Don Cherry/John Tchicai: Musical Monsters

Free-jazz trumpet pioneer Don Cherry’s posthumous legacy continues to grow with this document of a 1980 performance at Jazz Festival Willisau in Switzerland, featuring Cherry along with an old cohort, saxophonist John Tchicai, and a Swiss rhythm section. Cherry is the putative leader, but it’s Tchicai whose personality is felt most strongly. Three of the compositions are his (“Real Kirsten,” “Transportation of Noodles” and “Pà Tirstag”), and in the heat of improvisation it’s often his cues the others respond to. He and/or Cherry will state a theme, often based on a single chord or repeated note; then the band elaborates upon, expands and reimagines its harmonic and rhythmic implications. Pianist Irène Schweizer, especially, consistently unearths the melodic coherence lurking beneath the apparently formless patterns swirling around her, emphasizing yet again how logically conceived even the most “free” improvisation really is.

But that description makes this music sound dry, even clinical; it’s the opposite. A rollicking sense of play permeates these outings, which variously incorporate quotes from such unlikely sources as “Three Blind Mice” and unison passages both meditative and jubilant, including one, in Tchicai’s “Noodles,” that references both Celtic folkdance and Middle Eastern sacred music. And, of course, Cherry and Tchicai are in command of a lexicon of blats, squawks, shrieks and smears that serve as both challenging improvisational throw-downs and a veritable theatrical trunk of clown masks. High art was never so much fun.

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