If The Cherry Thing had been released a few months earlier the collaboration between Neneh Cherry and Scandinavian avant-garde jazz trio the Thing would have been the biggest hit at Northsea Jazz. The unlikely quartet has recorded a crossover album without compromises. The rough lay-out the songs on The Cherry Thing are either urban, soul or hip-hop, but the structures and instrumentation are many Miles Davises away from pop. It might be just another sign of growing old that I totally and utterly dig it.
Listening to the album I was convinced that The Thing is at least five or six musicians. The sound is too ‘live’ for exuberant overdubbing, which is also a bit of a faux pas in jazz. Monday night in the Melkweg I learn that there’s only three of them plus Neneh, it’s enough to produce the dense and often complex musical textures that often erupt in a violent cacophony. On stage, Mats Gustafsson compensates the fact that he cannot reproduce the sound of an entire brass section, like he does on The Cherry Thing, by playing even more notes per second. Paal Nilssen-Love hits his drums with such skill and speed it sounds as if he’s got several multiple personalities playing along with him. Bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten emphasizes why they call his instrument a double bass. When played well, the sound of it is so deep that it’s like a bass guitar and bass drum merged into one.
Neneh Cherry is not nearly as virtuosic as the trio she’s fronting, but if it wasn’t for her The Cherry Thing would have been very admirable, but enjoyable only to tiny circle of jazz experts, much like the ten albums The Thing have recorded thus far, I suspect. Neneh’s success in the eighties (Raw Like Sushi (1989)) and nineties (Homebrew (1992) and Man (1996)) had less to do with her vocal or songwriting skills and more with her resourcefulness in spotting and combining underground music trends. Neneh Cherry has the gift of turning the most unlikely genre, whether it is world beat, experimental funk, of free jazz, into something you expect to hear in the hottest clubs in town.
The performance of Neneh Cherry & The Thing at the Melkweg is more extreme than the album. During the eclectic outbursts Gustaffson uses an array of distorting machinery that makes the band sound more like a dark ambient group than a jazz ensemble. At one point saxophone and double bass are even traded in for guitars and the noisy confusion is complete. Neneh does her bit by shrieking and yelping Björk-style. Her convincing performance is a far cry from her gig in People’s Place a year earlier, when she was clearly still looking for a new edge. She’s has now found it.
Like I said, to me it’s not so much Neneh’s own contribution to The Cherry Thing that is impressive, but her influence over the jazz trio. If you listen to the unrecognizable Suicide cover Dream Baby Dream you hear her directing the ensemble through it like a lullaby. On Cashback, the only original song on the album, she takes the trio out of the smoky Jazz dungeons to urban street level. Too Tough to Die is a cover of a song by the highly underrated Martina Topley-Bird. Neneh Cherry encourages The Thing to play it like a threatening alt. rock song à la Skunk Anansie. Of course it ends in chaos, but only because Neneh Cherry allows it to happen.
My favorite songs both the record and the gig are Golden Heart, a song by jazz cornetist Don Cherry and Dirt, another unrecognizable cover, this time of a song by The Stooges. The late Don Cherry is of course ultimately responsible for the fruitful collaboration between Neneh Cherry and The Thing, not only by being Neneh’s stepfather but also by writing the song that inspired The Thing’s band name. The Thing’s interpretation of his song Golden Heart, with Håker Flaten’s tiptoeing double bass is the most unambiguously jazzy part of the album. Neneh’s ethereal singing brings it into the 21st century and beyond. It’s the kind of music we expect to hear in a jazz club in Metropolis. The Cherry Thing version of Dirt is not as hypnotic, atmospheric or lurching as the classic original from the Stooges’ 1970 album Funhouse, but the brass enhanced malevolent, slow rolling pace turns it into an irresistible blues. Of course, this too ends in chaos, as this appears to be the natural equilibrium of free jazz.