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'Musical Monsters' Revisits A 1980 Concert By Cornet Player Don Cherry


This is FRESH AIR. A 1980 concert recording by the late cornet player Don Cherry has just been released. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says by 1980, Cherry had led a couple of jazz lives as the brass-playing alter ego for saxophonist Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler and as an international pied piper, mixing it up with players everywhere from Scandinavia to Turkey. That 1980 concert surrounded him with colleagues from Denmark and Switzerland. Here's Kevin's review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD: The five improvisors were in a playful mood when they convened at a Swiss festival in 1980. They included Don Cherry, the vagabond American trumpeter who was reunited with his old colleague, the Congolese Danish saxophonist John Tchicai. And Tchicai had a reunion with another occasional ally, the Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer. Much of the music they made that day was collectively improvised but laced with a few catchy tunes and some of those crazy march beats that European players loved back then.


WHITEHEAD: Don Cherry and company, 1980, from a concert recording now out for the first time as "Musical Monsters" in the Intakt label. It's a great example of how well such one-time meetings can go given the right players. In truth, Don Cherry's trumpet chops are pretty shaky, as they often were in later years, but his bugling tone could still rally the troops, and his influence is all over the music. He loved rolling rhythms, fanfare-like tunes and long improvisations broken up by catchy themes. Back in the '60s, he and saxophonist John Tchicai had played together in the New York Contemporary Five. When they reunited in 1980, their blend made the melodies exceptionally vivid, even where Cherry's lip is unsure.


WHITEHEAD: As much as anyone, Don Cherry turned jazz on to the scales and rhythms of non-European musical systems, from India to West Africa and beyond. Those influences gave improvisors more options, more ways to create varied music.


WHITEHEAD: John Tchicai on alto sax with drummer Pierre Favre and bassist Leon Francioli. Like Don Cherry, Denmark's Tchicai was an international bridge-builder who'd spent many years working in the U.S. He wrote most of the tunes the quintet played, and more than anyone, he directs the action in an unobtrusive way. Tchicai can make a quiet statement that changes the whole band's direction because the other players listen and respond. Hear how pianist Irene Schweizer pivots with him here.


WHITEHEAD: This sort of lightly structured improvising is often called free jazz. Some folks take that to mean freedom from good stuff like melody or harmony or swinging. But for Don Cherry and his fellow travelers, free jazz means freedom to choose anything, to be open to all sorts of musical streams and strategies, to be free to play riffs or reject them or to work in whatever appeals to them at the moment. In this case, it made for a literal one-of-a-kind artwork. These particular five players never worked together again, but the music they made sounds fresh 36 years later.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point Of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Don Cherry's "Musical Monsters" on the Intakt label.


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be guitarist Nels Cline. He's best known for his work with the band Wilco, which has a new album called "Schmilco." He's also known for his avant garde albums, but his new album, "Lovers," features jazz standards and covers lushly arranged. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media as Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.