Don Cherry: From Out of the Shadows

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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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 song—that 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 line—a 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 dignified—somewhat 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 society—the idiom that became a clarion call of Afro-American challenge to accept the voice of a people—was 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.

It began largely as a debt to the influence of Monk—that you play the notes that you hear... let them sound as you hear them and its up to everyone else to get hip to them could very well have been a natural corollary. As usual, Thelonious Monk—His Royal Outness—was eminently correct. But few bought that. Don Cherry, like many of his own, disenchanted—Africa weighing heavy on his soul—took the long flight across the large pond and travelled to the Scandinavia of Randi Hultin.

The word was out on Christmas Eve, 1965. Playing cornet, Don Cherry was joined by his newly discovered tenor saxophonist, the Argentine-born Gato Barbieri bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Ed Blackwell for a historic date on the Blue Note label. Complete Communion in many ways predated some of the most sacred documents of musical history. Not long after this recording—which also passed like a ship in the night—Don Cherry and Barbieri, escape artists, took off for northern Europe. They gigged around and in the fall of 1966 played several dates at Café Montmartre a lively venue for the music in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Cherry once said: "We can come from anywhere in the world and we can get to know each other through our melodies and our songs; we feel the musical link which unites us all. Music is a uniting force for all of us." He obviously had an epiphany. Many artists of "the music" knew what Cheikh Anta Diop, the Senegalese "Pharoah of Knowledge"—historian, anthropologist and physicist—had been saying decades earlier in The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality. That was that we were all once united by blood in the Great Rift Valley. Charles Mingus too had that epiphany when he recorded Pithecanthropus Erectus (Atlantic, 1956). Now Don Cherry was holding a torch, lighting up the way. And he had with him one of the hottest quintets in Europe. Carried over from his last record Symphony For Improvisers (Blue Note, 1966) he had "Gato" Barbieri on tenor saxophone and Karl Berger on vibes to which he added the Italian percussionist, Aldo Romano and Thomas Kushin on bass.

The "Sufi" of the Horn

Don Cherry had always been, quite literally, that unique human voice of the trumpet kind of master. From his days and nights with Ornette he developed his own vocal dynamic. His phrasing changed and became more speech-like. Like Fats Navarro, he "fooled you" into thinking he could not play, but his was the new classical approach. Complete Communion—and more specifically the track on that record, "Bishmallah" became his early manifesto. A slew of cultures—ancient and modern—collided there violently, yet mellifluously. He argued the thesis with Barbieri and Berger, Grimes and others. They soared into the Himalayan stratosphere and diving into the depths of the Rift Valley and scoured the streets of cities mixing dialects and secret codes and developed the musical Esperanto that many came to hear and understand.

Now in Copenhagen, at the Café Montmartre came an invaluable opportunity to broadcast on Danish Radio. Cherry developed what might easily be called a stream of consciousness style that moved in oceanic swells from mode to mode, idea to idea. He called them cocktails, appropriate to the setting no doubt, but much deeper than that. Touched by a deeper spiritual connection with the Divine and the Infinite Cherry inhabited the world he lived in which he lived, in a Joycean swirl. Thus he allowed ideas to free-flow and carouse through body and soul. He was The Sufi of the Horn.

The opening piece of the Danish broadcast tapes, now a memorable document of the music of our times thanks to Bernard Stollman and the folks at ESP Disk, Live at the Café Montmartre, 1966 Vol. 1 he called "Cocktail Piece." The ethereal rush featured a harmolodic and rhythmic swirl of ideas in metaphors that stretched from ragtime through swing time, then clapping at the chops of bebop, just as he had done with Ornette. Only this time the players were more volatile and chirpier. "Cocktail Piece" raised the aural curtain on the future of The Music. While Cherry jabbered on about the New Thing, Barbieri wailed throatily, Berger skipped in timbral advance with Romano and Stief in tow. The Music of the Carnival called Life had begun.

Far from being a reflecting pool of vicarious living, Don Cherry's music recorded in the Scandinavia of the 60s was the sound of life marching on. With the extended work, "Neapolitan Suite: Dios e Diablo" Don Cherry and the Quintet unleashed the tautness of a coiled spring; the musical leap that decolonized the mind and the soul. We listen today with eyes wide shut and in the mind's mind, we slow down the track to discern a world akin to that of Dante Alighieri's Divina Commedia. Only it isn't the 13th Century anymore but our 20th Century. Pound's Cantos were the last cultural epics and they were literary. Now was the time of music to record the nature of human progress. Men like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor had picked up the slack from their ancestors, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington Charles Mingus, Max Roach and George Russell...

In the "Neapolitan Suite" we make the proverbial trip into the afterlife. With Cherry and Barbieri as guides wailing in unison, alternately taking modal flights seemingly dodging the barbaric bombs of Romano's tympanis and the raucous rumbling runs of Bo Stief's bass. The decoction of ideas is funneled through tenor and cornet and it is left to Berger to pick up the cue and guide the celestial flight with an excited trembling. Agony turns to ecstasy in short order. Naturally The follow-up is a glimpse into the enlightened stratosphere.

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