Memories of Don Cherry and Nu in Birmingham

Mark Helias has been putting out on Bandcamp a number of excellent recordings from his archive of live sessions, one with Dewey Redman, another with the BassDrumBone trio with Ray Anderson and Gerry Hemingway, and an album with his Open Loose Group with Tony Malaby and Tom Rainey. He also has put out sessions with Tim Berne and Jane Ira Bloom recorded recently. This month he has brought out a live recording with Don Cherry’s group Nu that undertook a 16 date tour of the UK in October 1987 under the auspices of the Contemporary Music Network (CMN). The recording was of the Glasgow concert in the Henry Wood Hall which was the final date of the tour, which included four dates in Scotland. The first date in Scotland was in Aberdeen, the day after the dates in England finished in Southampton. A crazy itinerary! In his notes Mark states that it was a 12-date tour, but a quick internet search suggests it was 16 dates.

The recording has its incompletions at the beginning and the end, but it’s definitely worth putting out. It’s wonderful to hear the recording as it brings back so many memories. Birmingham Jazz, of which I was Chair at the time, presented the concert in the Adrian Boult Hall, the main concert hall in the former building of the Birmingham Conservatoire in the city centre. Birmingham Jazz had been using The Triangle at Aston University, but that had closed, so it was something of an experiment to be using what was a more formal venue than the previous venues used by the society. It went well, the acoustics of the hall proved excellent for the style of music, a good crowd attended, the hall with a good crowd in proved much less formal than it appeared with nobody in, and it was a great and memorable gig. What was special was the mix of jazz with African and Brazilian elements.

The ABH continued to be a key venue for Birmingham Jazz for many years, and it is worth mentioning that I was told by the former Vice-Principal that the success of the concerts there encouraged the Conservatoire to set up its jazz course.

That concert took place early in the tour, the fourth to be precise. The line up was Don Cherry on pocket trumpet and the dousson gouni, the Malian guitar, Carlos Ward on alto saxophone and flute, Mark Helias on double bass and Nana Vasconcelos on drums and percussion. Drummer Ed Blackwell was also a member of the group, but illness prevented him from joining the early dates on the tour. He had joined by the dates in Scotland.

Listening to the recording of the Glasgow brings back many memories. The pattern of the gig is very similar to what I remember of the Birmingham gig. Although it was clearly Don Cherry’s group as he called the tunes and made the announcements, musically it was very much a collaborative group with a lot of interaction and spontaneity. Don Cherry took quite long solos on the pocket trumpet and featured the dousson gouni on one piece; Carlos Ward played deeply satisfying solos full of passion and invention, and also provided several of the compositions played; Mark Helias was the anchor of the group, particularly so in the absence of Blackwell. The main difference between the Glasgow concert and what I remember of the Birmingham concert (33 years ago!) is that, with Blackwell missing, we had a lot more of Nana Vasconcelos who fulfilled the drum role, but also demonstrated a lot more of his amazing Brazilian percussion techniques than come on the Glasgow recording. However, it’s clear that we missed something by not having Ed Blackwell in the group as he combines so well with Nana Vasconcelos.

The repertoire on the Glasgow recording is, I think, similar to that played in Birmingham. There is a great spirit to the whole gig, everyone contributes tunes to the set, and Don Cherry comes across as full of joy and enthusiasm in his announcements. All this also comes in what I remember of the Birmingham gig.

It was wonderful for the Birmingham audience to hear one of the giants of contemporary jazz playing at his best in an excellent group, and for the the Birmingham Jazz committee members to meet and chat to to Don and the rest of the group. One small trivial memory is that Don spilled a cup of coffee in the dressing room leaving a stain on the carpet. I used to like to visit that dressing room and see the stain as it always reminded me of the gig and the whole event. The recording of the Glasgow concert, however, provides a much more concrete reminder!

You can download the recording here.

A final point: the Contemporary Music Network (CMN) was a department of the Arts Council that ran up to twelve tours a year from 1971 up to the early 2000s. Founded by Annette Morreau, it always had a good sense of what was important and developing in the various strands of contemporary music including contemporary jazz and electronica, and played an important role in enabling audiences round the country to hear that music. It is missed!

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