[20 June 2012]
Neneh Cherry is a rare thing in popular music.
A woman who has appeared, from the outside at least, to control her own destiny and ploughed her own path whilst coming from a wildly eclectic and creative family. Mother Moki is a painter and textile artist, younger brother Eagle-Eye is a musician (Save Tomorrow is a brilliant record), stepsister Jan is a violinist, and stepbrother David Ornette Cherry is (and if you can’t guess what, with a name like that, there is no hope for you!) a jazz musician. Add in daughter Naima, a photographer, and stepson Marlon, from her marriage to music producer Cameron McVey, who fronts Mattafix, and here is a family seriously engaged with artistic endeavour.
But above all this looms the presence of Neneh’s own stepfather, the legendary jazz musician Don Cherry from whom Neneh took her name. Born in Sweden, the family moved to England, then New York before Neneh, at the age of 14, moved back to London. During this peripatetic period, Neneh would be exposed to a whole slew of incredible jazz musicians who would come by and jam with her stepdad; Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, Hamid Drake were just a few she met. Now back in London, Neneh fell into the company of Tessa Pollitt of the Slits. This friendship would eventually lead to Neneh joining the post-punk free-jazz group Rip Rig + Panic which provides a clue to how her musical journey would eventually lead to the collaboration with the Thing.
First though, Neneh would become recognised as one of the foremost female artists of her generation, namely through the release of “Buffalo Stance” and then her trip-hop work with Massive Attack and the monster “7 Seconds” a collaboration with Youssou N’Dour.
After a period with CirKus, a family affair featuring Neneh, Cameron and daughter Tyson, she moved back to her homeland of Sweden and it is here that Neneh has completed her circle with the release of The Cherry Thing.
The Thing (one Swede and two Norwegians) formed in Sweden and are a free jazz trio, named after a Don Cherry track, and who openly state the influence of the great man on their music. Made up of Mats Gustafsson (sax), Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (double bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums), the Thing have attracted rave reviews not only for their skill and improvisation with jazz songs, but for their interpretations of popular music from the likes of the White Strips, PJ Harvey and collaborations with musicians like Thurston Moore. Such is the dovetailing and connections of both Neneh and the Thing, it is hard to believe that this collaboration isn’t some sort of contrived marriage of convenience engineered by a scheming music exec.
The fact is, it is simply one of life’s great comings together. You can feel the connection between the singer and the musicians in the music—a selection of covers by bands as diverse as Suicide, the Stooges, MF Doom, Ornette Coleman and of course Don Cherry himself—each discordant sound (and I include the vocals here), sometimes crashing off each other as in the Stooges “Dirt” other times in such glorious harmony it takes your breath away as with MF Doom’s “Accordian”.
The album opens with Flaten’s thumping double bass (a definite sample in waiting) on the Cherry written “Cashback” in which her vocal delivery is stunning, a controlled anger which owes more to punk than jazz, over which come the thrashing drums and the wailing sax. I’m completely thrown, my musical reference points all over the place. This is followed by an eight-minute reworking of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”, which replaces the synths with sax and is rendered as a smoky Billie Holiday jazz number. Cherry’s vocals brings such a warmth when compared to Vega’s almost clinical reading of the original. This is an inspired song choice and I can imagine it being played in clubs and bars of all musical persuasions. Simply awesome.
“Too Tough to Die” is arguably the albums most straightforward song inso much as it sounds like a collaboration between a trip-hop artist (it’s written by Martina Topley-Bird) and a jazz band. With the drums and double bass holding a steady rhythm against a trip-hop vocal delivery, albeit with some sort of amazing flutter type singing thing going on, against the off kilter, aggressive sax of Gustafsson.
Gustafsson’s own composition, “Sudden Moment” clearly belongs in contemporary jazz circles, the playing, free form but cohesive is supported by Cherry’s vocals which sit on top of, rather than within, the music as he cuts loose with a sax solo.
MF Doom’s “Accordion” is a threatening brooding, creepy film nourish interpretation, with Cherry’s vocals leaving the listener hoping he or she doesn’t meet her in a dark alley, there is no doubt who would come off worse.
Neneh’s reading of Don Cherry’s “Golden Heart” is flecked with middle eastern sounds and a hidden, almost distorted vocal performance before the refrain “Golden heart / Golden heart / Golden heart” is repeated at the end of the song and her voice sounds happy, like Minnie Ripperton. Is this some sort of catharsis for her?
The Stooges “Dirt” brings the ambience right back low and dirty. From the vocal delivery to the dirty dirty sound of the sax, this is sex, not sax, jazz and you can imagine Iggy being very happy with this scenario.
The Cherry Thing is a marvellous album. This is not some sort of vanity project or nostalgia trip. Neneh Cherry remains a vital presence in popular music judging by this release. Going back to those early days of Rip Rig + Panic and the years of living with, and listening to, her step dad and his mates (what a collection of mates!) is now paying dividends with this collaboration with the majestic, innovative and forward thinking The Thing who it is hoped many more people will now go and seek out.
Some things are meant to be. This is one of them. This is vital. This ain’t no Buffalo Stance!