ROCK / Loose fittings, nifty threads: Don Cherry - QEH

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The Independent Culture
FOUNDER member of one of the most significant groups in the history of jazz; godfather to World and New Age music; and Neneh Cherry's step-dad to boot, Don Cherry in performance remains an enigma. Is he a truly intuitive musical genius or merely one or two notes short, as it were, of the proverbial full chord? He certainly knows how to play the holy fool. Dancing across the stage in strange Tai Chi-like steps, making odd gnomic announcements and taking an age to tune a lute from Mali that looked more in need of tree surgery, Cherry comes on like an African griot washed up on the shores of the South Bank.

As a trumpeter, he has either lost or forsaken the speed and attack that made his contribution to the Ornette Coleman Quartet so striking. Though he toys with other instruments (some of which, like a melodica and a couple of Oxfam-issue gourds, appear to be toys themselves), he can go for long periods without making a single convincing noise. Playing the piano in a familiar solo set-piece of Thelonious Monk compositions, Cherry makes even the deliberately unconventional harmonies seem all fingers and thumbs. What he does do, however, is infuse even the most cack-handed of his efforts with a transcendent musicality. While the notes he produces may come out half- formed, the effect is often deeply satisfying. This was particularly true of the lute incident, when he contrived, in the manner of B B King, a Lucille-style longueur which eventually emerged as a delicate lullaby on the strings, gradually picked up by Hamid Drake's tablas, Carlos Ward's flute and Bob Stewart's tuba to become a beautiful evocation of West African village music.

Cherry long ago gave up on conventional jazz virtuosity in favour of the creation of music that makes a direct emotional connection with the listener, irrespective of genre. Though he played trumpet with John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins after leaving Coleman (who remains a towering influence as the evening showed), Cherry, now 56, spent a large part of the Sixties and Seventies travelling around the world, becoming as much at home with Laplander songs as with latter-day bebop.

The jazz legacy remains in his nifty threads - tonight a black tailcoat and African cap - and his unimpeachable taste in sidemen. The quartet included two of the greatest of contemporary American improvisers. On alto saxophone and flute, the Panamanian Carlos Ward - the principal soloist in the original line-up of Abdullah Ibrahim's Ekaya - is a thrilling player, his sound just about the nearest thing to Ornette Coleman you can get without Ornette. On tuba, Bob Stewart - previously the pumping heart of Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy - does far more than supply a wind- assisted bass-line.

If Cherry was often content to lie back and let the others do the work, this made for some fabulous music. And when he did solo, on the pocket trumpet that has served him all these years, Cherry gave it his best shot. Fragile, wheedling, occasionally trembling like the timbre of a muezzin's call to prayer, it's a trumpet sound that is touchingly vulnerable and human. He may be a bit dippy, and he's certainly not Wynton Marsalis, but 30-odd years after the Ornette Coleman Quartet, Don Cherry still sounds as much like the shape of jazz to come as anything else on offer. If Rolf Harris has a stylophone to spare, Cherry would be the man to use it.