For me the most pleasant surprise of 2012 was the return of Neneh Cherry in the company of the Thing. Neneh, forever the heavily pregnant singer of ‘Buffalo Stance’ on Top of the Pops in 1988, had stepped off the pop treadmill in 1996 leaving a back catalogue including such gems as ‘Money Love’ and ‘Buddy X’ from 1992′s “Homebrew” collection. Few anticipated her return 16 years later and even fewer foresaw such an unqualified triumph.
Her collaborators, the Thing, were an inspired choice. The pre-fame Neneh had an abundance of jazz/avant-garde credibility from her time as vocalist to Bristol’s Rip, Rig and Panic, and of course she is the step daughter of avant-garde trumpeter Don Cherry. It is the Don connection that provided the initial link to the Thing – they take their name from a piece on his ‘Where is Brooklyn’ and their debut album was a celebration of Don’s music that worked so well they continued to play together. Another link comes from the Thing’s Mats Gustafson having had a similar teenage punk rock grounding to Neneh that has clearly resulted in musical chemistry – Neneh describing their working together as “waiting in the universe to happen” in a recent interview.
On the evidence of the “Cherry Thing” album and the broadcast of their London Village Underground gig on the BBC’s ever reliable Jazz on 3, this all made for as seamless and natural sounding a collaboration as was heard anywhere in 2012. From covers of Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’ through the Stooges ‘Dirt’ to the great Cherry original ‘Cashback’ there’s not a mis-step in the whole collection. It is a tribute to all concerned that these nods to punk convince when matched with compositions from the likes of Ornette Coleman (‘What Reason Could I Give’), Don Cherry (‘Golden Heart’) and rapper MF Doom (‘Accordion’). Cherry has said that she couldn’t cover a song without loving it and having a relationship with it, which is borne out in the frequently spellbinding results showcased here.
Above all the impression you take from the record is of modern jazz played with energy and passion, sidestepping the obvious at every turn – a vibrant contrast to the somewhat dry, intellectual exercises that can bedevil the genre. The Village Underground live set closed with a rollicking performance of Stephanie McDee’s “Call the Police” that ends with Cherry repeating ‘We ain’t ever going home…’ – and with a new Cherry solo album due in 2013, let’s hope not.
The BBC’s ‘Jazz on 3′ are repeating the Village Underground concert on Monday 07 January 2013 and you can catch it here:
for a week after broadcast.