SA14: The Don Cherry Issue

The Appreciations

Ralph Alessi on Cherry and Coleman

First impressions are often the most deceptive, and this is certainly true when it comes to trumpeter Ralph Alessi and his relationship to Don Cherry. One might be tempted to think that an improviser with technique as prodigious as Alessi would find nothing in common with Cherry—a player who made more out of a lack of traditional technique than any other jazz musician of the 1960s.


To a certain extent, this estimation would be correct. Within the first minutes of our conversation, Alessi had admitted his initial difficulty relating to the pocket trumpeter’s playing. But, as he matured, he developed a taste for Cherry’s playing that blossomed into respect and fascination. Alessi has taken that recent engagement with Cherry’s music and applied his own abilities to it, fashioning it into a singular jazz style that moves in and out of focus without losing the musical thread.


Sound American met up with Alessi at his apartment in Brooklyn to talk about how he discovered Cherry’s music through his studies with another former Ornette Coleman sideman, Charlie Haden, and what he gained from his deep dive into Cherry’s music.


Rather than interpret a classic piece of Coleman’s oeuvre, Alessi decided to play two freely improvised solo pieces that used broad touchstones of Cherry’s playing—specific rhythmic cells and ideas and pentatonic folkish melodies—as a primary set of material to spin off into a world that is uniquely Ralph Alessi, a trait Don Cherry would have respected.

Tomas Fujiwara on Cherry and Lacy

A subtext of Sound American’s approach to the music of Don Cherry is to see what new creative possibilities open up for us as we limit our field of inquiry. This is why, after the initial articles broadly covering Cherry’s life and music, we’ve limited the subject material of our remaining articles to a set of specific documents of the trumpeter’s output from a golden period of recording between 1960–1963. We asked a group of singular jazz musicians, active with their own music right now, to limit themselves to one of these unique recordings and provide SA with their personal reflections on a simple question: What is Don Cherry’s particular magic in this particular music at this particular time?


Our first participant is Brooklyn-based percussionist and composer Tomas Fujiwara. Beyond groups under his own leadership, such as The Hook Up and The Tomas Fujiwara Trio, he performs as a member of many different musical collectives. One such group is Josh Sinton’s Ideal Bread, which is dedicated to performing the music of soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. It made perfect sense to ask Tomas to delve deeply into Evidence, Lacy’s recording with Don Cherry, bassist Carl Brown, and Billy Higgins on drums.


Evidence is unique within the period we’re concentrating on, in that Lacy, et al. play only the music of other composers. Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk’s music, in particular, are well represented in the repertoire of the short-lived group. It was the compositions, as well as a love of Billy Higgins’s drumming, that initially brought Fujiwara to this recording, and his unique response for SA has as much to do with his passion for Ellington and Monk’s composition as it has for Don Cherry and Steve Lacy’s improvising.


Tomas prepared four solo drum set pieces based on compositions from Evidence to record for this issue. After his performance—spontaneous but with a sense of structure intact—he sat down with SA’s editor, Nate Wooley, to talk about his history with Evidence, Lacy, Higgins, the compositions of Ellington and Monk, and Don Cherry. His insights about Cherry’s rhythmic sense and personal way of phrasing add a new piece to the puzzle of what made him, particularly on this set of recordings, so unique—so magic.

Jon Irabagon on Cherry and Rollins

There is a well-founded, but slightly revisionist, tendency to define Sonny Rollins as a burly toned rollicking bebop tenor saxophonist. Over the span of his long career, he has certainly worked often in this area, firing off long and inventive lines of eighth notes––slightly on top of the beat––over swinging rhythm sections. However, there is a transcendental quality to Rollins’s playing that separates him from other saxophonists of the same era: an almost pathological need to push the boundaries of his own creative energy.


Arguably at the height of his prowess, the early 1960s was one of Rollins’s most fertile and revolutionary periods. Beginning with his triumphant return from a self-imposed hiatus with The Bridge, Rollins sought to explode the boundaries by exploring every corner of the American songbook as well as a handful of his own compositions, such as his famous “Oleo,” now a modern classic, based on the chord changes to “I Got Rhythm.” Recordings such as Sonny Meets Hawk with elder statesman Coleman Hawkins or the free-wheeling East Broadway Rundown became structures within which Rollins could test the boundaries of jazz music. Not surprisingly, one of the central documents of this period of experimentation features this issue’s main subject, Don Cherry.


Our Man In Jazz and the recent Complete Village Gate Recordings from which it was culled captures a group in the thralls of complete freedom. Nothing is off limits as the quartet careens through off the beaten path standards such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Dearly Beloved,” as well as attempts at completely free or modular compositions. The highlights, however, are four versions of the aforementioned “Oleo,” which play between breakneck swing, semi-coordinated interludes, and moments of staticly searching free playing.


In many ways, saxophonist Jon Irabagon could be held up as an heir apparent to Rollins. His virtuosic technique and tree trunk–thick sound are dead giveaways that he has spent time studying the older saxophonist, but it is his attitude that cements the lineage. Known for his work with everyone from Dave Douglas to Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Irabagon is constantly at the boundary of what constitutes jazz. He is consistently working to burst his own physical and creative limits, regardless of the surrounding musical landscape.


When asked to take part in this issue, Irabagon told Sound American that he had just been given the above-mentioned recordings as a gift and was only then beginning to delve deeply into the box set of the quartet’s performances from The Village Gate. A couple of weeks later, he had already come upon some very concrete conclusions about Cherry’s role as a “second voice” to Rollins’s temporally and sonically dominant tenor sound. The younger saxophonist took the four versions of “Oleo” as his model, providing an insight to the variations Rollins would play while Cherry, generally thought of as the “freer” of the two, holds down the melody and harmony of the composition. The trumpeter, in the way he plays, provides both the inspiration and the stability necessary for Rollins to take flight.


On a sunny afternoon, Irabagon and Sound American editor Nate Wooley got together in the latter’s Brooklyn apartment to talk Sonny and Don and, after dealing with an errant car alarm, to record the saxophonist’s loving and beautifully swinging solo version of “Oleo.”

Chad Taylor on Cherry and Coltrane

One of the remarkable things about Don Cherry was that he worked with so many of the pioneering saxophonists of his generation. What other trumpet/cornet player recorded with Coltrane, Ayler, Sanders, Coleman, and Rollins? Although his relationships with Ayler, Sanders, and Rollins are well documented by recordings and live performances, he recorded only once with John Coltrane. Perhaps this is why their relationship is often overlooked. Although their time together was brief, Cherry and Coltrane both had a significant impact on each other, and their collaboration deserves further investigation.


Several milestones occur on the landmark Atlantic recording The Avant Garde. It is the first recording of Coltrane playing soprano saxophone, the first recording of Cherry as a leader/co-leader, and the first time Coltrane recorded in a quartet without a piano player. Although The Avant Garde was released in 1966, it was recorded in two sessions: on June 28, 1960 and July 8, 1960. Along with Coltrane and Cherry, Ed Blackwell is on drums and Percy Heath [tracks 2,4,5] and Charlie Haden [tracks 1,3] are on bass. Heath might seem like an unusual choice on bass, but he was a big fan of Cherry's and familiar with his music, having recorded with Cherry and Ornette on Tomorrow is the Question [Contemporary M 3569] in March 1959.


1960 was a pivotal time in Coltrane's career. He quit Miles Davis's sextet, he got some much needed dental work done, which changed his embouchure, and he signed on to Atlantic Records. He released his first Atlantic record, Giant Steps, in December 1959. Coltrane could have easily recorded another record with Chambers, Walton, and Humphries, but he was searching for something else.


This "something else" made its debut at the Five Spot on November 17, 1959. Having been persuaded by New York Times critic Martin Williams, the Termini Brothers offered Ornette Coleman and his band with Cherry, Higgins, and Haden, a two-week run. (It's likely that Higgins was eventually replaced by Blackwell because he lost his cabaret privileges.) The initial two-week engagement was extended to ten weeks that ended in January 1960. In April 1960, the quartet came back for another residency that lasted four months. Many jazz musicians were not initially fans of Coleman's music, including Davis, who greatly inspired Cherry. After hearing Cherry play in a Downbeat blindfold test, Davis said, "You're putting me on with that!...I know who it is. Ornette fucking up the trumpet and the alto. I don't understand that jive at all...Anybody can tell that guy is not a trumpet player." For Coltrane, hearing Coleman and Cherry was a revelation. He went to hear Coleman at the Five Spot whenever he could. In Lewis Porter's book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, Porter shared what Coltrane said about Ornette's music to Benoit Quersin:




    I was so far in this thing [Giant Steps chords] that I didn't know where I was going to go next. And I don't know if I would have thought about just abandoning the chord system or not. I probably would not have thought of that at all. And he came along doing it, and I heard it, I said, "Well that must be the answer.




It is true that Coltrane had recorded without a chordal instrument once before in 1957, but that was in a trio format on blues and standards [ Prestige PR 7581]. It's amazing to think that Coltrane went from mastering the harmonic complexity of Giant Steps to wanting to explore music without any chord changes at all. The Cherry composition, Cherryco, the first track on The Avant Garde, represents the first time Coltrane plays solo on a composition without a fixed set of chord changes. In his last years, this is the form that almost all of his music would take. After the theme is played, Cherry takes an amazing solo, both melodic and lyrical, but also with a feeling of freedom and confidence. When Coltrane comes in, he seems outside of his comfort zone, and that is the beauty of it—Coltrane working it out. Even though there are no sets of changes, he takes a modal approach to his solo, perhaps not quite confident enough to completely let go. (Although I do enjoy this track, I prefer the version Cherry did with Frank Lowe on the record Decision in Paradise [Soul Note 121082-2] primarily because of Charnett Moffet's audacious bass playing.)


Cherry has always had the unique ability to blend his sound with other horn players, so it should come as no surprise that Cherry and Coltrane sound so great together. In Cherry's interview with Ben Sidron he states, "Swing isn't just about rhythm. It is about sound." Nowhere is this more evident than on the Coleman composition The Blessing. The song starts swinging from the very first note. This song was originally recorded on Coleman's debut recording Something Else [Contemporary C 3551] in 1958. The diversity in the length of his phrases is truly remarkable. It is completely unpredictable, but it also flows naturally. When Cherry ends his solo and Coltrane comes in, it is the perfect handing over of the baton. An in-depth analysis of Coltrane's solo along with Haden's walking bass lines can be found here. Blackwell's solo following Coltrane is also a powerful statement on the record; the West-African influence in his drumming features prominently. Blackwell brilliantly sets up his solo with transitions between a 4/4 and a 6/8 feel before settling into a double-time feel. Another inspiring version of the Blessing can be found on Paul Bley's Live at the Hillcrest Club. [America (F) 30 AM 6120]


“Bemsha Swing,” first recorded by Monk in 1952, might seem out of place when considering that the other compositions on this recording were composed by Coleman and Cherry. However, by 1960, Coltrane was very familiar with Monk's music, having recorded and performed with him. For Cherry, this was a milestone. He had something to prove. Prior to this recording, Cherry had only recorded music composed by himself or with Coleman. Cherry has stated that he views Monk's music as being similar to Coleman's because the harmony of the tune can be heard in the melody. He believed that with Monk's music, improvisation from the melody or from the harmony is possible. On “Bemsha Swing,” these two different approaches to improvisation can be heard: Cherry performs more off the melody, whereas Coltrane performs mostly off of the chord changes. Coltrane comes across as being more polished and confident than Cherry, but Cherry's solo is by no means a letdown. It is a bit disappointing, however, that they come back in before Blackwell finishes his solo.


The highlight of this record is “Focus on Sanity,” which was originally recorded on The Shape of Jazz to Come in May 1959 with Coleman, Cherry, Haden, and Higgins. Coltrane plays a blistering solo right out of the gate. It might be that Coltrane is more comfortable playing with Percy Heath than he is with Haden, or he might simply be more comfortable playing on chord changes. Coltrane and Percy played together frequently in 1951 with the Dizzy Gillespie Sextet. In some ways, Heath is the glue of the session, holding everything together because he had played previously with Cherry, Coltrane, and Blackwell. The form of “Focus on Sanity” is unusual and features multiple tempo changes. It has a different arrangement or form than the original 1959 recording but contains the same urgency and focus. This modular approach to composition was way ahead of its time.


“The Invisibility,” originally recorded on Ornette's debut recording, Something Else, is played a bit faster on The Avant Garde. This is another composition in which Cherry has a melodic approach and Coltrane deals more with the harmony. This contrast of styles is what makes this record a gem. It is obvious that they both had a mutual respect and admiration of each other's playing and also an openness to face new challenges. If this record had been recorded in 1966, the year it was released, instead of 1960, the result would have been much different. By 1966 Coltrane was more confident playing without preconceived chord changes, and Cherry had a lot more experience playing other people's music; but in 1960, both Coltrane and Cherry risked stepping out of their comfort zones, and the result is a recording that has become iconic.