Trumpet player Don Cherry was pretty much Blue Note’s premiere find in the 60s avant-garde jazz sweepstakes. The label was a bit late to the party, and though they ended up releasing excellent recordings by formidable avant-garde names such as Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor, that was only after these musicians had already done groundbreaking work on other labels who proceeded to drop them eventually.
1964’s Complete Communion was Cherry’s first for Blue Note, and it featured tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who became a part of Cherry’s regular European group. In the U.S. Cherry was playing with an ensemble that included tenor sax player Pharoah Sanders before he collaborated with John Coltrane. Symphony for Improvisers, recorded in 1966, combines the two, at least on one track.
The album is divided between two lengthy pieces. The first, “Symphony for Improvisers” is a four-part suite that tends to exude an upbeat, bustling air that remains light and low-density for the most part. This is in part due to the difference in timbre and pitch of the three front line instruments. Cherry plays cornet, Barbieri plays tenor, and Sanders plays piccolo. Though the piccolo and cornet share a fair amount of range, the difference between the bright piccolo and the more burnished sound of the cornet is very easy for the human ear to discern. This is true even though Cherry does explore the cornet’s upper range quite a bit. Karl Berger plays vibes on this track, and Henry Grimes plays bass on the opening section, but apparently is replaced by Jen-Francois Jenny-Clark on the remaining sections. In fact, Grimes and Jenny-Clark never play at the same time, so both suites have a switch of bassist at some point.
The opening section takes up much of the piece’s entire length, with an eventual diminuendo marking the transition to the second section of the piece, “Nu Creative Love.” This piece almost seems like hard-driving hard bop piece until one realizes that the establishment of a more linear beat is an illusion created by the drumming of Ed Blackwell, who is at the very peak of his powers here.
The piece shifts gears around nine minutes in to the Albert Ayler-ish “What’s Not Serious,” a section that overtly features Blackwell and recreates Ayler’s folk and gospel music inflected compositions. The final section picks the tempo back up again, ending the suite on a very satisfying note as both Cherry and Blackwell take undeniably interesting, well-structure solos.
“Manhattan Cry” is a more lyrical, open-spaced improvisational framework. Both Sanders and Barbieri play tenor sax on this track, but like the bassists they never play together. Barbieri plays through the first two sections, “Manhattan Cry” and “Lunatic,” with Jenny-Clark on bass. Following a balladic opening featuring Berger on piano and Cherry, again on cornet, Barbieri plays a haunting and expressive solo around three minutes in that demonstrates what a burning, open tone he had and the sheer fire and imagination of his avant-garde playing.
“Lunatic,” the second section, finds Berger back on vibes (which he continues to play for the rest of the album), while Cherry and Barbieri outline the melodic content of the piece. All three musicians solo, and then a brief solo by Blackwell leads into the third section, “Sparkle Plenty.” From here on out Grimes and Sanders take over. Sanders solos, followed by Berger and then again by Sanders. Grimes plays an arco solo leading to the final section, “Om Nu.”
Symphony for Improvisers is one of Cherry’s landmark recordings, and it is one of the most enjoyable free jazz recordings from the period. Those not familiar with the more fiery tenor sax work of Gato Barbieri’s early years are in for a real surprise, and Sanders also offers some fine work here, as does Cherry himself. Perhaps the finest performance, though, belongs to Ed Blackwell, who is also there, encouraging, supporting, and cajoling the players. He is a strong force, but never overbearing, and drummers will find this recording a particularly instructive one.
Together with Complete Communion and Where Is Brooklyn, Symphony for Improvisers provides a look at one of the freshest improvisers and musicians around at a critical juncture in his career.