NU “Live in Glasgow”

I’ve reached the point in my life where if you say ‘Don Cherry’ in front of me, I will simply hand you my money and say thank you. And you know what? That’s not a bad thing. Anyway, NU was the band Don Cherry led in the mid-80s that doesn’t seem to get as much attention as it should at times. Comprised of bassist Mark Helias (who released this set through his bandcamp page), percussionists Ed Blackwell and Nana Vasconcelos, and flautist/saxophonist Carlos Ward, NU’s tight-knit sound and focus showed deep artistic camaraderie between the quintet. Cherry soars, as usual, but everyone is right there with him in true collaborative spirit.

Recording quality on Live in Glasgow is impeccable and sweeps the listener back to 1987. Helias notes in the liners that the beginning of “Art Deco” is cut off and the recording unexpectedly cuts out during Cherry’s announcement of the musicians. I’m glad he left it as is because it lets us hear as much of the music as we can. It’s worth reading Helias’ account of NU on the release page and I highly recommend taking the time to do so. 

As for the show itself? Live in Glasgow showcases NU at a peak. Dropping straight into the action in “Art Deco,” bass and percussion coalesce, propelling the groove ahead. Cherry dances over each note, leaving the light on for Ward to do his own twirl in the spotlight. Meanwhile Helias’ solo on “Pettiford Bridge” gets room to breathe through an extended dash leading into Blackwell’s own moment in the sun. What gets me the most in these sections is not just how in tune with each other the group is, but just how much fun they are having. The margins tell the real story and when you get a minute into a bass solo, grinning like a fool you know this is a good time.

Cherry talks a lot in between cuts, telling incredible stories educating as he goes. Leading into “Birdboy,” Cherry relays a story about bringing his guitar to Paris (his Malian doussn’gouni) and  meeting John Lee Hooker (“John Lee Hooker said ‘Wow, where’d you get that thing?!’ and I said ‘I didn’t get it, it got me!’”) before he starts singing while playing a simple, hypnotic rhythm, eventually diving deep into the song. This ten minute suite provides a wonderful microcosm of why Cherry is among my favorite artists in history. Immeasurably talented and unquestionably innovative, sure, but he was a teacher and a leader who understood and committed to being in the moment. Whatever or wherever it was, he grabbed hold and bent it to his own means, finding the balance between the seriousness and importance of his art while having a damn good time doing it. “Birboy” is a triumphant mix of African influence and modern jazz. It’s what Cherry does best and this particular recording is on fire. 

Live in Glasgow is fantastic. Between the crisp soundboard recording, the quintet’s tight form, the mix of song selections, Helias’ excellent liner notes, and Cherry’s charisma as leader, it’s not to be missed.  What an incredible find.

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