Neneh Cherry and The Thing – The Cherry Thing (2012)

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Though there’s a long jazz tradition of puttin’ the swing on pop songs, the phenomenon is far less common in the hip-hop world. That’s not to say that there haven’t been successes — A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, US3 and their Bluenote mashups, Erykah Badu’s channeling of Billie Holiday, and more recently with the funk-infused jams of The Roots.

With Neneh Cherry and The Thing, we see the all-too-rare combination of hip-hop and whack jazz. Backed by Scandinavian free-players The Thing — their own discography augmented by a stellar list of credits that includes Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, Marilyn Crispell, Misha Mengelburg, and Evan Parker — Cherry and her cohorts transform pop, rock, jazz, and hip-hop tunes (plus two originals) into something completely unexpected. I’m not even sure what to call it beside “stunning.”

I knew of Cherry’s background and was a big fan during the Raw Like Sushi/Homebrew years, but none of that telegraphed these stellar re-imaginings. And while this collaboration does make sense purely on the Don Cherry connection basis, the results go far beyond a mere mashup.

On MF Doom’s “Accordion,” Cherry negotiates those stream-of-consciousness lyrics with syncopation and grace as Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Mats Gustafsson lay down some wicked bass/saxophone funk. The grind builds in intensity as Gustafsson takes his lines farther out and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love enters to push things forward. Great stuff.

While other tracks follow this groove-to-burn model — notably the cover of Martina Topley-Bird’s “Too Tough To Die” and the opening Cherry original “Cashback” — others extract elements from the source material and apply some insistent magnification. This leads to my two favorite entries: the ominous take on the Stooges’ “Dirt,” and an expansive version of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.” On the former, the Thing manage to out-dirge the Stooges while the latter takes flight just past the mid-way point with the vibraphone and horn exploding into a kind of harmonic bloom.

The jazzier (though no less funky) side of this collaboration comes across on the Mats Gustafsson track “Sudden Moment” as well as the closing cover of Ornette’s “What Reason Could I Give?” Both compositions feature the terrific use of unison play. On “Sudden Moment,” Cherry’s voice and Gustafsson’s horn paint out the melody before Gustaffson takes off on some serious blowing. For the closing track, Cherry’s vocals are held in sharp relief toward the end of the song as bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten takes an extended solo but then drops away completely to leave Cherry in the spotlight, where she finishes things out with no accompaniment. It’s a fitting conclusion to a great recording that takes two seldom-paired genres and raises them both to a higher level.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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