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Don Cherry - Organic Music Society

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Artist: Don Cherry

Album: Organic Music Society

Label: Caprice

Review date: Sep. 11, 2012

This is not a jazz album. This is the music of ritual. Any resemblance it has to jazz is purely coincidental and passing. This is the sound of utopia, of equality, of the universal egalitarian dream, of the earth, the water, and the life force in all its various guises. Many jazz heads from the late 1960s and early ’70s tried to commune with this earth spirit — Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Phil Cohran, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago come immediately to mind — but none of them ever fully escaped the aerial plane. Sun Ra was more concerned with space; Pharaoh Sanders and Alice Coltrane worked in the realm of the eternal soul; Cohran and the Art Ensemble directly transmogrified the African diaspora. On this album, however, Don Cherry wants to create a sound untethered to trivialities like place, nation or time. It is the sound of breath, community, sociality, and, most fundamentally, of people. There is little concern for audio fidelity or virtuosity. All that matters is the moment of expression, the moment of creation, and the communal space the music reveals.

This is an album full of people. There is no set “band” to speak of. Musicians appear and disappear seemingly at will, by happenstance, depending on where Cherry happened to be playing and recording on that particular day. The only constant is Cherry and his mystical vision. And this Don Cherry, living in Sweden in ’71 and ’72, is very different from the Don Cherry of the 1960s. He only occasionally pulls out his trumpet, spending most of the album singing, chanting, exhorting his fellow travelers, and playing a variety of instruments from around the world. His manifesto is the two-part “Relativity Suite,” in which he improvises a pan-religious chant over an irresistible bass line on the doson n’goni with occasional interjections from other instruments. His tale wanders between gods (Jesus, Buddha, and Krishna, principally), creeds, and languages as simple means toward a larger end, an “organic music society.” The bass line becomes a mantra, the tuned log drum and bells are moments of revelation, and Cherry’s voice is the guide. It reminds me, obliquely, of the obsessive universalism of Stockhausen’s “Stimmung.” And when Cherry sends the bass line away with a whistle call, I can’t help but feel a little empty and disappointed. A similar feeling occurs at the end of “North Brazilian Ceremonial Hymn,” the extended prayer that opens the record, propelled forward by Nana Vasconcelos’ incredible, inventive berimbau playing. When his trumpet does appear, it’s in striking contrast to the album’s otherwise tantric feel; its slashing lines come from a different world, a different way of existing.

This is an album of education in practice. Cherry spent the summer of 1971 teaching at a youth music camp normally devoted to the study of classical music. Somewhere along the line, he brought a tape recorder along and recorded a swinging version of Dollar Brand’s “Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro” and a Terry Riley song titled, simply, “Terry’s Tune.” The fifty-odd piece band lays down Brand’s swinging bass line and Riley’s melancholy melody while Cherry (on trumpet and piano) and drummer Okay Temiz unleash some serious free jazz squalls. And the album closes with a group of elementary school teachers singing an Indian-inflected tune complete with tabla, tambura and harmonium. The informality of these recordings is the goal. The professional musicians merely provide a musical frame for the amateurs, with the critical moment coming when the amateurs break free of their own personal frames and join together for a joyous, communal utterance.

This is an album of specific places. The liner notes take pains to point out that “North Brazilian Ceremonial Hymn” was recorded at 6 a.m. in Copenhagen, and that most of side three was recorded in a geodesic dome outside the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. While these aren’t field recordings by any stretch, they are imbued with the character of their locations, be it the sleepy spirituality of “North Brazilian Ceremonial Hymn,” the looping pan-tonal feel of the “domesessions,” or the spontaneity of the educational recordings. Only a fraction of the album was actually recorded in the studio, and the higher fidelity of those recordings feels almost like a betrayal.

This is an album of hippie-dippie spirituality. However, it is simultaneously more earnest and more sincere than most hippie excesses of the period. Perhaps this is because Cherry’s vision never feels fully naïve, regardless of his quasi-mystical incantations. Cherry’s gutsiness also goes a long way; it takes serious brass to release an album that spends so much time on such minuscule material. None of the songs I’ve singled out so far have grand musical visions. Their existence as music is almost completely incidental and arbitrary. They are, fundamentally, ritual and ritualized sociality. I will admit to not always being convinced by it, but I do get completely and wonderfully lost in so much of this record. This is, somehow or other, the real thing.

By Dan Ruccia

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