Don Cherry: Pied Piper with a Pocket Trumpet
Don Cherry began to make his mark with his first recording session, on February 10, 1958, as foil for freebopping alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman on music recorded for Something Else! Their bebop forebears Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker favored rough-sounding unison melodies, a departure from the swing era’s smooth blends, but the Coleman-Cherry mix was scrappier still. As soloist, Don took cues from how Ornette’s solos didn’t track a tune’s harmonies too closely. They didn’t ignore the chord changes or four-bar phrasing, but would overrule the form when it conflicted with an inspired improvised phrase. “Let’s play the melody and not the background,” Ornette said.
Don Cherry (1936-1995) – no relation to the ’50s pop singer – is often tagged as a trumpeter, but usually played cornet, the trumpet’s stubbier, less brilliant cousin, and “pocket trumpet,” actually a more compact cornet that sounds in the same range. There was always a bit of the military bugler in his open-horn style: He loved inspirational little phrases and a raggedy wayward tone. (That was very Ornette, too.) His sound with a Harmon mute stuck in the bell nodded to Miles Davis, but Cherry’s muted work had a distinctive tang, with his puckered tone and tighter vibrato. (He admired Harry “Sweets” Edison, who also got a personal sound with the metal mute.) You can hear his Harmon on “Jayne” from that first ’58 session or, better yet, on Cherry’s bristling, skittering solo on “The Blessing” with John Coltrane two years later. (And dig the slinkier blend of his muted horn and Coltrane’s soprano sax.)
That Cherry/Ornette blend influenced even avant-hostile Miles Davis’s phrasing with Wayne Shorter, and after Cherry and Ornette parted in 1961, the cornetist would be called on to rough up/beef up ensemble textures for sopranoist Steve Lacy (on Evidence), the New York Contemporary Five, and Sonny Rollins, who, like Coltrane on The Avant-Garde, flirted with Ornette-style free jazz by drafting Cherry into his 1962-63 quartet. (Coltrane had also used Coleman bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Edward Blackwell; Rollins tapped Ornette’s other drummer Billy Higgins.) Cherry was still playing saxophonist’s alter ego in 1984 on Frank Lowe’s Decision in Paradise, reprising The Avant-Garde‘s “Cherryco.”
In 1964, Cherry joined tenor wildman Albert Ayler’s supreme free trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, for the improvised sextet soundtrack New York Eye and Ear Control, and the European quartet tour documented on Vibrations. With the quartet, you can hear Cherry’s genius for fitting into another horn player’s idiosyncratic concept. He gets the same leaping, electrifying sound as Albert does – and sometimes his wide vibrato, too. Afterward, Cherry revealed a taste for Aylery folky/anthemic tunes.
He dug Europe. In the mid ’60s, non-American improvisers were developing their own approaches and Cherry began crisscrossing the continent to seek them out. In Paris, he teamed up with Gato Barbieri, post-Ayler tenor from Argentina with a sizzling romantic streak. For Blue Note in New York, they recorded Don’s Complete Communion, a long suite of pithy, sometimes Ornetty or Aylery themes. In Copenhagen a couple months later, Cherry and Barbieri played that suite (and much else) with an international quintet including German vibist Karl Berger, Danish bassist Bo Stief, and the Italian-French drummer Aldo Romano. (They slipped Ornette’s “I Heard It Over the Radio” in, too.) The long live performance is invigorating, somehow free and tight at once.
In the interval between those recordings he squeezed in a trip to Milan to record with Italian composer/pianist Giorgio Gaslini, whom Cherry had sought out on the basis of an article he’d read. On Nuovo Sentimenti (reissued in Gaslini’s rich, retro L’Integrale series) Don’s part of an international tentet with Lacy, Barbieri, Romano, and fellow trumpeter Enrico Rava. There’s a lovely free colloquy for horns on “Rotazione,” and the regal Gaslini often indulges a playful Monkish side.
Between 1965 and the early ’70s, when Cherry moved to Sweden, he recorded in Paris, Stuttgart, Copenhagen, Milan, Baden-Baden, Stockholm, Berlin (the big-group bust-up Eternal Rhythm), and Ankara, with musicians from in and out of jazz. He became familiar with the rhythms of India. Improvisation was the glue that let him bond with pretty much anybody. At the ritzy Donaueschingen festival in ’71, Don led his New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra through a suite blending free and Turkish and other global strains, and Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki conducted the players in his Actions for Free Jazz Orchestra. The ork was stuffed with top Euro improvisers: Kenny Wheeler, Tomasz Stanko, Paul Rutherford, Albert Mangelsdorff, Willem Breuker, Peter Brotzmann, Terje Rypdal, Gunter Hampel, Han Bennink…
In those years Don also turned up in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, where he recorded for Blue Note, in New York City, where his sessions included pick-up-where-we-left-off reunions with Ornette (Impulse’s mysteriously unreissued Crisis, Columbia’s Science Fiction), and at the Dartmouth campus in New Hampshire. There around the beginning of 1970 he improvised Human Music, singing and playing cornet, wood flutes, mbira and other percussion with blurble squeak hiss analog synth pioneer Jon Appleton. Cherry, like Chicago’s AACM vanguardists, had begun using “little instruments,” open space and unorthodox lineups in his improvising. These open pieces look ahead to Richard Teitelbaum’s improvisations with AACMer Anthony Braxton and others a few years later.
In Paris in ’69, Cherry had already recorded two LPs of Mu duets with Ornette buddy Edward Blackwell, a New Orleanian whose playing often had a strong West African flavor. In that open setting, everything they’d built on rises to the surface: bugle calls and military drum tattoos, Cuba and the sub-Saharan savannah, New Orleans parades, melodies by Ornette and South Africa’s Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), the latter with Cherry on piano – and more, some of it beyond category.
In the mid ’70s, when Ornette went electric with his band Prime Time, his disciples Cherry, Blackwell, Charlie Haden and tenor Dewey Redman founded the acoustic quartet Old and New Dreams, devoted to Coleman-style freebop and pan-global pentatonic stuff like Haden’s “Chairman Mao,” Cherry’s “Guinea” and Blackwell’s earworm “Togo.” Cherry had returned to the music he started with, but he’d brought back souvenirs.