SUMMER RE-UP: The Utopia Will Not Be Televised

Originally posted 11 July 2007.

Don Cherry
Organic Music Society
Caprice : 1972

DC, trumpet, voice, piano; Maffy Falay, muted trumpet; Tommy Goldman, flute; Tommy Koverhult, flute; Tage Siven, bass; Okay Temiz, drums; and various visitors and friends. For “Bra Joe,” it’s Cherry and Temiz plus a 50-piece Youth Orchestra.

Organic Music, a.k.a. Don Cherry down on the Commune.

The utopian dreams of the Sixties quickly evaporated in the United States. Chicago 68, Altamont, Nixon, Kent State, et cetera. But the awakened possibilities of free love and higher consciousness lingered longer in Europe. As the Seventies rolled on, Scandinavian countries still offered significant pockets where experiments in communal living and unfettered exploration thrived.

Ornette trumpeter, Sonny Rollins sideman, Blue Note bandleader and world traveler Don Cherry was already hip to it. He had been spending time in Scandinavia since the mid-60s, so it’s little surprise he chose to make Sweden his home base during the early Seventies. He and Swedish artist Moki Karlsson set up house in an old school in Skane.

This period represents a great, woolly leap forward for Don Cherry. Almost casually, he invents a genuine third (or would it be the fourth?) way in jazz. He still plays trumpet, and adds singing, piano, various flutes, and a wide array of traditional percussion instruments to his musical arsenal. He fuses his jazz chops and improvisation background with keen interests in native musics from around the globe. Musical associates, friends, neighbors, and their children drop into Cherry and Moki’s home at all hours for impromptu jam sessions. Any are welcome to join in. It’s all part of a larger synthesis.

The recordings that make up Organic Music are akin to a vibrant scrapbook. They’re vivid snapshots and field recordings from this fecund time in Cherry’s life. You get Brazilian chants with neighbors recorded at 6 am, loose sessions captured in a large tent, far-flung cover versions, and even an embryonic version of Relativity Suite. Later albums will showcase these ideas blooming full flower in more polished settings. But Organic Music places us in the gentle meadow of ground zero of these ideas. The world-jazz hybrid unfolds before our very ears.

The first two selections come from the so-called Dome Sessions. As part of a 1971 “Utopia and Visions” exhibition, a large tent-like Buckminster Fuller dome was erected in the garden behind the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. Moki tricked it out with her textiles. Don convened family, friends, professional, and amateur musicians to play long sessions for over a week. A slightly more formalized version of what had already been happening at his home. Goran Freese arrived for several days with a tape recorder, capturing some of these remarkable performances.

Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan” was something of a counterculture hit in the late 60s, so it’s a natural for Cherry and his ensemble to cover, a tune everyone probably knew pretty well. But instead of Pharoah’s sprawling 20-minute version, Cherry and Co. distill the tune to six minutes, conjuring its glorious essence. A sort of radio edit. For those who lacked the patience to sit through the original, it’s a wonderful introduction to this classic soul-free-jazz composition.

“Utopia & Visions” is cut from a similar cloth, but the mood is decidedly more mellow. Its pastoral ambiance and sunkissed groove fit the ideal of the title, the genial good vibes presumably created by the experience. It’s contemplative and uplifting without becoming musically soft-headed or faux naive. Nice.

“Bra Joe” is a Dollar Brand composition, named for Brand’s former bandmate (and self-proclaimed mentor) Kiepie Moeketsi. It was recorded during Cherry’s tenure as teacher at a youth music camp during the summer of 1971. The 50 teenage musicians mainly devoted themselves to classical European music and Cherry’s unorthodox music and teaching methods initially freaked them. But the students eventually warmed to his approach and play the hell out of “Bra Joe,” their rag-tag approach sometimes lacking precision but exuding passion. Exactly what Cherry wanted. Dig the way his trumpet soars against the strings.

Interesting side note: Cherry also has the student orchestra perform a piece inspired by cosmic minimalist Terry Riley. The results are strikingly similar to Riley’s own experiments with a different Swedish teen orchestra back in 1967, released as Olson III. In both situations, the kids start out tentative, unsure about the material, until halfway through they commit themselves, building to an intoxicating fever pitch. Both performances enact a real-time drama of discovery. Riley noted at the time: “The music is not conductable. Everybody has to join it themselves.”

Recommended viewing while listening: Together by Lucas Moodysson. We don’t normally cite films, but this smart look at life on a Swedish commune is unusually compatible with Cherry’s music from the Organic years. Set in 1975, it chronicles one of the last communes in the country, a group of a dozen people struggling with the sense they’re an anachronism, the tension between personal and political agendas, individual freedoms versus group responsibilities. It’s easy to cast a gimlet eye on why such hippish ideals floundered and mock the participants as naive delusionists. Indeed, Together shows many of the striking pitfalls of the 60s. But more importantly, it demonstrates how there was real power in the communal ideal and what has been lost as we’ve all hunkered down in our own private metaworlds. It also contains the best-ever use of ABBA’s great “S.O.S.” - turning the song from a personal lament into an elegy for an entire era, its echoes both euphoric and desperately bittersweet.

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