Neneh Cherry and the Thing – The Cherry Thing

Aggro-jazz has always had affinities with punk, from its outsider status and wall-rattling intensity to its gatecrashing aesthetic principles, which aim at expanding sonic possibilities and, to varying degrees, offer some social critique. Neneh Cherry’s career was born at a fusion point between the two, performing with groups like Rip, Rig and Panic in the magical early 1980s – a period that also saw Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic gospel being spread through post-punk brand names like Rough Trade, whose roster included guitarist James Blood Ulmer.

Of course, the singer’s surname ties it all together: She’s the stepdaughter of Don Cherry, the pocket trumpeter in Coleman’s classic quartet, and later a peripatetic emissary for – excuse my French – world music. Way back when, Don happened to record a tune called “The Thing,” which decades later would inspire the Norwegian-Swedish trio of Mats Gustafsson (saxophones), Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (double bass), and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) to form The Thing. The group made 10 albums before this that you probably never heard of, and while the hearty Gustafsson can circulate his breath for as long as Kenny G., this collaboration may actually get him on the same radar. Miss Cherry, after all, was a genuine pop star at the end of the 1980s – thanks to the hit single “Buffalo Stance” and her rhapsodically soulful 1989 debut Raw Like Sushi.

For the most part, the players keep things spare, smoky and noirish, creating mysterious backdrops with plenty of languorous slink and lustrously woody bass textures, with occasional electronic distortions for dramatic effect. Cherry really digs in on the songbook, a batch of sometimes radically retooled songs from both sides of the fence: Coleman’s gorgeous and tortured “What Reason” and Don Cherry’s “Golden Heart,” alongside iconic statements like Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” (breathless entrancement) and The Stooges “Dirt” (which the band exploits for every speck of its punk S&M pedigree, slowing it down even more than the original’s dino-stomp tempo). The effect can be uncanny: A recontextualization of the source that offers a new idea about lyrics and structure, while evoking a familiar vibe. At best, the chemistry sparks revelation. Cherry’s cover of MF Doom’s “Accordion” is one of the songs of the year, bringing womanly curves to bear on the original’s minimalist hip-hop, turning matter-of-fact delivery into sexy poetic verse, rich with insinuation. Makes you wonder how the world would have been different if Betty Carter jammed with Albert Ayler. Spellbinding.

Neneh Cherry and The Thing
The Cherry Thing
[Smalltown Supersound]