Friday, July 27, 2012

CD Review: Don Cherry - Organic Music

Don Cherry
Organic Music

When the British punk jazz group Rip Rig and Panic got Don Cherry to join them on their second album I Am Cold it was more than a family favor (the trumpeter's step-daughter Neneh was one of the band's vocalists). Like their debut album, I Am Cold changed moods with virtually every track, from tranquil piano interludes to free funky jazz, with an emphasis throughout on African-inspired grooves.

Thinking back on the number of tracks where members of the band chatter in what sounds like gravelly scat syllables over mellow bass and melodica melodies, I have to wonder if those guys were taking a cue from Cherry's Organic Music album, which was originally released in 1973. It too moves all over the place, although with much less brevity than RR+P would display a decade later. And even when the music wanders away from its direction, the inspiration still carries it.

Long before "world music" became a catch-all phrase forWestern music that incoporated non-Western influences (usually sanitizing it by playing it slickly over 4/4), it could have been defined more by a desire to just play different kinds of music at different times. Rather than putting everything together, Cherry seemed more interested in exploring music of different countries. With that sense of experimentation comes a certain excitement with these recordings.

Cherry had recorded a duet with drummer Ed Blackwell in 1969 called MU which has been considered his watershed moment. Organic Music went all out, with four sides of music, much of recorded outside the confines of the studio, when Cherry was being his inquisitive self. The illustrated cover (the front and back are reproduced at the top of this review since they make one big picture) goes along with this, and it also recalls some ESP albums from a few years prior.

The 12-minute "North Brazilian Ceremonial Hymn" gets the album off to a challenging start. It contains interesting elements though, not the least of which is the time of the recording - 6 a.m. in the morning - and the combination of adults and children chanting over a drone, including a crying baby in the final minutes. Like the new liner notes suggest, the piece sounds like a cross between a Delta blues moan and a Buddhist mantra thanks to the stringed instruments that occasionally punctuate the chant.

Side Two of the original album was taken up by the two-part "Relativity Suite," basically two different grooves created by African and Indian instruments that Cherry uses for vocalizing and chanting. Sometimes he seems to search for inspiration, but he also lays out his philosophy in Part 1, the desire not to be in tune with time or a slave to time to attempt to catch time but "to flow with time. This is the organic way. This is the way of the organic society."  Along with that guidance, the group sustains momentum in the way that the instruments create different rhythms and textures beneath him and his whoops and wails.

The third quarter of the album was recorded in a geodesic dome that was built behind the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. There's a little more of Cherry the jazz musician in this part, which includes a brief Terry Riley piece, an impromptu version of "The Creator Has a Master Plan" (with Cherry on piano and vocals) and a piece named for the museum's installation, "Utopia & Visions," which recalls Alice Coltrane's flowing music. The sound quality of these tracks is on the lo-fi side but the music, driven hard by drummer Okay Temiz, is not. The same can be said for two tracks that come from Cherry's brief time teaching at the Bollnas Folk high school. This raw but compelling performance puts Cherry and Temiz together with 50 teenage musicians which tackle Terry Riley and Dollar Brand works.

Sure Organic Music is a bit repetitive and underdeveloped, but that's part of its charm. This is the sound of discoveries being made while tapes just happened to be rolling. This reissue is available both on disc and double-album. Seeing the handwritten credits in a full-size gatefold probably drives home the feeling of the album. But the disc also has a deluxe booklet with new and original liner notes.

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