Miles and Wynton both agree… Don Cherry is important.
“Don Cherry, I like…”
– Miles Davis
by Leonard Feather, Down Beat Volume 58 No. 12
first published by Down Beat, June 1964
“I loved Don Cherry.”
-Wynton Marsalis, interviewed by Will Layman for Pop Matters, April 2016
As a young student of the trumpet, my sound reference was probably the same as most: Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, etc. Long before I understood anything about theory, harmony, and history – the sound and feel of these masters were ingrained in my head. In college, as I discovered more and more music and got deeper and deeper into studying, eventually I came across Ornette Coleman, and thusly, Don Cherry. I did not understand Don Cherry.
To my uninitiated ears, he sounded sloppy, lazy, amateurish even. All I could hear were the missed notes, the blurred phrasing, the out-of-tune pocket trumpet, limited range… I didn’t get it. Cherry was the butt of the joke even, kind of a jab, amongst musicians on the scene – inferring he was someone who “couldn’t play”. Man, was I way off.
The first time I truly appreciated Don Cherry was upon listening to the 1960 Ornette Coleman record “Change of the Century” on Atlantic Records. A particular favorite tune of mine was “Ramblin'” – oddly enough (and an embarrassing discovery) I thought Ramblin’ was a David Sanborn tune. Sanborn recorded a funk version of it on 1992’s “Upfront”, in Eb rather than the original Ornette key of D (presumably much easier on the alto in the transposed key of C than B!). I first realized upon really listening to Change of the Century, indeed, Cherry “could play”. Upon deeper listening, tunes like “Ramblin'”, “Bird Food”, “Una Muy Bonita”, and “Free” had all the swing, blues, soul and sophistication of bebop while at the same time allowing the space, harmonic freedom and creativity that fit Ornette’s musical concept.
Another important discovery for me was the 1962 Sonny Rollins album “Our Man in Jazz” at the recommendation of a friend (Barry Velleman, I’m looking at you). On “Our Man in Jazz” it is evident that Rollins is intrigued by Ornette’s innovations of the early 60’s so much that he hires Cherry and Billy Higgins. It is a live “standards” record, but certainly Rollins is exploring a new improvisatory vocabulary clearly outside the bebop dialect of his recordings to date. Rollins takes long, wildly intervallic, and rhythmically free solos. Contrastingly, Cherry’s solos are all extremely melodic, and succinct – each a masterclass in economy and melody. It is almost funny how surprisingly “inside” his solos are. It is clear on this record that Cherry’s early influences of Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown are as much a part of his identity as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor.Continue reading “Lessons from Don Cherry”