(9 out of 10)
For many people – especially in the United States – Neneh Cherry’s career began and ended with “Buffalo Stance,” which is why The Cherry Thing is being greeted like some sort of unexpected comeback. The thing is, Cherry never really went anywhere, and, more importantly, has spent far more time toiling on the experimental and interesting fringes of contemporary music than she ever did on MTV. The stepdaughter of Don Cherry was a bona fide founding member of the British post-punk/dub scene, working with both Rip Rig and Panic and the Slits, she released two albums after Raw Like Sushi that were incredible works of soul-pop perfection, she was a spiritual midwife to the Bristol trip-hop scene, she’s been working with her husband in the prog-funk group known as Cirkus, and, now, she’s collaborating with baritone saxophonist Mats Gustaffson’s free-jazz group, the Thing … a group that was named after, yes, a Don Cherry song. So while The Cherry Thing is definitely a new chapter, it’s in a book that Neneh Cherry’s been diligently writing for three decades now.
It is, on its face, “Neneh Cherry’s jazz album.” And that obvious assessment is also a pretty fair one. From the freeform vocal flourishes on “Too Tough to Die” (a cover of a Martina Topley-Bird number) and the frenetic squalls and rolling bassline of the forthrightly jazzy “Cashback” to the explosive free-jazz exploration on “Sudden Moment,” The Cherry Thing is definitely working in the lanes of “contemporary jazz.” (If “contemporary jazz” actually meant “exciting and adventurous and improvisational” rather than “glossy and beholden to the past.”) There are even covers of Don Cherry (“Golden Heart”) and Ornette Coleman (“What Reason,” the album’s only clunker, as it ends the record on a somewhat mellow and directionless note).
However, there are also covers of Suicide and the Stooges and MF Doom. It’s on those cuts – more than the jazz “standards,” more than the original numbers – that The Cherry Thing really finds its heart. The crushing take on the Stooges’ “Dirt” and the languid, hypnotic version of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” are incredibly effective fusions of jazzbo groove, no wave skronk, and percussive punk. They represent something of a perfect stylistic crossroads for Neneh Cherry and are coincidentally both great showcases for Gustaffson’s booming, evocative baritone sax. Meanwhile, MF Doom’s “Accordion” gets reworked into a conversation between Gustaffson’s sax, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’ stark upright bass and Cherry’s forcefully melodic voice … a conversation that erupts into a visceral, one-way spitting contest when Paal Nilssen-Love’s drumming enters the fray. These three cuts showcase everything that’s great about this record: the genre-agnosticism, the free-wheeling sense of adventure, the nods to the past with an eye to the future, the pure physicality of the sessions. They serve as a stark reminder to casual and lapsed jazz fans that it’s possible to make adventurous and accessible improvisational music in 2012 without conforming to the restrictive standards of capital-J Jazz. They also serve as a reminder that Neneh Cherry is a certifiable musical treasure.
DOWNLOAD: “Dirt,” Accordion,” “Dream Baby Dream”