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Careful With That Ax 

David Ornette Cherry, jazz infinity and Monk in a tree

Wednesday, Jun 7 2006
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Keyboardist-composer David Ornette Cherry speaks with quiet deliberation and an untroubled smile, but some of the things he says sound rather strange. Like how he had to learn piano because he hacked himself with an ax. Or how, as a child, he could look out his window and see Thelonious Monk sitting in a tree. There’s an aura around him like something out of Grimm.

David is a son of Don Cherry, the guy who virtually invented “world” music. David is also brother to rapper-producer Neneh Cherry, popster-actor Eagle-Eye Cherry and violinist Jan Cherry. He’s an improviser. That means stuff comes out of him that he didn’t know was gonna come out. Easy to imagine in his case — he’s a conduit. You can feel it.

At Westminster Presbyterian Church a couple of years ago, David got an invitation to join others in honoring the late L.A. pianist Hampton Hawes. Hawes was bebopper; David isn’t. David first thought he’d attempt some of Hawes’ music, but when he got to the piano, something told him to drop that idea and just jam. And the music flowed from his fingers like sprinkles of stars, beautiful and unearthly, a sound so different that you couldn’t know where it came from. You could only guess that the channels were open.

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A show around the same time at Culver City’s Club Tropical told a complementary part of David’s story. He was leading one of his groove ensembles; soul-drifting riffs cruised by, sparked by solos from a masterful crew, one spiel following hot after another. At one point he cocked his head, rolled his eyes upward and relaxed his hands on the keyboard. Just digging the ride for quite a while, he actually forgot to play.

“I’m kind of blessed in that way,” muses David in his art-studded Altadena house, settling his 6-and-a-half-foot stretch on a little stool so he’ll be at eye level. “I’m a listener and a player. Sometimes I can become more of a listener, and I have to go, ‘Oh. I’m playing!’ ”

The same goes for his siblings. “We were brought up to listen. We can get together, and we’ll put on something, and nobody will say a word.”

The genetic thing runs strong, pushed by a constant river of music in the family upbringing. Following his breakout stint in Ornette Coleman’s original quartet, Don Cherry moved to Sweden, so David and his siblings often spent their summers in Europe. David remembers bumping down the autobahn in a Volkswagen van in 1980 and 1982, and being handed a melodica (a plastic keyboard flute) by his father, who would show him how to play tunes for the upcoming gigs along the road. That made him a professional musician by default.

But David had more formal instruction as well. At 16, after years of saying Naw, don’t wanna do music, he got tired of shooting baskets in the sweaty gym of Watts’ Locke High School, grabbed a trombone and joined the marching band. He scored a scholarship to Dallas’ Bishop College, where his compositional flair was recognized while he was majoring in — tuba! He later went to CalArts; these days he teaches at the Southern California Academy of Arts and Sciences in the old Watts neighborhood where he grew up. But he thinks of an ax incident in Sweden as the kindling that got him fired up.

“In the summer, you have to chop wood for the winter. So Don and I, we’re gathering all this wood.” David feels like a bit of an ass explaining the situation, but stands up and demonstrates how a wood chopper is supposed to position his feet, and then how he did. “I’m a city guy,” he grimaces. “And I missed. I chopped my foot. And right then was my destiny.” The room in which he recuperated had a piano in it. “And the only thing I could do was go to the piano. So Don said, ‘I got you.’ ”

Don Cherry, in addition to trumpet and many other instruments, knew his way around a keyboard. David’s mother, Carletta, played piano. And they both looked up to Thelonious Monk, the most original thinker who ever stroked the 88. Known as a man who could take mental vacations anytime, Monk confirmed rumors of his special behavior while staying with the Cherry clan in Watts one time in the ’60s.

“We had this big tree in the backyard, and Monk climbed the tree, and he used to hang out in it. My grandmother said, ‘What is this guy doin’ in the tree?’ ”

Monk, Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman (whom David considers an ongoing mentor) are not influences that will lead an artist to paddle in the mainstream. So David’s consistently excellent musical endeavors, which have encompassed strains of soul jazz, lovely abstraction and Coleman’s “harmolodic” conception, haven’t been exactly chart-toppers. Another factor is David’s rather undriven personality.

“I’m not a multitask person,” he says. “You give me music stuff, I’m cool. But then all the other stuff that comes in our lives . . . I get, oh, too overwhelmed sometimes.”

The great bassist Charlie Haden has his own perspective. “I was rehearsing with Ornette and Billy Higgins and Don Cherry at Don’s house when David was born,” he says. “I’ve known him all his life. He can play anything, and whatever he plays turns to musical gold. He’s a beauti­ful, gentle, humble person who’s devoted his life to bring­ing music to people. He takes after his father — if Don saw you were unhappy, he would find a way to make you smile.”

At this fortuitous moment, David has stacked up a solid schedule of high-profile concerts under the handle “Ensemble for Improvisors,” a name that echoes albums by Don Cherry (Symphony for Improvisers) and Ornette Coleman (The Art of the Improvisers). Inspired by themes of silence and nature vs. technology, a wild group featuring multireed player Charles Owens, saxist Justo Almario, bassists Roberto Miranda and Ollie Elder Jr., drummer Don Littleton, violist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and cellist Peter Jacobson takes off on David’s piquant riffs in different instrumental combinations for a sound that’s ear-expanding and fun. And you’ll know by looking at him that David’s getting as many kicks as anybody.

“I feel young,” says the 48-year-old. “Music makes you like that, because it’s infinite. My dad always said there are no endings — it’s always beginning.”

?David Ornette Cherry’s “Ensemble for Improvisors” plays at 3 p.m. on Sun., June 11, at the Central Library, dwntwn., (213) 228-7025. Also, Cherry’s Harmolodica plays Bones & Blues at the Center Phoenix Hall, 10950 S. Central Ave., Fri., June 30.

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