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Jazz- More Than Music
Don Cherry was one of the most individual and idiosyncratic voices in contemporary jazz and world music, and also one of the most significant figures of his era. In an age of technically fearsome trumpet players, Cherry preferred to emphasise expression and musical communication over speed and technical prowess, and evolved an utterly distinctive sound and style in the process.
He began playing trumpet in high school in Los Angeles, where he was brought up, but made his earliest public appearances as a pianist in rhythm and blues bands. He adopted a small B-flat pocket trumpet made in Pakistan as his preferred instrument, and it became his trademark, although he went on to play a wide range of ethnic instruments, notably the doussn'gouni, a hunter's guitar from Mali, which he used extensively in performance.
He emerged to notice as a member of Ornette Coleman's ground-breaking Quartet, which formed in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, and was instrumental in changing the face of contemporary jazz after moving to New York in the early 60s. Much misunderstood at the time, but now widely acknowledged as one of the key units in modern jazz, the quartet balanced Cherry's astringent tonal qualities and exploratory imagination with Ornette's searching alto saxophone and ground-breaking musical concept.
Cherry continued to develop his own version of Coleman's harmolodic principle within his own jazz groups, notably in the quartet Old and New Dreams (with three other distinguished Coleman alumni, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell), and his band Nu. He was re-united with the saxophonist in 1987, and on several subsequent occasions.
Cherry worked with many of the key figures in the development of free jazz in the Sixties, including Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, and Gato Barbieri, and established a huge reputation as a leader in his own right.
In addition to jazz, he recorded and played across a weird and wonderful range of musical idioms and forms, including rock (with Lou Reed and Talking Heads, among others), and was especially influential in propogating the claims of the world music lobby. He spent considerable periods of time travelling and studying in Africa and India in particular, and absorbed their musical idioms in a more thoroughly understood and integrated fashion than many of his contemporaries.
His most important association in that area was with the group Codona, with the late Collin Walcott and the Brazilian percussionist, Nana Vasconcelos, but the musical flavourings of Africa, India, South America and the Middle East came to pervade all of his music in recent years (notably in his Multikulti band, which played in Scotland in 1990), and contributed a great deal to the distinctive sound which came to be identified with him.
In the trumpeter's own estimation, the common thread which linked all of these diverse projects was jazz, in the sense that improvisation lay at the heart of all of them. He liked to think of himself as an improviser rather than a trumpet player, and stressed the importance of genuine ensemble interaction within his music. He believed strongly that his travels through many musical cultures served to strengthen his conviction that there was a common continuity running through all of them.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that experience of different cultures and different approaches to musical fundamentals had opened him up to many aspects of music which are not usually found in the western tradition. They had a profound influence on the development of his music which was second only to that of Ornette Coleman.
Cherry always claimed that his concern was not so much with idiom and form, or with the technicalities of the trumpet, as with creating music itself. He took immense satisfaction in the fact that all of his five children (singer Neneh Cherry is his step-daughter) played music, and loved and understood the importance of music in life.
He had a long history of problems with drugs, and seemed to have increasing difficulties with his health in recent years. While never the most physical of players in any case, it was noticeable that he had begun to limit his trumpet playing to occasional rather sparing forays, supplemented by less than compelling doodlings on keyboard and percussion, and the odd vocal indulgence.
Nonetheless, the spirit and flavour of the music which he and his fellow musicians created was very much in the jazz-meets-ethnic fusion associated with him. At its best, it brimmed over with all the vibrant colour and rhythmic exhuberance associated with his work, and the infectious sense of creative, collaborative music-making which made him such an important figure in contemporary jazz.
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