Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Don Cherry Was There

You might think of Don Cherry as a lesser Eric Dolphy.  Cherry's work, so far as I know it, hardly measured up to Dolphy's indispensable contributions to jazz, and he has no recordings as leader that stand anywhere near Far Cry or Out To Lunch.   On the other hand, Cherry's own recordings are very impressive and unjustly overlooked, and like Dolphy he managed to appear as sideman on a considerable number of seminal documents.  

Cherry's most famous work was as sideman on Ornette Coleman's recordings on Atlantic.  This was a body of music that, according to those who treasure it, changed jazz forever.  You can get it all in a box set: Beauty Is A Rare Thing.  I haven't made up my mind yet about the value of this set of records, but there is no denying that The Shape of Jazz to Come is a monumental achievement.  Likewise with Archie Shepp's The New York Contemporary Five.  That is not to forget The Avant Garde, on which Cherry shares billing with John Coltrane, which is kinda like Jimmy Olsen sharing billing with Superman.  Cherry is also featured prominently on one of my personal favorites: Steve Lacy's Evidence.  Don Cherry was by Zeus there when it was happening.  

All of this work is pretty challenging avant garde jazz, and to be a figure of secondary importance in a music that necessarily appeals to an audience that is only a subset of the jazz audience is not a recipe for immortal fame.  That can lead to a great injustice, and the neglect of Cherry's first album as sole leader is a crime.  

Complete Communion (1965) is superb.  The quartet was made up of Cherry, Leandro "Gato" Barbieri on saxophone, Henry Grimes on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums.  The synergy between the four is perfect, but the real brilliance of the album comes from the dialogue between Cherry and the Argentine Barbieri.  I don't know the latter's work.  I gather that he rediscovered his Latin heritage and specialized in it in later recordings.  He began, however, as a devotee of Charlie Parker.  His life reads like a Mario Vargas Llosa novel.  On this recording, his playing is nothing short of genius.  In fact, if I may reuse the analogy, it reminds me in places of Eric Dolphy's early accompaniments. 

Like its successor, Symphony for Improvisers, this album consists of two "symphonies," each about twenty minutes in length.  I don't want to give away half an album, so here is an excerpt from the first side of the first album.  It will give you a pretty good idea of the Cherry/Barbieri dialogue that I am talking about.  
Don Cherry/Complete Communion (excerpt)/Complete Communion
If you like this, Cherry's recordings for Blue Note are available individually, or you might be able to find the box set The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Don Cherry.  The latter includes Where is Brooklyn?  Listen to all three.  You still won't know where Brooklyn is, but you will know that Cherry is where it's at. 


  1. I got Complete Communion several months ago, then Symphony for Improvisers, which I might like even more. Maybe not, they're both great. There are really some transcendent moments with everyone crashing away together; it's excellent stuff. Tons of hooks too, I think.

  2. Thanks, Bill. There is a lot of power and life in both recordings. But what, exactly, are "hooks".