Sunday night proved a spectacular end to a magnificent week, as the EFG London Jazz Festival closed with a tribute to spiritual jazz legend Don Cherry at the Barbican. It was a family affair onstage, with Kahil El’Zabar’s legendary Ethnic Heritage Ensemble joined by Don’s daughter Neneh Cherry, eldest son and internationally renowned pianist, David Ornette Cherry, and granddaughters Naima Karlsson and TYSON.
The avant-garde trumpeter pioneered a movement in jazz alongside his wife, Moki, when the pair began to live and perform together in the late Sixties. They dubbed their mix of communal art, social and environmentalist activism, children’s education, and pan-ethnic expression ‘Organic Music’, and a celebration of this life well-lived seemed especially poignant as the festival celebrated its third decade.
The evening got underway with a beautiful piano duet between Mexican pianist Ana Ruiz, who collaborated with Cherry in the seventies, and Naima Karlsson. In compositions that drifted in and out of free jazz exploration and lush melody, taken from Cherry’s classic album Organic Music Society, the pair stunned the crowd into silence with a mesmerising display of technical prowess, before an abrupt ending prompted a rapturous response and a quick interval that allowed everyone time to catch their breath.
Then came the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, joined by legendary LA vocalist Dwight Trible, beginning the second half of the tribute with a statement of intent – to summon the spirit of Don Cherry himself onto that stage. A pulsating, circular, blues-jazz rhythm took hold of the room as Trible’s unique voice led the crowd in singing Cherry’s name, and Kahil preached “thank you for the spirit, thank you for the music, thank you for the love”.
Cherry’s long association with free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman was acknowledged as the group played Coleman composition Holy Woman, before they were joined by Neneh and TYSON on vocals for the final flurry. Neneh gave a powerful rendition of Jayne Cortez poem I Am New York City, as the ensemble powered through a hypnotic soul-funk groove. The group finished with an entrancing version of Cherry’s Degi Degi, in which Trible improvised throughout on the “life within you” and once again appeared to summon something otherworldly.
In a poignant gesture, Corey Wilkes, as part of the ensemble, was playing Cherry’s very own trumpet. And, perhaps it was the repeated intonation of his name creating an atmosphere, but somehow it exerted some strange, mystic pull. Its stark, shining brass seemed to reflect every light in the room after every note. It was a signal that despite his absence, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and the Cherry family made us feel – if just for an evening – Don Cherry’s abiding presence.