Picks and Pans Review: Art Deco

UPDATED 01/22/1990 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/22/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

Don Cherry

This straight-ahead jazz session is a curious departure for trumpeter Don Cherry. A leader of the free jazz revolution three decades ago, Cherry in recent years has been a globe-trotting musical adventurer and pied piper. He has jammed on his high-pitched pocket trumpet with native musicians in Morocco, India, Mali and Eastern Europe, meanwhile learning to play such exotic instruments as the dousson'gouni (a Malinese stringed instrument) and the Mayan bird flute. More recently he has gained indirect fame as the stepfather of R&B singer Neneh Cherry.

But for his first American label album since 1975, Cherry travels back in time and reexamines his traditional jazz roots.

Art Deco is a return to the days when chrome-laden cars sprouted fins and Central Avenue in Los Angeles was a happening place for jazz. The title track, a Cherry original, has the breezy feel of much of the bebop he heard on the avenue as a teenager. By contrast "When Will the Blues Leave" and "The Blessing," both penned by saxophonist Ornette Coleman in the mid-'50s, recall the early rebellion against bop's conventional chord progressions. At a time when Coleman was hooted off bandstands, Cherry became his leading apostle, helping create a new form of improvisation that shifted the basis of solos from the harmony to the melody.

Bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins, who were with Cherry in the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, provide congenial rhythmic support here as well. What makes this record memorable, however, is the presence of James Clay. Once hailed by many on Central Avenue as the next great tenor saxophonist, he revealed his potential on a classic 1956 recording by the Lawrence Marable Quartet, Tenormin (Blue Note reissues). But he soon returned home to Dallas and obscurity. Coaxed out of semiretirement for Art Deco, Clay is featured in a memorable version of "Body and Soul."

Part jazz noir, part shameless nostalgia trip, Art Deco lacks the urgency Cherry's music has displayed in the past. But Cherry's childlike sense of wonder remains very much in evidence, and his occasional flashes of brilliance suggest he still has a major role to play in creating the shape of jazz to come. (A&M)

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