A Long Tail: Don Cherry’s Brown Rice Reviewed

With each passing year Don Cherry's Brown Rice (which has just been reissued on vinyl by A&M) becomes ever more influential, says Peter Margasak... even if sometimes the point gets lost along the way

In 1975 trumpeter Don Cherry gathered some of his most trusted collaborators for sessions in New York City and Woodstock to record Brown Rice, capturing a brilliantly distilled vision of the wide-open global explorations he’d been pursuing for nearly a decade. At the time the album’s free-flowing syncretism was radical, its holistic embrace of ideas from around the planet conceptually audacious (if not a bit convoluted, on paper, at least). Saxophonist Frank Lowe’s impassioned brays injected blues cries in the churning yet ethereal ecumenical funk of the title track, while bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins (the trumpeter’s early band mates in the Coleman quartet) extended time and space with limber grace over the tambura drones of Moki on the band’s loose-limbed adaptation of the ancient Indian raga ‘Malkauns’. Cherry transformed the rigorous improvisational ethos he developed and deployed alongside Ornette Coleman in the creation of free jazz as a crucial tool to communicate and collaborate with musicians far outside of his original milieu. Few before or since have demonstrated comparable ease in connecting with other musicians, regardless of background or ethos, like Cherry. His ability to locate the deepest, most humanistic, and spiritual links in disparate traditions remains sublime. Lots of musicians profess that they don’t recognise genre, but it’s hard to think of an artist who lived it as much as he did.

Earlier this year Brown Rice was reissued on vinyl for the first time in more than four decades, and its contents sound more prescient, beautiful, and unique than ever. Still, it’s more interesting and informative to set aside how well the recording has aged, and instead focus upon how the rest of the world has finally caught up with Cherry’s ideas, which flourish all around us in ever expanding contexts and threads, well beyond jazz or world music—the latter a category that the trumpeter arguably invented, not in terms of nomenclature, but through his borderless experiments.

From the beginning Cherry demonstrated an ineffable collaborative touch, most famously as the telepathic foil for Coleman, but also through unprecedented partnerships with many of modern jazz’s most sophisticated and original saxophonists. During the first half of the 1960s he made stunning records with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler, finding his way into their sui generis sound worlds without abandoning his own arresting identity—as an elliptical, inherently melodic painter of sound unshackling his spirit from bebop beginnings.

By the mid-60s he began to develop his own ideas as leader, touring Europe with an international combo featuring Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri, Italian drummer Aldo Romano, French bassist Jean François Jenny-Clark, and German vibist Karl Berger, and back in the US on albums like Complete Communion (1966) and Symphony For The Improvisers (1967)—free-flowing suites which advanced the free jazz ethos of Coleman in the way segments of his tapestry of tunes seamlessly progressed. His European sojourns became more frequent and for several years he and his second wife, textile artist Moki (ne Marianne Karlsson), traveled the continent in a Volkswagen camper, before eventually settling in her native Sweden. From the late 60s up through the recording of Brown Rice Cherry continually expanded his musical world, a largely itinerant explorer taking in the sounds of Jajouka in Morocco, studying in India with dhrupad master Pandit Pran Nath—the guru of minimalist pioneer La Monte Young—finding a sweet spot in the churning hypnosis of Terry Riley’s music, braiding ritualistic motifs within the abstract computer music of Jon Appleton, and, most importantly, forging bonds with a diverse crew of like-minded spirits including percussionists Nana Vasconcelos (Brazil) and Okay Temiz (Turkey), fellow trumpeter Mafay Falay, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (South Africa) and Swedish players like Bengt Berger and Christer Bothén, who were deeply inspired by his openness. There was no cultural hierarchy in these experiments, and the music on his 1973 album Organic Music Society eschewed any dominant idiomatic foundation beyond pure communication. The album’s title said everything about the trumpeter’s generous approach.

Brown Rice refined and transplanted the rustic sprawl of Organic Music Society and it’s 1974 follow-up Eternal Now (which included Cherry’s own foray into classical minimalism on the ‘Bass Figure For Ballatune’, for two interlocking pianos) into something both unapologetically urban and ancient. On the title track Haden added thick wah-wah effects to his needling bass line—absorbing the avant-funk prerogatives of Miles Davis’ early 70s bands—which threads percolating electric bongos, cycling electric keyboard patterns, ethereal yet melodic vocal cooing, and the leader’s own shamanistic vocal interjections. ‘Chenrezig’ is built upon a chanted mantra and propelled by Haden’s winding ostinato and beautifully stuttering, swinging drum work from Higgins: Cherry blows a sublime, extended solo kissed gently by electronic reverb, and after a mesmerising lull, Ricky Cherry electrifies the proceedings with a piano vamp straight out of soul jazz. ‘Degi-Degi’ features a relentless electric piano lick redolent of American minimalism chugging against wah-wah bass, suggesting a drifty answer to Krautrock and Nigerian Afrobeat. Some of the pop-gleaned treatments are applied clumsily, but as a whole the recording proffers a blueprint for future generations of sonic explorers.

At the time other musicians were already picking up Cherry’s ideas, whether the global-minded fusion of Sweden’s Archimedes Badkar or, more profoundly, in the advent of fellow trumpeter Jon Hassel’s conception of Fourth World Music, putting a name to a particular facet of Cherry’s work that he himself felt no need to demarcate. Hassell’s ideas, specifically the music produced with Brian Eno on the 1980 album Fourth World Music Vol. 1—Possible Musics and what followed in its wake, were disseminated widely, adapting and recombining with new age theories and global music through post-industrial groups like Muslimgauze, Sons Of Arqa, and O Yuki Conjugate, and later influencing a huge swath of internationally produced electronic music including Visible Cloaks, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Ricardo Villalobos.

Tracing lines from Cherry is a dubious exercise, as so many of his distant inheritors have lost the essential humanity in his vision, instead embracing non-Western ideas as ready-mades or objects shorn of their crucial social or musical functions. While the name implied a larger canvas than any particular country or continent, an idea at the core of an organic music society, Cherry had too much respect for the traditions he explored to appropriate them in such a fashion. He wasn’t foraging to formulate a new kind of fusion, but he was forming personal connections, a practice that’s continued to be a huge part of the way the international community of free improvisers functions—in principle the music doesn’t belong to anyone, as much as it comes together in a natural ritual that erases backgrounds and eschews differences to foment, at its best, something utterly new.

Another negative development that might’ve stemmed from Cherry’s global alliances has been the way world music has morphed into a micro-managed genre that too often reads like shorthand that might be used by Hollywood pitchmen—Afrobeat meets cumbia in techno club. This long, evolving tendency is a misguided mutation of Cherry’s open-minded purity. On the other hand, it’s impossible not to give the trumpeter credit for paving the way to a world in which once-hidden traditional sounds from all over Africa, Asia, and South America have become so ravenously devoured by curious ears, and that global experimentalists, who certainly existed well before Cherry, have found new ways to engage with native traditions—the ritualistic heaviness of Indonesia’s Senyawa, the jacked electronic music of Uganda’s Nyege Nyege crew, or the minimalist colourings of Korea’s Park Jiha–now enjoy a truly world-wide platform where work is accepted on its own terms.

There are more direct legacies around us, too. The Croatian-Swedish trumpeter Goran Kajfes has used his deeply fun Subtropic Arkestra to essay pop music from Turkey and Ethiopia, and indie rock into a post-jazz amalgam that is far more concerned with locating commonalities in its repertoire than celebrating its eclecticism, where the tunes still feed the band’s exploratory improvisational impulse. Perhaps no current act celebrates Cherry’s achievements as much as Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society. There are explicit parallels, including the ensemble moniker and that fact that the arresting graphic art work of his wife Lisa Alvarado—who plays harmonium in the group—hangs behind the group during performance, a la Moki’s tapestries. But, naturally, the more meaningful connection is present in the music, which channels the sound of Gnawan music from Morocco—with Abrams playing guimbri rather than his usual double bass—to create a shifting strain of trance music. With each new record new inspirations are enfolded and this year’s stunning Mandatory Reality presents a powerful engagement with classic minimalism. It doesn’t sound like any particular phase of Cherry’s career—even his work with Riley—but it has his vision all over it.

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