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Don Cherry - Home Boy, Sister Out Music Album Reviews

Don Cherry - Home Boy, Sister Out Music Album Reviews
This long-forgotten 1985 album is far from the legendary jazz trumpeter’s best work, but look past its awkwardness and dated sonics, and a certain charm reveals itself.

Think of a trumpet player. A jazz musician. Think of someone who broke boundaries with ease, who innovated so effortlessly it’s hard to imagine music didn’t always sound that way, the way they played. Think about restless reinvention, relentless forward momentum. Think about making a stone classic in your youth and never pausing to revisit it. Think about a distinctive voice. Think about a squeak, a honk, a shimmering arc of tone, instantly recognizable, bursting atop a stripped-back quartet, an electric fusion combo, tape loops, a simple duet. Think about ditching that trumpet for whatever else is on hand, because why not? Think of a singular artist whose half century on the stage never stopped drawing on the most modern, cutting-edge forms available. Now don’t think of Miles Davis. Who’s left? Don Cherry, and that’s about it.

Cherry was active from the mid 1950s until his death in 1995. Each of his eras comes with its own devotees, but it’s rare to hear someone bring up his mid-1980s work. If Davis epitomized the tempestuous visionary, Cherry was the benevolent explorer, and he spent the Reagan years easing into smoother sounds and supporting his daughter Neneh in her post-punk collective Rip, Rig & Panic. Having so comprehensively innovated, he began to relax into the role of elder statesman, going wherever the party was. In 1985, that was in Paris where, alongside French artist and musician Ramuntcho Matta and a crew of arty downtown types, he recorded Home Boy, Sister Out. Reissued here by France’s Wewantsounds, the album emerges from the depths of obscurity: a warmly spotty mix of uneven digi disco, clunky rapping, and moments of fleeting beauty.

There’s no way around it—Home Boy is not great. The record attempts the kind of jazz/punk/hip-hop/reggae fusion that drew liberally from Talking Heads’ 1980 landmark Remain in Light. Surely it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the ultra-crisp production techniques and pop leanings do Cherry no favors. It’s a first, but being unfettered works against him. He raps about sweet potato salad, sings new-age ballads about his “butterfly friend,” and mumbles like a distracted karaoke patron after a few drinks too many. In its awkward overeagerness to get the party started, “Treat Your Lady Right” lands a little too close to Mr. T’s similarly titled paean to motherhood. “Alphabet City”’s anti-drug stance keeps the undercooked PSA vibe going, with Cherry wandering around the mic, ad-libbing the sounds of junkie euphoria where the verse should be, and leaning on the chorus a bit too hard. Album starter “Call Me” unfurls with some promising fanfare but quickly locks into an elevator-ready backing track, with Cherry pushing some choppy lyrics into the edges of his falsetto.

The loose arrangements might have come off if the sound of the album were more inviting. Cherry’s studio work in the 1970s was lush, utilizing trippy effects, tape saturation, and laid-back virtuosity to invoke a gooey spirituality. Home Boy sounds comparatively tinny. The contrast is highlighted by the recycled vocal bits from 1975’s Brown Rice, here drained of their vitality.

On the other hand, it’s a Don Cherry record. For all its flaws, Home Boy is a grower. Cherry’s magnetism remains, despite the chintzy production and slapdash approach. Not quite two minutes into “Bamako Love,” his trumpet swells for a breathtaking moment of sublimity that stops you in your tracks. Across the album his playing remains singular, although you wish he’d wedge it into some more challenging corners. But he doesn’t mind being the guest of honor and plays nice. It’s hard not to forgive him for having some fun.

One notable aspect is the undercurrent of drugs that winds through Home Boy. Cherry struggled with addiction and here takes the opportunity, at the dawn of the crack epidemic, to sing about this notably un-cosmic theme. He doesn’t come to any conclusions, but it gives the album an intriguingly dark edge. “Kick” and the aforementioned “Alphabet City” explicitly address drug users, while “I Walk” perhaps narrates the dazed inner life of an addict attempting equilibrium. “I better get to this program, though. I don’t want to be late today… Today I don’t exist in a definite way, I don’t know where I’m going.”

A year after Home Boy came out, Paul Simon would release his smash hit Graceland, bringing South African vocal harmonies and smooth funk into the homes of a generation. Now the children of the ’80s are getting deeper into their thirties, and suddenly world-funk albums like Home Boy sound like home. If the original release coincided with an aging boomer generation’s turn away from its counterculture roots, perhaps the allure of such a reissue lies in its familiarity. We all become our parents. In this regard, all of Home Boy’s weaknesses—its awkwardness, time-stamped sonics, and apparent disregard for self-editing—can be enjoyed as strengths. Home Boy is shoddy but sweet, ineffective but earnest. It’s one of Cherry’s weakest outings, but if you tune out and let it play, it kind of feels good—comforting and safe. Probably not what they intended, but history has its way of making even the most subversive artists into icons and the blandest work into lost treasures.

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