Some collaborations almost seem destined to happen. This is true of The Cherry Thing, which pairs singer Neneh Cherry with Scandinavian free jazz trio the Thing. The singer’s stepfather, legendary cornetist Don Cherry, stood alongside Ornette Coleman at the very birth of free jazz, and it was his music that first brought the Thing together. So more than a decade after filling their debut album with his compositions, it seems natural that the trio should join forces with the stepdaughter of their idol.
But things aren’t quite so simple. Although jazz is a birthright for Cherry, it isn’t a style that she has often explored. From her spells with female punk band the Slits and post-punk outfit Rip Rig + Panic, to her role in Ray Petri’s Buffalo collective and her hip-hop imbued solo hit “Buffalo Stance,” all Cherry’s projects have been innovative. However, with the exception of Rip Rig + Panic, none have made sustained use of the jazz idiom. By contrast, the Thing are jazzmen through and through. But since they too have been known to stray from the genre, reinterpreting songs by artists like the White Stripes and PJ Harvey, Cherry and the Thing can find common ground outside jazz: six of The Cherry Thing’s eight tracks are covers, and only two of these are recognized jazz tunes.
Although the songs themselves are hardly typical jazz fare, they are approached with a disregard for structure and convention that is worthy of Cherry’s free-blowing stepfather and frequently demonstrates the synergy between band and singer. Together they replace the undertone of nightmarish futility on Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” with sincere and energetic optimism: Cherry’s chants of “keep those dreams burning,” purged of Alan Vega’s sinister irony, encourage Mats Gustafsson’s horns towards the track’s feverish, polyphonic crescendo. Their take on Madvillain’s “Accordion” is similarly liberal. Stripping back the plush soundscape of the Madlib-produced original, skeletal basslines and sax hooks anchor Cherry’s vocals as she scatters badass sound poetry around Doom’s wonderfully thorny verses. “Dirt” is a lumbering, muscular affair that goes toe-to-toe with the Stooges, while the closing track, a rendering of Coleman’s “What Reason,” demonstrates that the collaboration can sound soft and moving as well as brash and abrasive.
Sometimes, however, the connection between the two acts breaks down: Gustafsson’s hacksawing melodies on Martina Topley-Bird’s “Too Tough To Die” sit awkwardly with Cherry’s more shapely vocals, and Paal Nilssen-Love’s technical, polyrhythmic drumming on Don Cherry’s “Golden Heart” sometimes leaves the singer at a loss. This disconnect is clearer still in the two opposed poles of the album’s second original, “Sudden Movement.” The track begins with a simple vocal line from Cherry that lures Gustafsson’s sax into a duet and traps the Thing inside something resembling a 1940s show tune. But the trio’s chaotic, structure-breaking tendencies soon reassert themselves, and the band disappear down an experimental rabbit hole into which Cherry simply cannot follow. The track then becomes a tug-of-war where each collaborator pulls the other out of their favoured musical territory, and the two never quite gel.
To some degree, disharmony separates Cherry from the Thing throughout the record, but it would be wrong to call this a fault. The Cherry Thing is neither the smoothest nor the most polished of collaborations – but then it never tries to be. Cherry describes the record as an attempt to deal with legacy of her stepfather, and in this it clearly succeeds. The album is a challenge that forces both collaborators beyond their comfort zones. At times the results might sound strained, but they are entirely consistent both with the principles of free jazz, from which the record emerges, and with the spirit of Don Cherry, towards which it returns.
Review by Matthew Ellis