Don Cherry is about as vital a figure as there is to find in the world of free jazz. He was the man on an endless string of classic Ornette Coleman records — The Shape of Jazz to Come, Twins, so on and so forth — and then played on Coleman’s later greats like 1971’s Science Fiction and Broken Shadows. He also made his name as a frontman, releasing The Avante-Garde, his collaboration with John Coltrane, Complete Communion and other great albums.
But Cherry, like so many jazz greats, got even more exploratory as he aged, and 1972’s Organic Music Society is as far out there as Cherry ever got. It’s available now for the first time on CD, and it’s a fascinating, sprawling mess of a record to dig back into. It both shows the extent to which he spread out here — in fact, you’d be hard pressed to call what’s on this record jazz — and the reach of his influence. The album was recorded with Swedish musicians while Cherry was living in Sweden with wife Moki Karlsson. Cherry lived and played there a long while, and his influence is deep in Swedish jazz circles, but Organic Music Society also reaches beyond that to African, Turkish, and Brazilian instrumentation, Indian religion and philosophy, and even back to American jazz.
The way in which the album was recorded reflects Cherry’s wandering ear. Only two tracks were recorded in proper studio settings, while the rest were recorded in different live settings. The collaborations here also check in from all over the map, from Cherry’s work with composer Terry Riley — two versions of Riley’s “Terry’s Tune” appear here — to percussion from Turkish musician Okay Temiz to Brazilian berimbau player Nana Vasconcelos.
With so many different players and parts, the one true charm of Organic Music Society is its loose unpredictability. The album’s title suggests the commune-like settings in which the album was made, and Cherry and his cohort indeed explore deeply here with no eye for a conclusion, no eye for an answer. Long vocal opener “North Brazilian Ceremonial Hymn”, with its slow, shuffling hand percussion and group singing sounds like an incantation, like a group of like-minded wanderers syncing up to go on a quest. From there, “Elixer”, which finds Cherry playing everything from his signature trumpet to harmonium and flute, explodes into a much more fiery sound. Over Bengt Berger’s chaotic drumming, harmonium surges quietly, but it’s those quick-run bleats of trumpet that bring the movement to life. “Relativity Suite”, played here in two parts, is the anchor of the record, and finds the drifting noise of the early tracks to something a bit more thumping. Christer Bothen plays the doson n’goni, an African hunter’s harp, and along with deeper percussion and Cherry’s improvised vocals, you can hear the influence of African music coming through here. You also get a feel for Cherry’s wide-open philosophical leanings — “there must be a fourth way to flow with time,” he muses at one point. “This is the organic way.” — and how they mesh with his equally borderless music.
The album runs 80 full minutes, but for all its exploration, the most exciting stuff here draws a clear line back to his free-bop days. “Hope” is a sprawling 10 minutes, but the clanging keys and horns sound more approachable without sacrificing inventiveness. Cherry’s take on Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan” is another stand-out, a piano-led romp through the mind of another spirituality-minded jazz pioneer. The two versions of “Terry’s Tune”, though very different, draw similar lines, running down Cherry’s new spiritual rabbit holes while still showing us his classic knack for unruly vamps and meshing smooth instrumentation with raucous percussion.
That mix, of the serene air of horns and the frenetic energy of drums, informs much of Organic Music Society in that it represents a duality of the spiritual journey — the goal of calm beset on all sides by the irrepressible zeal to find that goal. Like so many explorations into personal philosophy and spirituality, though, Organic Music Society ends up feeling insular. These players created their own world in which to make this music and, beautiful as it can be, it is also often impenetrable. Any connections made in the improvised vocals that fill up the record are evident only to the speaker, Cherry, so we’re left to scramble and find something in his half-realized thoughts. The music too does seem to have a clear path for the players, but leaves few breadcrumbs for us to follow behind, so while you’ll be taken by a drum fill here or a squall of noise there, the album isn’t likely to stick with you as an experience. There’s a lot to admire about Organic Music Society and its Multi-Kulti approach to music (jazz and otherwise), but that doesn’t mean you’ll know what to make of it all.