Don Cherry - Mu: First and Second Parts
Snapper Music again, and with a classic reissue by jazz musician Don Cherry that allowed me the freedom to write about another form of music other than reggae for a change. I first developed a taste for jazz whilst a teenager, but it was the wilder improvisations of John Coltrane and electric-era Miles Davis that drew me to it, rather than anything more traditional.
At the time these recordings for BYG took place, Don Cherry was best known for his contributions to Ornette Coleman’s earliest recordings, culminating in 1961’s ‘Free Jazz’ – an album that lent its name to a revolutionary new genre. Coleman’s musicians were encouraged to play what felt right, and at any given moment. Jazz improvisation would never be the same again; not for them or John Coltrane, who’d seen the Coleman group play at the Five Spot in New York. He and Don Cherry drew close and shared an album (‘The Avant-Garde’), as well as the belief that life and art were now indivisible.
BYG owners Jean Luc Young and Jean Karakos invited Don to Paris in August 1969. They’d met with Actuel magazine editor Claude Delcloo the summer before, and decided to commission a series of recordings devoted to free jazz. ‘Mu First Part and Second Part’ will be the first release of their Actuel series. It was recorded on August 22nd at Studios Saravah and whilst Cherry only has drummer Ed Blackwell for company, the range of sounds they conjure between them is extraordinary. Don plays pocket trumpet, piano, bells, flutes and percussion, and also chants in a voice that transcends language altogether. He’d played piano with Art Farmer after graduating from Jefferson High School twenty years earlier, which may explain his proficiency on it. He then discovered the bamboo flute on a trip to Morocco. A painter from Tangiers had taken him to the mountain village of Jajouka, where he’d smoked kif under the night sky, studied Islam and immersed himself in the local music for months. Don often played flutes with a double reed for extra resonance, and you can hear the difference it makes on these recordings.
Blackwell was another Coleman graduate, and thus the ideal accompanist. He’d also played on ‘Free Jazz’ as well as several of Don’s solo albums, including ‘Complete Communion.’ (Some titles are such giveaways.) The depth of understanding between them is almost surreal at times. Infused with restless creativity and music from other cultures, their performances on ‘Mu’ extend way beyond the jazz idiom. Tracks like ‘Amejelo,’ ‘Bamboo Night’ and ‘Teo-Teo Can’ are alive with cadences from an ancient time, when mankind worshipped nature and Pan was Lord of the Dance. Don’s mother was a Choctaw Indian and had taught him Native American folklore from childhood. Her influence is all-pervasive at times and Blackwell too, brings personal history to bear. He was from New Orleans, which may explain the sassy strut heard on ‘Total Vibration’ and other tracks from ‘Mu.’ He drives and cajoles in equal measure. Don then switches to piano for ‘The Mysticism Of My Sound’ and a fascinating tribute to South African bandleader Abdullah Ibrahim, AKA Dollar Brand. After acknowledging the recent Apollo 12 space mission on ‘Exert, Man On The Moon,’ the two musicians then evoke joyous memories of hard bop drummer Albert Heath, who’d played with Coltrane.
Two years after recording ‘Mu,’ Young and Karakos called on Don Cherry again, for a festival appearance in Paris on April 22nd. It was now 1971, and he was living in Stockholm with his wife Moki and their young family. The Cherrys grew their own vegetables, and wore clothes Moki made for them. Don believed their simple lifestyle enabled him to play with greater feeling, as if in communion with nature. He was now playing what he called “organic” or “human” music, and in-between teaching assignments, would travel from city to city, giving workshops and playing with shifting line-ups of musicians, poets and dancers. Moki played tamboura and wove tapestries from fabric people had given her, and which she and Don used as backdrops. Don had been listening to folk and religious music of all kinds, from Indonesian gamelan music to Indian karnatic singing, and had recently learnt to play a dusonguni, or “hunter’s guitar” from Mali. Two years earlier he’d befriended Turkish drummer Okay Temiz, whilst recording ‘Live In Ankarra.’ Okay was with Don and Moki when they set off for Paris. The three of them had been driving all night when they stopped off in Liege to see Jacques Pelzer, who introduced them to bass player Johnny Dyani. He then accompanied them to Paris and features on Don’s second set of recordings for BYG, which later appeared on the albums ‘Orient’ and ‘Blue Lake.’
‘Eagle Eye’ and ‘Togetherness’ were recorded at that festival gig, and are breathtaking at times. Such improvisation demands incredible reserves of spirit, energy, faith and honesty – qualities heard every time Don places that famous pocket trumpet to his lips, or his heart swells and wordless chants spill out, as if calling the spirits. ‘Eagle Eye’ wasnamed after he and Moki’s four year-old son and reworks a piece he wrote back in 1965. It’s brimming with energy, and incorporates snatches of Andalusian folk melodies. Halfway through Don invites the audience to sing along with him – not to words, but with whatever feels natural. “I’m learning to sing. I need help,” he tells them and then after getting a muted response, adds that “All your children know it.” He’s assuring them they know what to do instinctively. Eventually other voices join in, like a fire catching hold, and togetherness becomes a reality.
The first two tracks on ‘Orient’ were recorded four months later, on August 11thin the small French town of Carpentras, some thirty minutes’ drive from Avignon. This time Don performed as part of a trio with Moki on tamboura and Hal Bennink on drums, accordion and percussion. ‘Orient’ itself is over twenty-five minutes long and compelling from start to finish. It’s easy to imagine setting sail for exotic lands, and having our senses assailed by unknown sights, smells and sounds. At other times the musicians create busy street scenes with a rasping trumpet and whirring percussion, or illustrate scenes from a fairytale, complete with cavernous voices, scurrying wildlife and magic woods. Except it’s all a dream and if we listen to the same piece again, everything will be different.
‘Si Ta Ra Ma’ was inspired by Hindi mythology. Prince Rama was tricked into going to live in the forest with his loyal wife Sita. They led a simple, peaceful life until Sita was kidnapped by demons, and then rescued with help from the animals. Goodness triumphs over evil, and Rama is returned to the throne. The musicians don’t just illustrate this tale, but transform it. Don’s trumpet is ripe and resonant, and his chanting beguiling in its use of folk melodies. This isn’t jazz anymore, but the very definition of Cherry’s “organic music.”
In the aftermath of these BYG sessions, Don played on important works by Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman (1971’s ‘Science Fiction’), composer Krzysztof Penderecki and the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. After two albums for Atlantic he reunited with Coleman alumni in Old And New Dreams and founded the world jazz outfit Codona. This heralded quite a departure from the days when he’d toured and recorded with Sonny Rollins in a group Leroi Jones dubbed “the Assassins,” or played European dates with Albert Ayler. That was in the early Sixties. He’d then joined Archie Shepp in the New York Contemporary Five before signing with Blue Note and embarking on a solo career.
During the last twenty years of his life he recorded with artists as diverse as Sun Ra, Lou Reed, Ian Dury, Rip, Rig & Panic and the Watts Prophets. He also made further recordings with Ornette Coleman, whom he’d met as a teenager whilst playing with the Jazz Messiahs in Los Angeles. Although born in Oklahoma, Don was raised on the West Coast where he’d played in Latin bands whilst studying the cornet. (The pocket trumpet would come later.) Coleman became his mentor, and shared his sense of being an outsider. As they explored different harmonic possibilities, other musicians often laughed at them, or told them they were out of tune. Eventually, their trailblazing exploits would redefine the way jazz is played and listened to, and continue to inspire musicians from around the world. Described as “a remarkable mind and spirit,” Don was still cycling around New York’s Lower East Side wearing his propeller Beenie hats and welder’s goggles up until his death of liver failure in 1995, aged fifty-eight. Four of his children, stepdaughters Neneh and Titiyo, and sons David and Eagle Eye are also musicians but we are all, in a sense, guardians of his legacy.