24 August 2009

Don Cherry’s Multikulti
Don Cherry's Multikulti  (1991)
1991 / Germany / color / 57min approx.
DVD from Kultur / NTSC / all regions

Don Cherry (1936-1995) was an incredible jazz innovator, working with Ornette Coleman early on in defining ‘free jazz’ and forever exploding the envelope in which the genre had been contained. They were not alone in this noble pursuit, of course – but they were among the first. After working with Ornette regularly, off-again and on-again, Cherry continued to erase genre boundaries with his music – and in doing so helped break down the walls of fear and ignorance that rise up between cultures across the globe, illustrating through his work that music and art are universal languages, wielding immense power to touch common ground and intertwine hearts and souls. Multikulti is the name he gave the band / project under which he was operating when this incredible concert document was filmed, in Germany before an enthusiastic audience, in 1991, just 3½ years before his untimely death at the age of 58.

Cherry was known mainly as a trumpet player – specifically the pocket trumpet, usually relegated to the ‘practice instrument’ category until he brought it to the fore as a serious solo instrument – but he was a true multi-instrumentalist, a natural-born seeker drawn to make music on whatever fell into his reach. In this appearance, he performs on trumpet, pocket trumpet, keyboard, melodica, flute, various percussive devices and the doussin gouni, a type of folk-harp from western Africa (particularly Mali), similar to the kora – and he also sings, sometimes using words, others in a wordless manner that nevertheless conveys great emotion and evokes wondrous images. He is joined here by three other amazing musicians – Peter Apfelbaum (piano, keyboards, tenor saxophone, flute); Bo Freeman (electric bass, percussion); and Joshua Jones (drums, percussion).

There are no compositional credits in the DVD package, but from comments made by Cherry during the performance, it’s clear that Apfelbaum wrote both ‘Walk to the mountain’ and ‘When the rain comes’; ‘Rhumba Multikulti’ and ‘Trans love airways’ are either Cherry compositions or co-compositions; and ‘Bemsha swing’ is one of Thelonious Monk’s best-known works. In the case of ‘Bemsha’, it’s enthralling to watch Cherry and his bandmates take Monk’s tune, break it down and re-set it, filtering it through their own musical personalities, much the way Monk would do when he assayed standards or even lesser-known compositions by others.

For that matter, the whole concert enthralled me – Cherry calls the shots, but everyone in the band makes meaningful and thoughtful contributions to the process, and the results are wonderful. Apfelbaum and Cherry switch between various instruments almost seamlessly, and are unselfconsciously adept at all of them. Freeman and Jones execute hard-driving funk, rhythms that approach reggae in their stagger-step beats, and passages drawn with delicate, fragile beauty – all with a natural skill and ease that belie the depths of their abilities and concentration. The introduction to ‘Bemsha swing’ is unrecognizable as a Monk melody – but as soon as familiar piano comps and later sax lines flow, the audience picks up on the tune and responds audibly, bringing a beaming smile and a nod from Cherry. Later in the tune, with Apfelbaum moving to tenor saxophone, Cherry strolls over to the piano and eases into the arrangement. And lest anyone think he’s tinkering when he addresses the keyboard, let them witness his work on this piece – if you watch carefully, you can even see him gently adopt some of Monk’s trademark splayed-fingers keyboard attack.

The sound quality is first-rate throughout – no fancy 5.1 surround sound here, just crystal-clear two-channel stereo accompanied by fine multi-camera video work. The director (Ulli Pfau) and her crew are sensitive to their subjects and the music they’re creating, much to the benefit of the home viewing audience – the camera angles and choices of view are thoughtfully chosen and very much in tune with the pieces being performed.

This is a great video for anyone who loves jazz or world music – the two meet here in respect and mutual admiration. Cherry and crew illustrate that they are cultural chefs, cooking up a stew that is built on innumerable ingredients brought together tastefully to nourish the mind, heart and spirit of the listener – and it’s easy to see that the players are having a wonderful time as well. It’s infectious. The DVD is readily available through the usual sources – Amazon, CD Universe, Mosaic, &c – at reasonable prices (easy to find new copies for under $20) – check it out.