3.5 stars (out of 4)
Neneh Cherry was a rising star in 1989 with a debut album, “Raw Like Sushi,” that mashed up hip-hop, punk, jazz and dance and yielded an international hit, “Buffalo Stance.” Since then, the Swedish vocalist has recorded sporadically, never duplicating her commercial success but consistently involved in intriguing musical projects, including collaborations with Massive Attack, Groove Armada and Gorillaz.
Now she’s teamed up with the Norwegian/Swedish free-jazz trio The Thing, led by the adventurous saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, on “The Cherry Thing” (Smalltown Supersound). It includes eight genre-busting tracks, funneling everything from hip-hop (a cover of MF Doom’s “Accordion”) to punk (the Stooges’ “Dirt”) through a jazz filter. Cherry knows this territory well as the stepdaughter of the late, great jazz trumpeter Don Cherry.
The tracks pivot on the propulsive and nuanced upright-bass playing of Ingebrigt Haker Flaten. He sets the tone on the opening “Cashback,” his bold strut underpinning Cherry’s defiant sneer: “Do I look like I’m for sale?”
Cherry turns the feverish Suicide track “Dream Baby Dream” into a nightmare lullabye, her lulling tones pressing against Gustafsson’s increasingly agitated sax. The trip-hop gem “Too Tough to Die” unwinds from a moan into a driving funk groove, inspiring Cherry’s Yoko Ono-like ululations.
Doom’s brilliantly concise “Accordion” is reimagined as a sly, slow-building inferno of rap and scat, hip-hop colliding with be-bop. “Keep your gold, glory and glitter,” Cherry intones over a steadily unruly backdrop of percussion clatter and sax skronk.
The album peaks on the savage “Dirt,” with Gustafsson’s sax hammering the bass line until it shatters. It’s followed by Ornette Coleman’s “What Reason,” in which the panic of “Dirt” dissipates into flitting rumbles and moans, and the warm inquisitiveness of Flaten’s upright bass.
It’s spontaneous music, full of first-take twists, turns and surprises that somehow coheres as a transcendent album. Cherry is not only back, she sounds like a more versatile and commanding vocalist who can rise to any challenge.
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