Swedish jazz trio The Thing take their name from a song by veteran jazz and avant-garde musician Don Cherry. Swedish-British singer Neneh Cherry is Don’s stepdaughter. She had some significant chart success in the 80s after early exposure with early On-U associates New Age Steppers and, more importantly, post-punk band Rip Rig + Panic.
The Cherry Thing is not, as widely reported, her first album in the 16 years since Man spawned “7 Seconds”, the global hit collaboration with Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, though her involvement in husband Cameron McVey’s band CirKus, which has released two albums since 2006, goes all but overlooked in the UK.
Of the eight songs here, “Cashback” is credited to Neneh Cherry, while The Thing’s Mats Gustafsson takes a credit for “Sudden Moment”. The others are all covers, a mix of urban contemporary, more in Cherry’s style than The Thing’s, and a brace of jazz classics.
The Thing already covered their name song on sophomore album And She Knows (2001), which followed a self-titled debut mostly dedicated to Don Cherry tunes. The inevitable Don Cherry composition here, then, is “Golden Heart”, from the Complete Communion suite. Here it’s little more than an atmospheric interlude, though it brings some etherial shade to an otherwise virile album. Echo fx on Neneh Cherry’s vocal and splashes of metal percussion give it an appropriately multi-kulti feel.
The Cherry Thing isn’t quite the radical departure for The Thing that I’d anticipated. They stripped an already bare bones style down to basics on their last album, Mono, after all, stepping back slightly from the free jazz machismo of Bag It! and Action Jazz, without falling back on the populist garage rock-inspired riffage of, uh, Garage, which had gained them new followers. Here they play behind Neneh Cherry much like, in the 20s and 30s, a small jazz group might accompany a name jazz singer. I’m thinking, for example, of Chu Berry with Buck and His Band in 1933, backing Bessie Smith on personal favourite “Gimmee a Pigfoot”, though it’s no insult to add that Cherry can hardly carry the weight of that comparison.
Cherry’s soulful, jazz-inflected style harks back to those new-agey American female jazz vocals of the 70s, before Mariah Carey irreparably lowered the tone of pop music with her vacuous trilling in imitation of the inimitable Whitney Houston. On an album-closing version of Ornette Coleman’s “What Reason” she’s a dead ringer for Asha Puthli on the original (from Coleman’s Science Friction) or Avenda Ali on “Search for Life” (Tone Dialing). But mostly it’s a lovely, expressive instrument, her voice, and she can handle emotions from disdain to poignancy without straining.
She’s particularly fine on MF Doom’s “Accordion”, an album highlight. Punchy and brusque, Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten’s bass plucks out a skeletal melodic frame for Cherry’s lyric while Gustafsson lowers in the background, anticipating the gradual ratcheting up of tension to come. A version of synth-punk duo Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” is near perfect, with the quartet staying faithful to the original’s sense of narcotic suspended reverie.
But it’s The Thing that mostly gets to shape the music. “Sudden Moment” starts in song form, with the simplicity and directness of a nursery rhyme, but after a tempered, Ayleresque sax statement at 02:00 it shapes up as a muscular, slow-burning, ultimately face-melting free jazz workout. Witness also their exposition of Martina Topley-Bird’s “Too Tough To Die”, which sets up a groove for Cherry’s vocal to inhabit, while beneath her the ‘rhythm’ section quickly come to a seething roil and Gustafsson goads them on. It would work as an instrumental, but Cherry’s vocal adds an extra dimension.
The album opens with Cherry’s original, “Cashback”, and an elastic bass line that accompanies a borderline-doggerel first verse lyric; “My soul returnable, exchangeable, impressionable / My price tag sell-by date / replaceable, like vegetables”. Drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and Gustafsson crash in on the chorus, and from there it’s gripping and propulsive all the way; Cherry’s lyrics even improve, and Gustafsson’s bluff Baritone sax tears a free-jazz hole in the roof.
A take on the Stooges’ “Dirt” would have fit well on the Thing’s landmark album Garage. They tough it out it straight and sinuous, with Cherry inhabiting the lyric. While raw power isn’t her style, she stays just the right side of theatricality, and sets the trio up for a bruising tussle before the choral riff reprise.