John Kelman By

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When borders are eliminated, infinite possibilities arise. Perhaps the greatest achievement of ECM Records- -especially during its first decade, when it was establishing the unique identity and aesthetic that has made it such a significant force over the past forty years—has been its ability to bring together artists of seemingly different backgrounds to create music that transcends style to become something altogether new. These days, musical labels are becoming increasingly meaningless, but ECM recognized early on that the artificial confines of categorization only constrained the music and so, while still considered to largely be a jazz label, ECM has constantly pushed the envelope and stretched the boundaries to allow new collaborations to create previously unheard of—unimagined, even—musical landscapes.

One of its most successful cross-pollinations was CODONA, a collective named after its three members—COllin Walcott, DOn Cherry and NAna Vasconcelos. By combining traditional instruments, including trumpet and organ, with ethnic instruments ranging from better-known (sitar, tabla) to lesser- known (berimbau, doussn'gouni), the trio created a new kind of music that would be collected under the gradually emerging World Music banner, but for which such a label was simply insufficient to express the depth and breadth of its music. Improvisation and composition seamlessly merged, as CODONA challenged all preconceptions of conventional instrumentation to create a sound that had not been heard before—and, with both Walcott and Cherry no longer alive, has not been heard since.

The group recorded three albums, simply titled CODONA (1979), CODONA 2 (1981) and CODONA 3 (1983), now collected into a single box, The CODONA TRILOGY, with revealing liner notes by ECM's Steve Lake.

When the three multi-instrumentalists came together in 1978 to record their first album, they were all already familiar to fans of the label. Walcott, who was responsible for the group's genesis, had already released two outstanding albums on ECM, 1976's Cloud Dance and 1977's Grazing Dreams, the latter featuring Don Cherry, although the two had already crossed paths on Cherry's Hear and Now (Atlantic, 1976). Between his own work and that with Oregon— the collective quartet with Ralph Towner, Glen Moore and Paul McCandless that was both Walcott's primary musical focus and a group that, in its own way, stretched the boundaries of jazz towards the World Music sphere—the fruit of Walcott's Indian studies resulted in one of the most innovative sitarists and tablaists in the world, a musician who would use these and a plethora of percussion instruments found and made, to cross-pollinate music so far-reaching that the concept of purism became irrelevant. Walcott had also intersected with Vasconcelos in 1977 on fellow-Brazilian guitarist/pianist Egberto Gismonti's seminal ECM disc, Sol do meio dia (1978).

Cherry may have established his reputation largely on the basis of his trumpet playing—being a key member of saxophonist Ornette Coleman's early groups, and responsible for classics including Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959) and the preconception-shattering Free Jazz (A Collective Improvisation) (Atlantic, 1960)—but he was, in fact, a global traveler who absorbed the music and instruments of cultures around the world, creating his own kind of musical melange. At the same time that CODONA was forming, he was also reuniting with Coleman cohorts Dewey Redman (saxophone), Charlie Haden (bass) and Ed Blackwell (drums) in the group Old and New Dreams, that would release its eponymous debut on ECM in 1979 and the live follow-up, Playing, two years later. Cherry and Vasconcelos were no strangers to each other either; the two worked together on Cherry's Organic Music Society (Caprice, 1972), while the trumpeter was living in Sweden, and the equally moving and more Afro-centric Multikulti (A&M, 1988).

Vasconcelos is a Brazilian legend who single-handedly brought the single-stringed, gourd- based berimbau into more popular awareness on albums including guitarist Pat Metheny's Travels (ECM, 1983) and As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (ECM, 1981) (with keyboardist Lyle Mays). But he'd already become an important member of the growing ECM family through his collaborations with Gismonti, and later, saxophonist Jan Garbarek. In addition to berimbau, Vasconcelos' voice was a thing of raw beauty, and one of CODONA's endearing and enduring features was its use of voices, albeit rarely in expected ways.

Chapter Index
  2. CODONA 2
  3. CODONA 3

Despite the large improvisational component of CODONA, made immediately clear on the lengthy "Like That of Sky" that opens the group's 1979, self-titled debut, there's no question that this was a group with a concept. Given the vast number of instruments the trio had to work with, just the matter of choosing the right instruments for each piece suggests that considerable forethought went into all three of the group's recordings. Still, a radio recording of the group from a Hamburg performance in September, 1978—the same month that they went into Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg, Germany, to record their debut—also clarifies just how much freedom was at play as well. And while CODONA possessed a unique ability to create a surprisingly rich soundscape from the sparest of instrumental combinations—Cherry's flute, Walcott's hammered dulcimer and Vasconcelos' hand percussion on the collective improvisation "Codona" or Cherry's trumpet, Walcott's sitar and Vasconcelos' hand percussion on the more propulsive "New Light"—on record the trio did take advantage of overdubbing to create more expansive audioscapes.

While later CODONA releases would be more democratic, compositionally speaking—most likely because, once Walcott brought the group into existence and it actually worked, his trio-mates began thinking more proactively about bringing music to the table—CODONA's original music, other than the self-titled improv, is all from the sitarist/percussionist's pen, with one significant exception. Brief though it may be, at less than four minutes, "Colemanwonder" is a curious medley of music from Ornette Coleman ("Race Face" and "Sortie") and Stevie Wonder (his hit single, "Sir Duke"). The idea of combining Coleman with Wonder may be as oblique as the late T.J. Kirk's combination of Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, but it works almost in spite of itself, as Vasconcelos' cuica (a Brazilian friction drum also know as the "laughing gourd" because of its distinctly human timbre) interacts throughout with Cherry's trumpet and Walcott's sitar.

"Mumakata" stands as one of the group's finest tracks, where three voices are combined with Vasconcelos' berimbau, Walcott's buzzing, mbira-like sanza and Cherry's harp-like doussn'gouni to create a singsong-like melody that would turn out to be a concert favorite. Between the three players, the instruments chosen, and the harmonic core of the melody, it's perhaps most representative of the trio's adherence to a philosophy where everything is possible and no single stylistic marker could define its sound and aesthetic.

CODONA 2 represented a number of changes for the group which, by the time of its release in 1981, was nearly four years old. Opening with Vasconcelos' "Que Fraser," which features Vasconcelos' unschooled yet always evocative voice in a chant that rides above and sometimes alongside Cherry's occasionally soaring trumpet, Walcott's mix of call-and-response sitar and Vasconcelos' particularly humanistic cuica, it's a clear and logical progression from what came before. But a brief traditional African tune, "Godumaduma," takes CODONA into completely new territory—a solo feature for Walcott's sitar, overdubbed multiple times to create a pulsing, propulsive piece informed by classical composer Steve Reich's concept of pulses.

Cherry's lyrical "Malinye" is driven by his melodica, with Walcott's timpani adding yet another new and unanticipated texture to the trio's palette. At 12 minutes, it combines a feel not unlike an Italian piazza, as the tune's folkloric ambience gradually expands to include trumpet and, later, a free section that joins vocals more akin to a conversation than a melody, with more dramatic timpani and, ultimately, a series of cascading vocal lines that lead into a closing section that features Walcott's sanza, Cherry's doussn'gouni and Vasconcelos' berimbau in a gradually deepening three-way conversation.

As with its predecessor, CODONA 2 pays tribute to Ornette Coleman with the inclusion of the more obscure "Drip-Dry," a largely improvisational vehicle for trumpet, sitar and percussion. While comparisons to Indian sitar masters would be unfair, it's far from hyperbole to suggest that the late sitarist opened up a wealth of possibilities on the instrument that were never previously explored. Nor were they after his tragic death in 1984, in a car accident while on tour in Europe with Oregon. Walcott's own two contributions to CODONA 2—the buoyant miniature "Walking on Eggs" and sparer, more pensive album closer, "Again and Again, Again," which combines dissonant melodica with sitar and Vasconcelos' contributions which, bird-like in nature, elicit images of the Amazon rainforest—again provide opportunities for the group to evolve, both sonically and conceptually.

CODONA 2 has been critically pegged as the trio's least engaging album and, measured in context with the innovative and entirely unique debut, it's perhaps possible to understand why, at the time, this was so. But years passed, distance and the opportunity to hear the album chronologically in between its two brethren makes clear that it's an album unfairly undervalued and well worthy of reconsideration.

CODONA 3, on the other hand, captivates immediately with the trio's interpretation of "Goshakabuchi," a traditional Japanese piece that makes real ECM's claim that its music is "the most beautiful sound next to silence." Cherry's trumpet is the primary voice, with Walcott's hammered dulcimer creating a spacious and ethereal backdrop where empty space is, indeed, as profound and meaningful as anything the members of the group specifically play. It makes a case, in fact, for the idea that space can be an equal consideration in the creation of a musical landscape, rather than simply being less than anticipated gaps between notes. The power of silence is what makes the tune's final section, with Vasconcelos providing greater forward motion with his hand percussion, so vivid and dramatic.

Walcott's "Hey Da Ba Doom" returns to the compelling chant of CODONA's "Mumakata," driven again by sanza and doussn'gouni, while Cherry's "Clicky Clacky" introduces a new element to the group's stylistic palette. Still, with a lightly chugging rhythm, train whistle and Cherry's blues-drenched lyrics, it's Walcott's sitar that skews "Clicky Clack" as CODONA delivers likely the first—and, equally likely, only—blues played on sitar, with some added color coming from a kazoo.

Walcott's "Travel by Night" is a prequel to his "Travel by Day," which would appear on his final album with Oregon before his death, Crossing (ECM, 1985). Equally abstruse thematically, it's even more so than its partner because of its more unusual instrumentation—sitar, trumpet and berimbau, as opposed to Oregon's 12-string acoustic guitar and bass. Walcott's aptly titled "Lullaby" is a tranquil piece that, like "Godumaduma" on CODONA 2, explores the possibilities of multi- tracked sitar, but this time more folkloric than Reichian.

Cherry's closer, "Inner Organs," is a strangely melancholy piece, its organ drone and sanza creating a gentle backdrop supported by Vasconcelos' spare percussion, gradually morphing into a more rhythmic coda featuring some of Cherry's most lyrical and most outre trumpet playing of the box set.

Compositionally speaking, Vasconcelos is the least represented member of CODONA in the box, a shame since his own solo disc for ECM, 1980's Saudade, is a wonderful mesh of raw, percussion-rich Brazilian music fused with lush orchestral arrangements from Egberto Gismonti. But his one tune for CODONA 3, "Trayra Boia," is CODONA at its most experimental, with layers of conversational voices interspersed with cued melodies and falsetto singing.

That CODONA could represent such diversity—ranging from almost naïve folkloric simplicity to wildly unpredictable experimentation—is what made it such an important group, one whose full potential was likely yet to be completely tapped, with Walcott's death a year after the release of what would be the group's final album. Still, its three albums represent a legacy of imagination and creativity in an arena that combines and/or juxtaposes the antiquated with the futuristic; the jaggedly challenging with the purest lyricism; and the broadest swath of cultural references. Even "world music" is too narrow a definition to describe The CODONA Trilogy, and while jazz may be the closest one to fit, the truth is that CODONA's persistent and relentless acknowledgement and rejection of musical stereotypes makes this collection of its entire oeuvre one that, for the uninitiated and familiar alike, will reveal more and more with each and every listen.

Track Listing

CD1 (CODONA): Like That Of Sky; Codona; Colemanwonder; Mumakata; New Light. CD2 (CODONA 2): Que Faser; Godumaduma; Malinye; Drip- Dry; Walking On Eggs; Again And Again, Again. CD3 (CODONA 3): Goshakabuchi; Hey Da Ba Doom; Travel By Night; Lullaby; Trayra Boia; Clicky Clacky; Inner Organs.


Collin Walcott: sitar, tabla, hammered dulcimer (CD1, CD3), sanza, timpani (CD2), voice; Don Cherry: trumpet, doussn'gouni, flutes (CD1), organ (CD2, CD3), melodica (CD2), voice; Nana Vasconcelos: berimbau, cuica (CD1), talking drum (CD2), percussion, voice.

Album information

Title: CODONA: The CODONA Trilogy | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: ECM Records

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