Listening to Cherryâ€™s three earlier CDs (the last of which was released back in 1996, and only as a U.S. import), Iâ€™m struck by the consistent quality of her work â€“ which invariably leads to reflections on her rather haphazard career and relatively invisibility in the North American market. Â Some of this is circumstance, as she is Afro-Swedish and divides her time between the UK and Sweden, having lived in New York for only a brief time (before being robbed at gunpoint and promptly moving back to Europe). Cherryâ€™s interests are also much too broad to be defined by a popstar career â€“ she has been a frequent collaborator on an extremely diverse number of musical projects and has even co-hosted a BBC cooking show. Above all, one senses that she is not someone who is amenable to being managed. In interviews, she has spoken out against the tacky over-sexualisation of women in and by the music industry and she also admits that in the late 1990s, after the release of her third CD, she deliberately turned her back on the star machinery, deciding that she didnâ€™t want to get on that â€śtreadmill.â€ť So she basically does what she wants to do, without regard for commercial success.
This new release with Swedish punk/jazz/rock trio The Thing is a wonderful illustration of Cherryâ€™s fearlessness and versatility. The Thing is led by noise jazz/rock saxophonist Mats Gustaffson, whose trio was ironically inspired by the adventurous free jazz of cornetist Don Cherry, Nenehâ€™s stepfather. (Even the trioâ€™s name was purportedly taken from a 1966 Don Cherry composition.) As an instrumental trio, The Thing tends toward the heavier end of the jazz/rock spectrum, with Gustaffson, in particular, bludgeoning listeners into submission with his creative interpretations of free jazz saxophone pioneers such as Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Sanders. But Cherryâ€™s presence leavens the trioâ€™s blunt force aggression, encouraging Gustaffson, along with Ingebrigt Haker Flaten on acoustic and electric bass and the incomparable Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, to moderate their attack, which provides some pieces on the CD with an understated, sinister edge and brings a touch of lyricism to others. As for Cherry, those who know of her musical relationship with her stepfather, her early work with post-punk group Rip Rig and Panic and her numerous collaborations with a wide variety of musicians will not be surprised as her ability to navigate jazz, punk, rock and all the spaces in between. She is â€śupâ€ť in the mix throughout the CD and she has the impressive ability to insinuate herself into a lyric rather than conquering it with brute force. In that respect (among others), she and The Thing are perfect foils for each other.
The CD begins with Cashback, a punkish pop tune authored by Cherry, which opens with Flatenâ€™s solid bass groove, over which Cherry sings the first verse before drums and sax jump on the chorus. Gustaffson takes one of his customarily raging solos, but itâ€™s quite economical and soon leads back into the chorus before Gustaffson begins improvising against a multi-tracked riff which takes the song out. The next piece, a cover of Suicideâ€™s Dream Baby Dream, is one of the highlights of the CD, capturing a poignant mixture of hope, defiance and doubt. Gustaffsonâ€™s basic sax riff replaces Martin Revâ€™s original Farsifa organ, giving the piece a strange, loping quality which suggests African township jazz. The intensity builds as the piece progresses, with some effective use of electronics and overdubbed/looped counterpoint, Gustaffsonâ€™s impassioned cries on sax are matched by an almost desperate pleading from Cherry, until everything slowly fades into a wistful, tentative oblivion. This might even be a case of a cover outdoing an original â€“ itâ€™s a jaw-dropping interpretation, in any event.
Elsewhere, Cherry renders Martina Topley-Birdâ€™s Too Tough to Die, rapper MF Doomâ€™s Accordion and the Stooges Dirt, all with praiseworthy panache and conviction, pushed and supported by the collective force of the trio. No mere pop confections here â€“ this is music played and sung as if it mattered. Instrumentally, Gustaffson always commands attention, but itâ€™s quite marvellous how Cherry can match him in intensity â€“ and how Flaten and Nilssen-Love provide the perfect, rock-oriented rhythmic base. (Thereâ€™s probably no one playing today who can bridge the gap between rock, funk and jazz drumming as well as Nilssen-Love.) The power of these tracks, with Gustaffsonâ€™s honking baritone sax often front and center, sometimes bears an uncanny resemblance to Morphine at its best, particularly on Dirt.
The three other pieces on the CD — one by Don Cherry, one by Ornette Coleman and one by Gustaffson â€“ explore the groupâ€™s jazzier side and provide a nice balance to the attitude of the punk and hip hop elements. Gustaffsonâ€™s very Coltranish Sudden Moment has Cherry and Gustaffson delivering the melody line in unison before Gustaffson follows with typically impassioned, knotty solo, while stepfather Don Cherryâ€™s Golden Heart has a slinky, modal chord progression and an ethereal vocal from Neneh. The closing Coleman piece, What Reason, is surprisingly tender and lyrical, displaying yet another dimension of The Cherry Thing.