanizing musicians in New York and Paris, but the European country which might qualify most as a spiritual home seemed to be Sweden. Perhaps this was because of several highly-skilled players of non-Western instruments in Stockholm, perhaps because of the rich folk heritage of the region, but whatever the reason, it bears mentioning that Don Cherry had a strong presence among this community in particular.

For sure, Cherry's integration of Indian, Arabic, Chinese, European and African musics into a whole of which jazz was only a small fraction could have come at no more proper a time — the interest among American and European audiences in non-Western music was at the time fairly high, and consequently Cherry's music gained greater recognition than it might have otherwise. In the 1970s, he recorded for Atlantic and A&M and had a minor hit with "Brown Rice" (as might be expected, one of the stylistically least-indicative pieces that could have been chosen), as well as working in small and large groups with South African pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim, often featuring Ward. Nu, though not recorded to advantage, was one of Cherry's most fully integrated projects of the 1980s, one that featured Ward, bassist Mark Helias and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos as an extension of both jazz and non-Western improvisational principles along folk lines, swinging decidedly to the left of either Old and New Dreams (the cooperative band with tenor man Dewey Redman, Haden and Blackwell that revisited the Ornette songbook) or his various traditional music projects often heralded under the 'multi-kulti' banner (indeed, Cherry did cut a record with that very title, for ECM), rather than as investigation of improvisational art along worldwide folk principles, often set simultaneously. Ward, indeed, found 'Nu' to be one of his most important associations, for the very reason that one foot was decidedly within the jazz spectrum — that no matter how divergent his creative search became, the 'cry' was a necessary part of Cherry's music.

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