Chronology: Don Cherry’s Reunion Blues

An essential album from the trumpeter’s late period serves as a testament to an enduring musical partnership

Don Cherry
Don Cherry at Jazzhus Montmartre, Copenhagen,July 1987. (photo: CTS Images)

In the late 1980s, the members of the first Ornette Coleman quartet—including Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins—were busy remembering their early years in Los Angeles. Haden’s California-themed Quartet West, with Higgins, was recorded in 1986, Coleman’s reunion project In All Languages in 1987, and Cherry’s Art Deco, with Haden, Higgins, and lesser-known confrère James Clay, in 1988.

Producer John Snyder had a special affinity for Coleman and his circle, overseeing some of their key albums from the ’70s, including Coleman’s Dancing in Your Head, Haden’s The Golden Number, and James Blood Ulmer’s Tales of Captain BlackArt Deco was Snyder’s first date for A&M’s Modern Masters Jazz Series. He was especially pleased by the decorative title composition—“That was the album!” he told me—and sent a tape of it to his boss. All the A&M suits liked it, and Snyder credits this song with creating a smooth runway for his next Modern Masters projects with Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and Art Blakey.

There was never any weight of thought in Cherry’s lines. They come out of his trumpet connected to deeper things: the earth, the wind, the cycle of life.

In the 1970s, gatefold LPs produced by Snyder on A&M Horizon and Artists House had offered scores, transcriptions, quotes from musicians, and other baubles. Art Deco was similar, and since most jazz fans would not have known James Clay’s name in 1988 (although he had practiced and gigged with Coleman and Cherry in L.A., his national career stalled out in the early ’60s), the deluxe Snyder package here was damn near essential: Doug Ramsey’s extensive notes recount the history, and each musician offers pleasant comments on Clay and the session.

Even though the quartet played at the Village Vanguard before tracking, the repertoire stayed mostly casual. The full-band tracks with conventional forms include “When Will the Blues Leave,” “Bemsha Swing,” and “The Blessing,” all long part of Cherry’s straight-ahead bag (he played the lattertwo with John Coltrane on The Avant-Garde from 1960). There are also three short unaccompanied cadenzas by Cherry, Haden, and Higgins, and two long tenor-trio ballads.

The Cherry originals bookending the album were new at the time. “Art Deco” is a perky swinger dedicated to Billie Holiday, and “Compute” is an uptempo “free” excursion in the manner of Cherry and Haden’s regular band Old and New Dreams.

Clay says in his note: “Texas tenors are known for playing in a raunchy, straight-forward manner, with lots of emotion and few frills. I’m a typical example of that style of player.” Dewey Redman, the best-known tenor player of the Coleman circle and a member of Old and New Dreams, is another “Texas tenor.” It is astonishing how much Clay sounds like Redman during the solo on “Compute.” Either Clay studied up on Redman for his week with Cherry, or these Texas tenors really do come from the same source.

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On the rest of the disc, Clay is a delightful keeper of the flame, offering soulful sonority and classic jazz phrasing. Cherry himself is in good form. There was never any weight of thought in Cherry’s lines. They come out of his trumpet connected to deeper things: the earth, the wind, the cycle of life. (According to Snyder, while Cherry was photographed with his pocket cornet, in the studio he played a conventional trumpet originally owned by Mike Lawrence, given to Snyder by Lawrence’s widow Roberta.)

As good as the horn players are on Art Deco, the rhythm section might be the real highlight. From their first meeting in the late ’50s, Haden and Higgins would be wedded together forever, a beat with lift and depth, both ultramodern and back in the shack. Any record they are on is almost by definition essential. How wonderful to hear them with Don Cherry one last time.

FURTHER LISTENING

Don Cherry and John Coltrane: The Avant-Garde (Atlantic, 1966)—Almost a sister album to Art Deco, recorded nearly 30 years earlier

Old and New Dreams: Playing (ECM, 1981)—All of the O&ND albums are great, a signature band of the era

Don Cherry: Brown Rice (EMI Italy, 1975)—Many consider this disc Cherry’s best, especially for appreciating his appropriation of world music

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.