Monday, June 25, 2012

Neneh Cherry & The Thing's "The Cherry Thing"

Hmmm. An '80s pop diva (big hit: 1988's "Buffalo Stance") recording with a jazz trio that's imbued with the spirit of the '60s and '70s avant-garde? Sounds unlikely, but it might be less so in light of the fact that Neneh Cherry's father, peripatetic trumpeter and "world music" pioneer Don Cherry, was an innovative torchbearer of said avant-garde, and the trio -- three Swedes who perform together under the rubric The Thing -- coalesced back in Y2K for the express purpose of playing his music.

And yes, there's certainly precedent for this kind of pairing. One need only think of Fontella Bass, five years after topping the charts with "Rescue Me," fronting her husband Lester Bowie's band, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, on Les Stances a Sophie. Or Indian vocalist Asha Puthli's contributions to Ornette Coleman's Science Fiction album -- one of which, "What Reason Could I Give," is covered on The Cherry Thing. Or Annette Peacock's collision with a brace of Brit jazz and rock luminaries on X-Dreams.

What makes this meeting so fortuitous is the way both Cherry and The Thing manage to be their distinctive selves without compromise, while creating an avant-garde/pop hybrid that's at once challenging and beguiling to the ear. The opening "Cashback" -- the sole Neneh Cherry composition here -- opens with a bristling bass ostinato from Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, over which Cherry makes her entrance, describing an exploitative relationship with sinuous, sensuous sonority before a horn section comes in on the refrain. When Mats Gustafsson's tenor begins its first solo flight, however, the track becomes something Entahrly Other. His sound is a lusty, full-blooded roar, as he explores territory staked out by illustrious predecessors like Pharaoh Sanders, Frank Lowe, and Peter Brotzmann. The contrast between elements is striking, yet the pop-song format accommodates them both easily.

"Dream Baby Dream," by the psychodramatic punk-era duo Suicide, gets a Caribbean lilt from the rhythm section's treatment, bolstered by Flaten's vibes, with Gustafson starting out in a more subdued, almost Ben Webster-ish mood before unleashing another feverish solo, this time backed by electronics. "Too Tough To Die," originally by Brit trip-hop chanteuse Martina Topley-Bird, is the album's first peak, opening with contrapuntal baritone sax and arco bass figures that give way to a blood-simple groove which Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love attack with bruising physicality. As a friend recently said (in reference to Pinkish Black), "it's heavy, but not hard."

"Sudden Moment" is a Gustafsson original and the only piece here on which Cherry sounds like a guest rather than the main event, as she sings the theme in unison with the composer's horn before The Thing takes things all the way "out." Then they bring it back "inside" for a restatement of the theme, as if it were the most common thing in the world. "Accordion" is a Madvillain cover that Cherry spits out with a vengeance, while the musos make this the most seamless and least self-conscious jazz treatment of a hip-hop original that these feedback-scorched ears have yet heard.

"Golden Heart," from Don Cherry's Complete Communion, pays tribute to this project's spiritual/biological father. Listening to it, one is reminded of his '70s works like "Brown Rice" and the album Hear and Now, which seemed to aim for the commercial marketplace without actually hitting the mark. The Cherry Thing is more successful artistically, but commercially, it's doubtful that the mass-ass audience is any more ready for this sort of thing in 2012 than it was in 1976. (I would, of course, be delighted to be wrong about that.)

Cherry and Co. save their best for last. A crushing cover of the Stooges' Funhouse nugget "Dirt" shows just how sexy Ig 'n' those dum-dum boys really were, as much for the interplay between Dave Alexander and Scott Asheton's bass 'n' drums as for anything the little singer was doing. And come solo time, The Thing takes it to the stratosphere for a taste of the "energy freakout free-form" the Stooges got into on "L.A. Blues." The aforementioned "What Reason Could I Give" ends the proceedings on a gentle, lyrical note, with Gustafsson once again channeling Ben Webster, a closing solo from Flaten that recalls Charlie Haden's deep song, and an aching acapella coda from Cherry that'll rend your heart with its unadorned beauty. Overall, a stunning surprise.


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