Nearly all my friends and acquaintances who are into psychedelic music tap Brown Rice* as their favorite Don Cherry album, and one listen reveals why. It’s at once the grooviest, spaciest, and most cosmic-sounding record in the legendary jazz trumpeter’s catalog. Cherry’s hunger for new, adventurous sounds spurred him to travel around Africa, Europe, and the Far East and absorb influences from those regions. For Brown Rice, he called on some trusted comrades to help him realize his ambitious visions, including drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden (both of whom played with Ornette Coleman and Cherry on seminal LPs The Shape Of Jazz To Come and Change Of The Century), and saxophonist Frank Lowe. They and other key contributors combine to create perhaps the most rewarding introduction into Cherry’s large canon.
Leading off, of course, is the title track, the leftfield rare-groove monster jam that launched a million chills on a million cool underground-hip-hop producers and other sussed cats. Verna Gillis’ distinctively eerie “ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh”s continuously undulate under Bunchie Fox’s electric bongos (Bunchie Fox’s electric bongos!), two electric pianos made to sound like a weirdly tuned marimba, Haden’s wah-wah bass eructations, and Cherry’s confidential whispers. Here and there, Lowe unleashes some ravishing rasps on his sax. There’s nothing else really like “Brown Rice”’s alien funk, and it’s worth the price of admission alone. The 14-minute “Malkauns” finds Cherry and company delving into Holy Mountain soundtrack territory. Moki’s tamboura drones in timeless, chakra-aligning tones and Haden’s contemplative acoustic bass sojourns dominate the first 4.5 minutes, then Cherry’s triumphant trumpet fanfares and Higgins’ cymbal-intensive rhythms kick up the energy to a spritely gallop. The track then becomes a virtuoso duel between Cherry and Higgins, as the tamboura/bass players maintain a staunch foundation. The last couple of minutes return to the tamboura/bass interplay, to which you can imagine Alejandro Jodorowsky zoning out.
Another epic piece, “Chenrezig” features Cherry’s guttural, spiritual chants (in a language I can’t discern) foghorn over Hakim Jamil’s tense, rumbling bass and Ricky Cherry’s sparse piano. When Don’s trumpet enters a few minutes in, things tranquilly lift to a more exalted plane. All the while, a surreptitiously coiled rhythm shuffles below. Until it accelerates near the end, “Chenrezig” comes off as a less turbulent, more introspective take on Bitches Brew‘s outward bound fusion. “Degi-Degi” closes the LP with Cherry urgently whispering about the goddess of music over a bustling rhythm—Haden’s bass is especially buoyant—and Don’s spiraling trumpet motifs that make you feel as if you’re conquering a new planet.
In The Penguin Guide To Jazz, Brian Morton and Richard Cook called Brown Rice “a lost classic of the era and probably the best place to sample the trumpeter as both soloist—he blows some stunningly beautiful solos here—and as the shamanic creator of a unique, unearthly sound that makes dull nonsense of most ‘fusion’ work of the period.” Listen to these learned Brits; they know what they’re talking about. -Buckley Mayfield
*Brown Rice was originally titled Don Cherry in the US and its first pressing here came via Horizon/A&M in 1977.