Don Cherry: From Out of the Shadows
It was cool in Bombay that July in 1985, or was it 1986? Somehow the year does not seem to matter quite as much as it did when the phenomenon first occurred. The other details, of course, I remember clear as day. Association PC were tearing it up on stage at the fabled arena of the historic (for India at that time) Jazz Yatra an international jazz festival hosted by Jazz India since 1978. The Max Mueller Bhavan was responsible in no small measure for bringing the large ensemble down to Bombay and I recall a distinct thrill when listening to trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff growl and bleat and sing through his T-bone. His elastic solo gushed through several choruses and then the songthat quoted from Donna Lee and several bebop songs swung to an end.
The pianist, Joachim Kuhn pulled the microphone towards him and murmured something rather self-consciously into it. Then about four arm lengths away from me a tall gentleman stretched his gangling frame to full height. He dusted his diaphanous saffron robe, settling its gathers around him. Then from somewhere within its myriad folds he pulled out a tiny trumpet. Then, in the long loping strides of a graceful gazelle, he bounded for the stage, put the little horn to his lips, spat a few times, snorted into the mouthpiece and with perfect embouchure bleated a couple of times and played a flowing linea cue for the rest of the ensemble to play after him. The title of the piece now seems irrelevant, but with hindsight was probably a cocktail of songs rooted in Don Cherry's classic piece "Complete Communion." Only this time it quoted from several songs that were characterized by varied metaphors and rhythms.
The music traversed Afro-Brasilian rhythms and dipped in and out of Antonio Carlos Jobim "Insensatez." There was a definite quote from Bird's "Little Suede Shoes" and Ornette Coleman "The Blessing." Don Cherry was probably ringing in the changes to "Complete Communion," or so we thought. Moments later he launched into a song many were not really familiar with, but were soon to be. "Malkauns," for that was the name of the track was based on a very difficult eponymous Hindustani raga, depicting a Hindu Lord. During this majestic, somewhat introverted pentatonic piece, Don Cherry bent some notes and warbled through several more. But somehow he always succeeded in putting a bell-like accent on the pivotal "Ma" also known as the fourth note of the Hindustani music scale.
Although there was no tanpura to provide the droning harmony, Kuhn managed to strike other Indian sounding notes oscillating his way through "Ga," the third note of the Indian scale... While Cherry slid his way higher up the register to "Dha" the sixth note and then the "Ni" seventh, wailing note. The music was restrained and dignifiedsomewhat unusual for the trumpeter who blazed a brassy trail through the music of Ornette Coleman in the early classic music of the fifties and sixties. The rhythm of the piece was at times a symbiotic twin but at other times pulsed in the strictest Indian tradition of "teen tala" something akin to a brisk walking rhythm.
No rhythm without tone
Nothing that Don Cherry ever did was predictable. But I discovered something else. About the time that John Coltrane and perhaps Ornette Coleman, but long before anyone else did Don Cherry discovered the chords lost to civilizations when walls were built to separate cultures. These were the chords uniting music across the planet. The notes and tones and colors that only someone who was in touch with an ancient reality could unlock. With characteristic modesty, he never let on that his enlightenment was pre-dated by almost twenty years.
Don Cherry had discovered what the Sufi Saint and sitar player Hazrat Inayat Khan did: that rhythm cannot exist without tone, nor can tone without rhythm. They are interdependent for their existence and it is the same with time and space. Like his old musical doppelganger, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry had discovered the secret key to unlocking the music of the world.
Marketers today have made this a simplistic theory to enable new strategies. "World Music," they call it... But back in the mid to late 1960s the industry was in turmoil. New York's economy was in shambles and racism was as divisive as ever. But "the music" that had sustained American societythe idiom that became a clarion call of Afro-American challenge to accept the voice of a peoplewas alive and well and sounding the distraught song of freedom. Ornette Coleman was continuing a line broken not long ago by Charlie Parker and Herbie Nichols. Don Cherry was right there in the mix. In 1961 he co-led a date with John Coltrane, one that produced the definitive record, The Avant-Garde (Atlantic) And it was not long before Cherry stretched his wings, chomped at his chops and leapt off the proverbial cliff, no safety net in sight.