Don Cherry created a world entirely new and unto itself, a musical fusion that cannot be found anywhere else.
The Watts Towers are a peculiar group of structures built by Simon Rodia over the course of three decades, beginning in 1921. The complex of structures is comprised of the eponymous towers, set atop a base of complex arches and pathways. Built of mostly concrete and steel, the artwork is covered in mosaics. Though the Towers are clearly handmade—the mosaics consist mostly of found elements: bottles, broken tile, etc.—Rodia’s meticulous, skeletal structures of rebar have withstood earthquakes and the City of Los Angeles’ attempts to pull them down in the late ‘50s.
The Towers appear on the cover of this year’s reissue of Don Cherry’s 1975 album Brown Rice—which makes the album readily available on vinyl for the first time since its release—and are a fitting match to Cherry’s work. Cherry was born in Oklahoma to a mother of Choctaw descent and an African-American father in 1936. In 1940, the family relocated to the Watts neighborhood, where Rodia had his towers already well underway. It is not just this historical curiosity that makes the Towers an appropriate visual complement for the record. Like the Watts Towers, Brown Rice is a monument to one man’s obsessions.
After a long stint as a sideman for Ornette Coleman (where he worked alongside bass player Charlie Haden, who is featured prominently on Brown Rice) and a few albums with Albert Ayler—as well as producing a sizable discography of his own—Cherry’s sound took a definite turn in the early ‘70s. Searching out music from all over the globe—India, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East in particular—he not only mastered these forms, but incorporated them into jazz composition.
The title track serves as something of a warmup for the album. Haden’s bass thumps away under the heavy influence of a wah pedal. Frank Lowe’s sax releases approving squawks throughout the song. The vocal line of Verna Gillis runs up and down with an electric piano—sometimes they run in sync and sometimes the piano retreats from her. Undergirding the song are the steady, subtle bongos manned by Bunchie Fox. Overseeing it all is Cherry himself. He whisper-sings “brown rice,” or scats nonsense intermixed with words that fade just as they become intelligible. All these elements achieve a balance with each other and then draw down as the song comes to a close.
“Malkauns” and “Chenrezig,” the longest songs on the record, serve as companion pieces. The highlight of the album, “Malkauns” starts with the slow drone of a tambura, played by Moki Cherry, Don’s wife. The transfixing drone is soon joined by Haden’s bass, which leaps sprightly over the tambura. After more than four minutes, Don begins to solo and is quickly joined by Billy Higgins on drums, who accelerates the pace. Cherry’s trumpet careens to the border of virtuosity and madness, but he reels it in repeatedly, finding expressive outlets for his more melodic tendencies. His notes grow longer as the song stretches out and frays at the ends just slightly without losing its pace until the trumpet and drums leave just as suddenly as they arrived. The tambura and the bass guide the listener through the comedown. “Malkauns” distills Cherry’s entire philosophy of music into 14 minutes.
“Chenrezig” calls the listener back to the world. Its opening chimes give way to Cherry’s low chant propped on top of bass (played by Hakim Jamil, here) until the two find an incantatory syncopation. Just as the composition seems to reach a permanent stasis, Ricky Cherry’s piano enters, sprinkling solitary chords into the meditation. Like “Malkauns,” the drums enter to gather up the separate pieces and accelerate them into unification. “Chenrezig” never stops moving. Cherry’s trumpet enters melodically, but soon begins to tangle with Lowe’s sax until the two reach a détente, settling the composition into what feels like a cool-down, eventually dropping out in favor of the bass and chanting that started things off. But everything violently erupts once more. The piano, sax, trumpet, bass and drums fade without resolution in the midst of an ecstatic whirl.
The album closes with “Degi-Degi,” a more electrified composition than the others, with a tight rhythm section and electric piano creating a jazz-funk palette on which Cherry alternates between the more subdued sounds of his whispering and chanting and the distorted wails of his trumpet. The track closes with a spinning, whirring electronic sound that beams the listener back to reality. It is here that Cherry’s music sounds both like it is coming from the deep past and the far future, another quality it shares with the Watts Towers.
And yet, the Towers did not grace the original cover of the album. They replace another work of art that corresponds to Cherry’s music. The original album artwork was done by Moki Cherry, who also made the artwork for Cherry’s previous world fusion albums. These works are colorful and textured—somewhere between banners and quilts—and capture the world as it appears in Cherry’s music: collaborative, handmade and ecstatic. The original artwork incorporates text and geography in a playful Technicolor, giving a nod to Cherry’s term for his work, “organic music.”
It is a shame that this term did not develop the currency of the “world music” label often appended to this era of Cherry’s work. Brown Rice is a colossal work of idiosyncratic art that incorporates styles from all over the globe. The label of “world music” is often a minimizing or condescending one—flattening styles as diverse as Japanese taiko, Balinese gamelan or South African mbaqanga into a single mono-genre. On the other hand, the label is strangely fitting for this album, in that, on Brown Rice, Don Cherry created a world entirely new and unto itself, a musical fusion that cannot be found anywhere else.