I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Organics: The Cherry Family

by Robert Ham
Jan. 31, 2016

Don Cherry's stepchildren likely didn't need to take his last name as their own. Nor did his son David Ornette Cherry need to emphasize his surname on the covers of his many albums by highlighting it in red. But there's a connection there that they obviously feel to their father/stepfather. Something that runs much deeper than—in the case of stepchildren Neneh and Eagle Eye—wanting to relate their musical efforts to the deep, deep artistic legacy of Don. There's an obvious amount of love and respect for Don that thrives still today. For example, on David's recently released album Eternal Monologue, one of the centerpieces of the disc is the song "Groove For My Father." When I spoke to David about it for a piece I wrote on him for Willamette Week, he said that he was inspired to write it when he was visiting his father's old hometown of Los Angeles.

"I just pulled in to L.A. and was staying with my aunt. I was looking at photos of my dad that she had, because that was her brother. Then I went to the Watts Towers, which were built from 1921 until...I think he finished it in 30 years. My father grew up watching them get built. It was a landmark for me when I grew up there, a very powerful place for me spiritually. So, I was hanging out at the towers and I started thinking about my father and immediately went home and wrote that piece."

The four-and-half-minute track that David wrote isn't a moody one, mind you. It sticks to a simple Indian-style beat over which David plays some melodies on two of the instruments that his father loved to play other than the pocket trumpet: the flute and the doussin gouni, an guitar-like instrument from Africa made out of a gourd. The song is light, bouncy, and spirited; a fitting tribute to someone as spirited and fearless in his music as Don was. As David told me, "I can hear [my dad] playing trumpet over this thing."

And listening to it after watching Don and his group (Don on trumpet and doussin ghouni, Nana Vasconcelos on percussion, Giampiero Pramagione on guitar, and Don's wife Moki singing and playing tamboura) perform for Italian television in 1976, it occurred to me that if the band onscreen were to break into a rendition of "Groove", the transition wouldn't be jarring in the least. They both feel as organic as the other, even though David's track was recorded in the most inorganic way possible: with all the tracks, including a programmed rhythm, going into his laptop.

In fact, listening to the musical work of all of Don's children and grandchildren, it's incredible to me how organic it all feels. Even at its most technologically-driven (the majority of Neneh's tracks), they flow so naturally that it would hardly be a surprise to learn that they knocked the songs out with a pickup band during an evening in the studio.

That same spirit infuses the work of Don and company quite literally under the "Organic Music" banner. These songs, even in their studio guises (many of these tracks were recorded for the 1972 album Organic Music Society), flow so naturally that it's hard to imagine that they were conceived ahead of time.

I liken it to my days as a churchgoer, when the worship band would introduce a new song into the mix. One quick run through a verse and chorus, and the whole congregation was set and was singing along in no time. That's what these songs feel like. You watch one of the players start singing a wordless chant, and quickly each member of the group picks up on the thread and starts singing along. Anyone in the room with them likely would have as well.

For this writer, the key moment in this recording comes right at the end. For the long, Latin-flavored song that closes the show, Don's stepchildren Eagle Eye and Neneh show up, both taking up percussion instruments and then joining in the chant with the rest of the band. Neneh, all of 12 at the time, looks slightly self-conscious at the idea of all that is going on around her. But Eagle Eye takes to the scene and song with pure abandon. Like any five-year-old, he's in love with making noise.

Watching it, you can see, again, why they both went into music when they got older. Who wouldn't be inspired by the playful, child-like attitude that came with the creation of art that surrounded them all? That's the stuff that infects you for life and leaves you feeling absolutely free to try your hand at just about anything. And from what we've all heard from sounds that Neneh, Eagle Eye, David, and even their other sibling Tityo have created in the years since this '76 performance, its obvious that organic spirit has never left them.  

Robert Ham is a writer based in Portland, OR where he's a regular contributor to Willamette Week and The Oregonian. You can also read his work in Alternative Press and self-titled magazine. He likes black-capped chickadees and Chinese noodles.