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Health Is Wealth: Don Cherry’s Organic Music Theatre Revisited
Dustin Krcatovich , June 10th, 2021 07:49

A new multimedia programme gives context to the swirl of colour that was Don and Moki Cherry’s expansive 1970s experiments in “world fusion”

Organic Music Theatre performing in Warsaw, Poland, ca. 1973. Courtesy the Cherry Archive, the estate of Moki Cherry

Every week or so, your average music writer will get about twenty emails from a publicist claiming that this or that artist has made “a new spiritual jazz classic”. What this usually means in 2021 is that someone heard Karma or Journey in Satchidananda in a sativa-addled haze a couple years ago, looked up an article on the internet about how modes work, and made some slowish boom-bap shit in Ableton with an old schoolmate blurting saxophone all over it. Some of it sounds fine, but almost none of it has any of the weight of its purported forebears. It’s modal muzak, background for a mellow Tuesday at the coffee shop.

The work that Brooklyn’s Blank Forms has been doing recently exhuming unheard (and unseen) work from trumpeter/composer Don Cherry’s fertile 1970s “mystical” period should be required listening for any punter currently sullying the name of spiritual jazz. Cherry isn’t a wholly unknown quantity among toe-dippers, of course, but his work was too broad and deep to lazily graft onto a standard-issue bedroom production.

With the programme currently underway, Blank Forms isn’t just working to broaden Don’s historical portrait, either. They are also shining much-needed light on the work of Moki Cherry, his partner throughout this boundary-pushing period and a multimedia force in her own right. Moki’s painting and textile work defined the look of Don’s 1970s output. Performances of this period were a flurry of colour and motion bedecked in her enlightening visions.

Organic Music Societies, a hefty tome released in April, serves as a prelude for two albums of unreleased work that are now seeing release, and as a companion to a gallery show in New York celebrating the couple’s work together. It’s a real treasure, loaded with rare interviews and history, as well as scads of photos of Moki’s work and the couple’s family life (including, yes, adorable childhood pics of progeny Neneh and Eagle-Eye Cherry).

As the book details, through much of the 1970s, the family occupied a schoolhouse in rural Tågarp, Sweden, where they regularly invited people into their quarters for workshops and performances. This is where Don got serious about expanding his horizons beyond the strictures of jazz – even the free jazz he pioneered with Ornette Coleman – diving headfirst into traditions gleaned from Turkey, Brazil, and India, among others. Moki draped the space in her exuberant creations, emblazoned with religious symbols and slogans. Children and puppeteers might roam the stage, and the music on a given day could careen between free improv, blissed-out R&B, drone music, and even dreamy pop covers.

The couple called this project Organic Music Theatre, as evocative a name as one can imagine for the holistic mystical experience they worked to create. A recovering heroin addict, Don hoped to forge a new way to present and experience music well outside of the jazz clubs and bars where he had formed his worst habits. Organic Music Theatre represented not just artistic inclusivity and openness, but a way of life encompassing health food (it’s not for nothing that his most revered record from this period is called Brown Rice), children’s education, and whatever else their cohort viewed as essential to a better life.

Both of the records of unheard material released as part of this programme reflect this to a degree, but Organic Music Theatre – Festival de jazz de Chateauvallon 1972 (credited to Don Cherry’s New Researches featuring Naná Vasconcelos) is definitely the more overtly utopian. Here, Don eschews his signature pocket trumpet in favour of voice, piano, and harmonium, and the results are shamanistic, almost like a clandestine recording of a cult ritual (albeit one with more musicianship, and less creepiness, at play than is typical of that sort of thing). The music sounds indebted to myriad musics from around the world, but also to the psychedelic happenings that had been in fashion the previous decade. The gentle commotion of children cavorting is audible on the recording.

Don’s aspirations were less overt on The Summer House Sessions, recorded in 1968 with a group of Swedish improvisers. Still early in his relationship with Moki and fresh off his groundbreaking work with Coleman, jazz is still the clear centre here. The expansions, then, are subtle: the incorporation of Turkish rhythms here, an Indian scale there. Most radical (and most indicative of Don’s nascent intentions) is the insistence that the music be communal and solo-free. Don and Moki would generally demur at the notion that their work might be considered “political”, but the rejection of leaders is an inherently political act no matter how one chooses to frame it.

Some may view these recordings as curios more than major works, especially given the steady stream of boundary-expanding work still up Cherry’s silken sleeve at this point in history. But both records are absolutely fascinating documents of curves in Cherry’s winding road, as worthy in their own right as his fiery early work or the eccentric twists and turns of his later albums. Organic Music Societies gives the music essential context, and they’re better served together.

Don Cherry’s work has always deserved this kind of lavish reconsideration, and Moki was long overdue for a critical reassessment. It couldn’t have come at a better time, either: it seems there’s a new mystical tide coming in today, a cry for a respite from the terrors of the last two decades (or really, since the dawn of Reagan, Thatcher, et al.). Psychedelics, the rejection of wage slavery, communal living, reconnection with nature, and better health are all becoming increasingly attractive in the face of pandemic/economic/internet burnout. In that context, a deep dive into the Cherrys’ 1970s work is both educational and aspirational, an illustration of a hopeful direction which has been aggressively de-emphasized in our ongoing neoliberal nightmare. Where one may have spent the snark-addled 1990s looking askance at anything with its heart as open as the work presented here, that’s nothing a couple decades of brutalization won’t fix.

In fact, Cherry’s work in our current light looks an awful lot like an open hand, a glowing beacon beckoning you into awareness of The Eternal Now. Yeah, that may read corny to some of you, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t sound stellar on these records.