ALBUM REVIEW: Neneh Cherry & The Thing – The Cherry Thing

Written for the 405

It’s only taken her, what, twenty-some years? But Neneh Cherry has finally come full circle. After some wilderness years after a career that included eighties pop classic Raw Like Sushi, several number one singles, and bankrolling the likes of Massive Attack, the singer has returned again to the jazz music of her stepfather Don Cherry. In fact, we’ve got some overlapping circles, too: her co-conspirators on The Cherry Thing, improvisational trio The Thing, are named after a composition of Mr Cherry’s.

Disclaimer: My Dad is really into jazz. Perhaps not as much as he is into prog rock (shudder), but, it left a couple of indelible marks on me growing up. One is that I do have something of an understanding as to how jazz music works. The other is that I’m pre-disposed to dislike it. It’s a child rebellion thing.

That’s why I was surprised at how enjoyable an album this is. Which is not to suggest this is a jazz album for people who don’t like jazz, which would then imply actual jazz fans may write it off. It’s just fantastically accessible, tightly constructed (as far as improvisational music can be), and smart.

While it opens with a Cherry original, the delicious “Cashback”, the bulk of the album is made up of surprising and unique covers, from a marimba-tinged version of electro-punk legends Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”, which would have a lullaby lilt to it were it not for the frantic drumming towards the end, to perhaps most interestingly a take on Madvillain’s “Accordion” which plays suitably fast and loose with the original’s stream-of-consciousness rhymes.

There’s a real balance between the two acts on this album. Never is there a point where it feels like the Thing are simply Cherry’s backing band, nor any where they completely dominate proceedings. This is best evidenced on on “Sudden Movement” (a Mats Gustaffson composition) where the singer literally steps away from the mic to let the band do its thing before returning to bring things to a more relaxed close.

Part of the excitement of the album is the feeling of it being performed live in the studio, like the best of the classic jazz generation; that almost voyeuristic feeling where you can here the aftermath of every bass note struck, as well as the sense that anything could happen.

The album ends with a rendition of “What Reason Could I Give”, a song originally recorded by Ornette Coleman, a frequent collaborator with Don Cherry. At times it almost resembles a torch song, with the melancholic saxophone following the tune of Neneh’s vocals. That is, apart from the double-speed drumming and the break-down/freak-out in the middle.

The Cherry Thing is an atypical jazz album in some ways, but in many ways steeped in tradition. Not stuck in the shadow of the genre’s giants, but also, not beholden to it. And I really like it. (Don’t tell my Dad).

8/10

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