Don Cherry’s Spiritual Jazz Masterpiece: Brown Rice


Today is Don Cherry‘s birthday. He would have been 79 years old. To celebrate the inimitable jazz explorer’s life, I’m sharing my favorite album of his.

Here’s Brown Rice streaming in full. It’s one of the most warmly engaging releases of the entire free jazz universe and, as such, is a great entry point for those who have yet to experience the furthest reaches of the genre.

While many people not-incorrectly associate free jazz with confrontational, abrasive music, the notion only reveals a sliver of the big picture. It’s an umbrella term that eventually encompassed everything from John Coltrane’s latter experiments in dissonance and noise to the devotional new age purr of his widow, Alice Coltrane, in the late 70s and early 80s. Cherry’s work, at various times, covers the entire spectrum. His Eternal Rhythm was a fiery gauntlet thrown down in the wake of Coltrane’s passing, carving raucous jams into thought sculptures that are still picked apart today. This album, however, floats somewhere in the interstellar in-between.

Right from the opening notes of that space age electric piano, the album goes out of its way to pull the listener into its world. Even when floating off the surface, exploring its own textures in a meandering, introspective passage at the heart of the album, the sound is compulsively engaging.

There’s a definite Eastern tinge to the whole affair, a nod toward the alien-to-American tones that were infiltrating many forward looking jazz releases of the day. It’s used more as texture than anything, lending an otherness to the lightly funky album. Cherry’s pocket trumpet is the star, of course, erupting in crystalline crescendos against both the tightly coiled opening and closing tracks, and the atmospheric soundscapes filling out the middle of the set. The similarity of his tone to peak-era Miles Davis was what initially attracted me to the artist, but here he makes the spacey vanguard all his own. Once you’ve heard this album, you’ll never associate the sound with anyone else.

The album has unfortunately never been properly reissued or remastered for vinyl, but you can pick up the “jazz heritage” CD edition from 1989 for very cheap, like I did. It’s a perfectly adequate mastering and the only way to properly enjoy the album at the moment. I’ve got my eyes to the horizon, though, vigilant for a nice vinyl edition. With a smattering of his work being reissued in the past couple years, it’s a definite possibility.

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