Organic Music Society
Trumpeter Don Cherry was recognized early in his career for his contributions to the evolution of jazz—it started in the late 50s, when at 21 he first served as a crucial foil to saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The acclaim was hardly unanimous at the time, though, and many reactionary listeners dismissed Coleman and his classic quartet as charlatans. Like the saxophonist, Cherry endured the criticism and trusted his instincts; in some ways, he was even more of a seeker. A new reissue of his 1973 double album Organic Music Society not only shows how far he pushed beyond jazz convention, but also lays bare his griot heart and his lifelong passion for the kind of collaboration that transcends language. He was an accidental pioneer of a syncretic style that used the musical traditions of different cultures as raw material—what's now often called "world music."
Cherry moved to Sweden in 1964 (he'd later marry Swedish-born painter Monika "Moki" Karlsson), and after living there for a few years he all but vanished from the jazz scene. Organic Music Society captures some of what he was up to. Of the album's 13 tracks, cut in 1971 and '72, only two were recorded in a studio, and Cherry plays trumpet sparingly. Its hypnotic melange of improvised grooves, chanting, and sparse solos combines influences from India, Brazil, and Africa, but instead of attempting strict fidelity to those traditions, the musicians take a more intuitive approach. There's a version of "Terry's Tune" by minimalist composer Terry Riley and a soulful take on the Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas classic "The Creator Has a Master Plan," but the album's heart are these extended, free-flowing, interactive jams—which out-psychedelic most recent hippie experiments, whether by the roster of Finland's Fonal Records or just about anybody from Brattleboro, Vermont.
Most of Cherry's collaborators are Swedish musicians who'd fallen under his spell, including Bengt Berger and Christer Bothen—the latter of whom contributed to The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound), the excellent new album that Cherry's stepdaughter, Neneh, made with Scandinavian free-jazz trio the Thing—but it also features two unknown percussionists who'd go on to great fame, Nana Vasconcelos from Brazil and Okay Temiz from Turkey. On later records Cherry formalized the experiments of Organic Music Society, integrating similar techniques into compositions, but these raw sessions have their own rewards—they sound like woodshedding for a kind of world-shrinking music that technology wouldn't make possible till a decade or more in the future.
Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran
Dabke is a driving, relentless dance music played at weddings and parties in the Levant; Westerners who've heard it probably owe that pleasure to Syrian singer Omar Souleyman. He's released several collections on Sublime Frequencies and another on Sham Palace, a new label run by Mark Gergis—who first brought Souleyman to Sublime Frequencies and has also assembled great collections of pop from Iraq, Vietnam, and Cambodia for the label. This excellent new anthology—seven tracks by six artists—offers a wider look at contemporary dabke, which tends to be documented on cassette releases of live performances.
The basics of this material are similar to Souleyman's music; the main difference (not an especially dramatic one) is that it often uses the mejwiz, a nasal-sounding double-barreled reed instrument made from cane, whereas Souleyman sticks to a synth voice with a similar timbre. Sometimes the mejwiz's snaking melodies collide with a second synthesized horn, hovering over and slashing through thick electronic beats and bass (often complemented by percolating hand percussion). The hectoring vocals, which sound like a cross between a worked-up emcee and an aerobics instructor, are usually exaggeratedly masculine—except on Mohammed Al Ali's "Mili Alay," where the chorus shifts up to chipmunk pitch. Sampled ululations and chopped-up vocals provide extra textural interest and rhythmic heat, though most of the tracks could light a fire without them.
The songs on Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran were recorded in Damascus, Daraa, and Suweida between 1997 and 2010. I'd hardly consider that an era of peace and stability for Syria, but considering the brutal violence that's wracked the country since early last year, these exuberant jams feel like a message from a more innocent time. I imagine most Syrians are doing their best to endure the conflict and live their everyday lives, which of course include weddings—here's hoping the music's still pumping.
The Night Visitor
I fell for the crystal-clear voice of Swedish singer Anna Ternheim four years ago, when I heard Halfway to Fivepoints—a compilation drawn from her first two albums that hoped to introduce her to the American market. But too few of its songs were worthy of that voice—the arrangements too often lacked muscle and bite, or drifted directionlessly with a generic post-Lilith Fair "ethereal" feel. Fortunately Ternheim teamed up with Bjorn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn and John) for 2009's Leaving on a Mayday, and he brought enough definition to the music that her gorgeous voice could properly assert itself.
Ternheim moved to New York four years ago, and in 2010 she was inspired by seeing three very different artists in concert—Tuareg band Tinariwen, free-jazz tenor saxophonist David S. Ware, and Scottish folk guitarist Bert Jansch. She says those encounters helped convince her to take control of her own work: instead of working with Yttling again, she decided to partner with a friend, producer and guitarist Matt Sweeney (formerly of Chavez and Zwan and a collaborator of Will Oldham's), who'd appeared on a few tracks of Leaving on a Mayday. At his suggestion, they recorded her excellent new album, The Night Visitor, in Nashville with Dave Ferguson, Johnny Cash's longtime engineer—it's hardly a country record, but its rustic folksiness is a radical and simpatico change for her music.
Some bluegrass and country ringers helped out, including mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, fiddler Tim O'Brien, and guitarist Cowboy Jack Clement; so did a few from Sweeney's indie-rock circles, including Oldham and drummer Peter Townsend (who's often worked with Oldham). The unobtrusive production and sparse arrangements exist only to serve Ternheim's glorious singing, bittersweet melodies, and moving lyrics, which meditate on different kinds of separation with sadness, longing, and relief. I'd hate to suggest that Ternheim should abandon experimentation, but on The Night Visitor it really feels like she's found the place to which her earlier experiments were destined to lead her—she sounds like a more earthbound, less cosmic Emmylou Harris, and I just don't know if she can improve on that.