Saturday, December 30, 2006

Don Cherry - Ed Blackwell: El Corazón

IF you've been paying attention many of the few jazz albums I own revolve around drummers, so (if you are familiar with jazz) you might think that Ed Blackwell (Ornette Coleman's go-to drummer) was the hook that got this baby in my collection. And you'd be wrong. My previous jazz flirtation was during the '70s with the jazz-rock types, Brubeck and Buddy Rich but my foray into free jazz begins (and ends - in a circular fashion) with Don Cherry.

I think I first saw his name as the guy playing on a bill with The Slits and he popped up in other places that I was wont to frequent in the '80s such as Lou Reed and Talking Heads albums. Tessa Pollit said Don "had something of the eternal about him: it was like he would never grow old. He told us so much." Lotsa people I considered 'in the know' would throw out casual references to him in the mid-80's so I kept my eyes open for albums with his name on. For the longest time, this album seemed to be calling to me from the Wayside Music cut-out bin ($3.00 if I remember) and I finally broke down and purchased it. In a way, Cherry was a sort of "gateway drug" for alot of free jazz leading me to Ornette and Miles and things that I had previously dismissed as boring old guy stuff.

Whatta relief that when this arrived that it wasn't some self-indulgent piece of crap -- I'm not gonna say so much of free jazz is "self-indulgent" crap but some of the derivative atonal stuff I still don't get unless I'm extremely fucked up.

No, Don Cherry was always more of a tonal guy in the free jazz realm - that meant that while improvisation was central to his thing, he wasn't afraid to sound pretty and melodic. You could see this influence come out in his stepdaughter Neneh Cherry (who also played with the Slits) and would later (briefly) make her own idiosyncratic name in the pop world. I am guessing her career was interupted since Tessa Pollit says she took care of Don in France in his final years.

In case you don't know, Don was on the Ornette Coleman breakthrough record (Shape of Jazz to Come) and played with such royalty as Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins and so forth. Cherry, though, wasn't exactly considered jazz royalty - he was too eccentric and idiosyncratic to be tied down to a throne -- think of him more like a new world explorer constantly looking for things to do that were different, new and innovative.

Simply put, his experimentation put alot of others to shame. While he could have just coasted on his rep, trotting out the oldy moldies to appreciative club crowds, Cherry explored World Music (I recommend looking at his trio Codona), played with the punks and NYC avante-garde crowd and was known for championing odd instruments -- the pocket cornet, an African lute and the melodica were among the tools he carried around. He also played a sweet piano (as we shall see).

Ed Blackwell was known more as a "band's drummer" -- as he was able to provide a less rigid base for which others could improv and more importantly for certain egocentric frontmen he didn't try to hog the limelight. Peoples said his drumming "breathed" - that is, it didn't follow robotic rhythms or rigid rulesets. As for his style, Ornette said that Blackwell was "pure Africa coming through the New Orleans street beat."

Cherry and Blackwell were, of course, old friends from the Ornette days and this isn't the only album they collaborated on. Mu is perhaps the more famous of their collaborations and dates all the way back to 1969 when a two-person jazz record such as this was pretty damn radical. This album came out 13 years later and the principal difference is the higher level of experimentation in this album and the obvious advance in recording technology. This album came out in 1982 from a label in Germany and has such a wonderful tone to it. Acknowledgement must go to engineer Martin Wieland and producer and label owner Manfred Eicher for putting that together as they did. The sound is perfectly attuned to Cherry's trumpet and Blackwell's Sonor/Paiste drumkit. My only regret is that I don't have a better turntable as some of the inner tracks have some bleed which can be notable when Cherry is soloing in the last track ("Voice of the Silence").

Trying to digitize this became a challenge as it's often unclear when one track starts and another ends -- often the tracks are bridged by Blackwell's drumming - in a few cases you get the sense that Cherry just stops playing and Blackwell segues into a totally different improv. You can almost imagine Cherry sitting there with his tiny trumpet nodding and listening.

Purists beware, there is some overdubbing going on -- Cherry's piano playing often overlaps with his trumpeting. But for the most part, it sounds like Cherry and Blackwell are pretty atuned to each other and recording this live.

Lots of variety in the tracks. Although the basic motif is mid to high register trumpet with jazz drums, there's tracks sprinkled in throughout with piano, Cherry's melodica and log drums. The melodica was previously made famous by Stevie Wonder on his pop track "Isn't She Lovely" and I wonder if calling one the tracks "Mutron" isn't a shout-out to Wonder who endorsed the famous mutron pedal although from I can tell Cherry doesn't use the Mutron at all in this recording (pls correct me jazz-hounds if I'm wrong).

Blackwell takes quite a few solos including an extended log drum solo ("Near In") but his "Street Dancing" (see below) is my favorite as it illustrates his New Orleans march drumming style. Notice that he's playing it with a totally unmuffled bass drum and he manages to make the bass drum sound like a separate voice from the rest of the kit. What's amazing throughout is listening Blackwell's stream of conciousness drumming and picking out the single measure riffs. If you could isolate these one or two measures - just think of what you could grow on top of the basic beat -- assuming you could reproduce it. A sidebar to this paragraph: it may be my imagination but at one point I even hear him doing the theme song to Bonanza.

Cherry may have had better days - some of the early tracks his pitch occasasionally cracks (for that matter Blackwell hits the drum rims every so often to) but by the end of the album the somewhat brittle sound of the pocket trumpet really starts to feel warm and inviting. In the title track, "El Corazon", he brings home a stunning melody that's all the more compelling by its brevity and abrupt ending that segues into Blackwell's "Rhythm for Runner". Has anyone ever covered this song? Other highlights are the album opener - "Mutron" - which sets the tone for the trumpet-drum interplay and Cherry's piano-based cover of the Thelonius Monk/Denzil Best favorite "Bemsha Swing" -- a wonderfully simple yet complex song that Cherry played often during his time on earth. "Arabian Nightingale" has a sort of late night sexy feel to it. Ah hell, it's hard to find anyone track here that I don't like.

One of Cherry's trademarks was his Doussin' Gouni - aka the Hunter's Guitar -- I think it's best described as an African lute as it looks like a bigger version of that midieval instrument. He plays this in the Side 1 closer - "Makondi" - which has a world music feel to it and allows Blackwell to explore the cowbell (he actually lists cowbell along with drums and wood drum as his instruments in this album). Here, Cherry plays the Gouni almost like a drum although the instrument can be quite lyrical. I've included a track from the recently released Long Hidden: The Olmec Series, a criminally overlooked CD from this year which features the dousson gouni. It's played by William Parker who traces his interest in the instrument to meeting Don Cherry -- yet another legacy of the man.

Both Cherry and Blackwell are dead but some brief biographies of the two can read on their wiki pages and this Drummerworld tribute to Blackwell (lots of great photos). Cherry is a whole category at Destination: Out. Perfect Sound Forever published this tribute a year after Cherry's 1995 death.

Blackwell (left)l offers a hand to Cherry (right)

Photo from back of album by Ralph Quinke (all rights reserved of course)

(Tracks posted for short periods to spur discussion and thought about the artists)

Tracks from Cherry/Blackwell - El Corazon (recorded from vinyl):
  • "Makondi" - Don Cherry - Ed Blackwell - written by Don Cherry
  • "El Corazon" - Don Cherry/Ed Blackwell - written by Cherry
  • "Street Dancing" - Don Cherry/Ed Blackwell - written by Ed Blackwell
El Corazon was reissued in CD by ECM and appears to be out of print. However, the ECM website based in UK is still selling copies.

"Long Hidden, Part 3" - William Parker - from Long Hidden: The Olmec Series CD (2006). Aquarius Records is carrying this CD.

Update: By coincidence Forced Exposure listed MU (part 1) this week as a vinyl reissue. Here's the blurb:

Title: "Mu" First Part
Format: LP
Price: $13.00
Catalog #: BYG 001LP
These are grey-area exact repros of the original BYG Actuel LP series from the early 70s, seem to be of a better general quality than the previous Get Back reissues -- and more readily available. "Originally recorded on August 22nd, 1969 at Studio Saravah in Paris, this album became the first one of the whole BYG/Actuel series. Don Cherry's electrifying duets with Ed Blackwell are memorable. 6 tracks. Gatefold sleeve, 180 gram HQ vinyl."


Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

I don't have much to add to this fantastic post, other than thanks for offering it. Seemed somehow off that such a rich lode of music and discussion hadn't generated a single comment.

Nice Cherry/Parker connection. The two seem cut from similar cloth -- community builders that can maintain their identities within malestroms, but not by stomping on those around them.

Anyway, happy new year, and though we're not fluxblog, Dest:OUT will be happy to link to you. Enjoy 007.

Jim H said...

Thanks - I'm updating my blogroll soon as well. In alot of cases, comments build up over months on this blog - partic. for the postings on older records. Sometimes it's interesting to see which postings generate the long-term comments - many times it's the more obscure band postings... False Prophets posting has a whole debate going on between band members. I get hate-comments from people who were in or like the Pillsbury Hardcore band The Vox Pop and Danny Higgs postings seem to be where people go to write down their memories of each.

If anyone has some good Don Cherry stories to share, please do.

But I'm grateful for my readers and commenters in any case - glad you liked the posting.

Anonymous said...

Great comment that makes me happy! I've had the honour and opportunity to be close to Don Cherry, first "study" (in fact more practise) with him and then play with him in many occasions from 1972 to 1977 and then recording with him in 1985 (my album "Forgotten tales"). I was one of the early fans of him in Sweden where I lived at that time and I have'nt changed a bit about it. He is for me one of the greatest (jazz) musicians of the 20th century era. he was inhabited by music, playing (both meanings of the word) was everything for him. And I just very much regreat that his last two or three years were difficult.
Doudou Gouirand