Essential New Music: Don Cherry’s “Cherry Jam”

The COVID virus may have owned 2020, but 2021 is the year of Don Cherry. The Oklahoma-born trumpeter, whose curious and non-hierarchical approach to playing exerted an originating influence upon free jazz and world music, won’t be around to receive the bouquets, since he died in 1995. But a series of releases by the Gearbox and Blank Forms labels will present, for the first time, a broad selection of music he made during his bounteous sojourns in Scandinavia. 

Cherry Jam is a glimpse of Cherry just prior to his debut as a solo artist. He was already a known quantity, having helped crack open the hard-shelled egg of bebop and cook up a whole new vision of jazz as a member of Ornette Coleman’s quartet in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Upon that outfit’s dissolution, Cherry went on to work with the key saxophonists of the time, including John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler; by summer 1965, Cherry had already made the recordings with Gato Barbieri that would become his first solo album, Togetherness. But that LP was still a future proposition when Cherry visited Copenhagen in fall 1965 to play on Danish radio with a band put together by pianist Atli Bjørn.

That Cherry had already played with the heaviest names in free jazz doesn’t seem to have had any bearing on what the Danes played with him. Bjørn, tenor saxophonist Mogens Bollerup, bassist Benny Nielsen and drummer Simon Koppel sound pretty comfortable with a bop-rooted approach very much in the mold that Cherry and Coleman had already broken half a dozen years earlier. Bollerup is audibly indebted to Coltrane, but more in the style that he played when he recorded for Prestige in the 1950s than the way he played with Cherry in 1960.

The rhythm section builds a steady head of steam, but one undisturbed by the metric disruptions that Cherry had already thrived upon when playing with drummers Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and Sunny Murray. And Bjørn’s forays into dissonance on Richard Rogers showtune “You Took Advantage Of Me” are so tentative that he seems to want to take it all back during the song’s closing flourish. 

But while the music on Cherry Jam isn’t going to burnish anyone’s avant-garde credentials, on its own terms, it’s quite delightful. The trumpeter didn’t get around as much as he did by being a prima donna, and Cherry gamely meets the performers where they’re at. He contributes three early compositions that demonstrate how well he understood the essence of the jazz he had already transformed. Bustling bebop tune “Priceless” is sturdy enough to support both the Jackson Pollock-like smears of the composer’s brass and Bjørn’s more analytical approach. The band swings most gracefully on “The Ambassador From Greenland” and “Nigeria,” and Cherry sounds no less lyrical for playing a bit more conventionally. 

While the brief session sat on a shelf for decades, it sounds splendid. Gearbox is an audiophile-focused label whose vintage analog equipment ensures that the music, which was recorded in mono and cut at 45 rpm, has been presented without compromise.

Later this spring, Blank Forms will present two previously unreleased, archival recordings and a 496-page book that should provide an in-depth examination of Cherry’s residence in Sweden, where he lived with artist Moki Cherry (née Monika Karlsson).

—Bill Meyer