There is a nice circularity in nu-soul diva Neneh Cherry making an album with Norwegian/Swedish free jazz trio, The Thing.

Neneh is the daughter of Don Cherry, the jazz pocket-trumpeter who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ornette Coleman in the pioneering days of Free Jazz in the 1960s. The Thing named themselves after a Don Cherry composition. (And in case you are ever asked the question in Free Jazz Trivia: The group are the only free jazz ensemble working today who wear stage uniforms; they perform clad in t-shirts from Ruby’s Barbecue Restaurant in Austin, Texas.)

Also, Neneh Cherry was born in Sweden and The Thing have long associations with the US (their bassist lives in Austin, Texas).

Both Cherry and The Thing bring a wide-ranging set of influences to their collaborative recording, The Cherry Thing. Cherry (best known for her 1989 genre-scaring hit album Raw Like Sushi) is at home with anything, it seems, re-shaping it to her liquid flow phrasing – very Jazz in its own way. Check out her re-animation of Iggy Pop & The Stooges’ ‘Dirt’ – she slithers and stabs along the full length of the ominous riff beneath her voice.

The Thing – Mats Gustafsson (saxophones), Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (double bass), and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) – are a real band: a triple-headed noise generator that rises and falls with Cherry’s ululations and hisses. The sparse instrumentation works entirely in their favour – the moods go from jazz-cool to unhinged skronk and back again, The Thing breathing organically like the beast it is.

Their version of the Madvillain/MF Doom cover, ‘Accordian’, shows exactly this turn-on-a-dime dynamic – the intro is Cherry chopping up the phrasing over double bass; long horn tones soon threaten from afar; soon the build is hitting its top with voice and phrases and rhythms criss-crossing and bouncing off each other. The excitement really flies right out of the speakers because this music is organically made – like anything good in Jazz, it happens for the performers at the same time it happens for we listeners – and is all the fresher for it.

But it is not all freak-out. There are performances of great beauty – the stately ‘Dream Baby Dream’ (originally from NYC noise-punks Suicide) – has echoes of 50s doo-wop nostalgia under its dense harmonies. ‘Golden Heart’ – a rethink of one of Cherry’s father Don’s composition – mesmerises on a minimal repeated theme that grows and dies and grows and dies. Quite a trip.

But it is the rockers that got to me. The Thing are known for their wild, almost punk-energy shows and the version here of Martina Topley-Bird’s ‘Too Tough To Die’ rattles along on a hard-as-nails backbeat. And I have already mentioned The Stooges ‘Dirt’ – but it is so good it deserves a second mention.

The Cherry Thing concludes beautifully (and continues the circularity of it all) with one of the few vocal pieces Don Cherry’s Free Jazz comrade Ornette Coleman ever wrote – the achingly lovely space-blues ‘What Reason Could I Give?’ Neneh Cherry’s resigned but spirited vocal delivery is the essence of jazz singing – patina’d with the brown-blue-black skin of the blues just like Ornette meant it.

Neneh Cherry’s website is here. The Thing’s website is here.

Smalltown Superjazzz’s website is here.

Published July 2012 on theorangepress.net and August 2102 on jazzandbeyond.com.au

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