The CODONA Trilogy
Don Cherry trumpet, doussn’gouni, flutes, organ, melodica, voice
Nana Vasconcelos berimbau, cuica, talking drum, percussion, voice
Collin Walcott sitar, tabla, hammered dulcimer, sanza, timpani, voice
When my mother had gone to Canton market to shop, her wallet had unfolded like wings…. She had hunted out the seed shops to taste their lichees, various as wines…. She had dug to the bottom of fabric piles and explored the shadows underneath awnings. She gave beggars rice and letter-writers coins so that they would talk-story (“Sometimes what I gave was all they had, and stories.”)
–Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
The music of CODONA, ECM’s most emblematic creation, invariably puts me in mind of the above passage from Kingston’s classic “memoir.” It describes the author’s mother as, having just received her diploma, she celebrates by spreading what little monetary resources she has. The word that always stands out for me, and which is a theme of the book as a whole, is “talk-story,” for it describes with no uncertain brevity exactly what CODONA enacted in the studio (and on the stage) throughout the four-year span represented on this Old & New Masters trilogy. CODONA’s name—a portmanteau derived from its members’ firsts: COllin Walcott, DOn Cherry, NAna Vasconcelos—melds minds and hearts in the deepest crucible of music-making.
With their unique brand of pan-culturalism, CODONA developed an entire sonic landscape without needing to throw itself under the next promising classification to come along. These self-titled gems each plot a unique transition in ECM’s graphic and sonic development, reaching both beyond jazz and more deeply into it for hints of origins and possible futures. The improvisational spirit is very much alive at every turn, while also recognizing the pulse of its own maudlin journeys. There is always a sense that one has arrived at a truth, which through CODONA’s collective spirit(ualism) has transcended the misnomer of “universal” into a far more nuanced and selfless understanding of the relationship of sound to all creation.
Whenever we speak of “universal truths,” we delineate quite the opposite. Rather than tapping into a concept, an energy, or state of being that binds all life in however arbitrary a way, the only purpose of universalism is in fact to make us feel better about ourselves. It treats the human experience as primary target, the standard by which all else comes to be measured. The base concept of universalism implies, through its very anthropocentrism, self-obsession as the only path to connectivity. The music of CODONA remains an invaluable corrective to this assumptive attitude toward human experience. Rather than hide, it transcends its own sense of self into a disembodied sonority.
CODONA (ECM 1132)
Recorded September 1978 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
CODONA’s first album is particularly dear to my heart, for it is the only in the ECM catalog to have been recorded during the month and year of my birth. As such, it lends itself well to my imagination, where it plays as soundtrack to my emergence into this mortal coil. Careful arrangements, spontaneous though they may be, flavor our first taste of CODONA blood in “Like That Of Sky.” From the opening gong, this album enchants with its dramaturgy, in which time and space are one and the same. Against clicks and whistles, a subterranean sitar appears. In it, we hear the grumbling of voices. Cherry fills the vast emptiness with his sung trumpeting, so that the emptiness can only weep in return. Walcott’s sitar is respectfully articulated, ever so subtle in its reverberant twang, providing a gelatinous backbone, such as it is, for Cherry’s more immediate interpretations. From this, we get the tinny call of a clay drum and a flute hooked into every loophole, pulled to expose a more regular core. [This track reminds me very much of the work of the enigmatic duo known as Voice of Eye (especially their 1994 album Vespers), who achieve similarly evocative density from purely acoustic means.] Walcott’s tabla signals the phenomenological urgency with which divine creation takes form, as if finding amid the contact of fluttering fingers along pulled skin the key to unspeakable life. The second track takes the group’s name, and further slackens the threads that keep them bound to this mortal coil. Through an intriguing blend of wooden flute, hammered dulcimer, and some scattered percussive footsteps, the musicians manage to evoke a wide range of special effects from clear and present means. And as the rhythmic rope ladder unrolls itself step by step, we are enticed by its gentle sway into the enlightened space it has drawn for us of wood, metal, and touch. “Colemanwonder” deftly combines Ornette Coleman’s “Race Face” and “Sortie” with Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” in an auditory hodgepodge that is as delightful as it is singular. Given Cherry’s formative history with Coleman back in the late 1950s, this is an important swath of light to note in the album’s otherwise stark shade, made all the more vivid by the grunts, barks, poundings, and knocks issuing from Vasconcelos’s Brazilian cuica drum. “Mumakata” (apparently a favorite of the group’s live shows) features Vasconcelos on berimbau, Walcott on sanza, and Cherry on doussn’gouni. Voices sing, as if evoking the past for past’s sake. Against this tapestry, Cherry breaks out his trumpet for some gorgeous legato phrasings. “New Light” begins with the tinkling of bells and an awakening sitar. We arise from a gentle coma even as we settle into another: from the beauty of awareness to the awareness of beauty. Cherry launches higher flights of virtuosity, underscoring all the more the humility that has led him to this point in the album. Shells hiss like the raspy leaves of a giant palm thrashing in the wind. The dulcimer returns with maraca as Cherry spreads thicker melodies with clarity of tone and posture. A track so nocturnal that it almost glows. Every telepathic moment sparkles before Cherry cracks open a box of blissful high notes and fluttering half-sung hymns, leading us out as dulcimer strings are brushed like a harp by breath without source.
CODONA 2 (ECM 1177)
Recorded May 1980 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
CODONA 2 drops us immediately into a groovier pool with “Que Faser.” Over tabla and sitar, Vasconcelos exchanges tender thoughts with Cherry’s trumpet, traveling from the majestic to the falsettic in one fell swoop. This leads into “Godumaduma,” the briefest track of the collection, and also its most enchanting. What sounds like three overdubbed sitars in a gorgeous transitory interlude configure something akin to Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint had it been written for Walcott and not electric guitar. Switching colors from the sandy and windblown to the gravid and architectural, “Malinye” features Cherry on melodica and Walcott on timpani. As the latter tumble over a highly cinematic terrain, a ring of spirits whispers, cackles, and wails. This haunting piece ends in a sanza-led chorus that stretches far beyond the final vibration and into another state of mind. At the halfway point, we find ourselves feeling “Drip-Dry.” Sitar and voice creep around our circle of light, reaching with shadowy hands to grasp the trumpet’s song within. The buoyant “Walking On Eggs” that follows sounds, like all of CODONA’s work, simultaneously composed and improvised. A buoyant piece, it is also as tentative as its title suggests. “Again and Again, Again,” on which we end, might as well be our listening instructions for this most underrated album of the set. Sitar and trumpet provide some vivid runes, of which Vasconcelos makes a sonic rubbing with a string of sounds not unlike a tape in fast forward, if not a dreaming bird. Add to this the plurivocity of a melodica, and one begins to see subtle density and “vocal” qualities that make this one of the group’s most inward-looking statements.
CODONA 3 (ECM 1243)
Recorded September 1982 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
The traditional Japanese “Goshakabuchi” that begins the final leg of this triumvirate turns the mirror just so, flashing a glint into our eyes from a distance. Cherry’s brassy ether drips with sympathetic effect; hammered dulcimer hurls its delicate, insectile hiccups; untold lives tease us with their possibilities. This is perhaps the most haunting and coalescent track in the collection and shows the trio at the height of its signature synergy. Sanza and doussn’gouni back the chant-heavy “Hey Da Ba Boom,” which will adhere to your mind far more than any words I might use to describe it here. “Travel By Night” trailmarks its path with berimbau, sitar, and muted trumpet. Walcott’s arcing tones make for quiet narration. Hooded by the darkened firmament, it practically floats with the practiced steps of a modest caravan fleeing from its own histories. A trio of shorter rest stops follows, of which “Lullaby,” the only moment with Walcott alone, gives us a heartening glimpse into the mind of group’s creative nerve center. “Clicky Clacky” provides a dash of whimsy, a bluesy gem from the mind and mouth of Cherry, complete with train whistle. The final gasp comes from the “Inner Organs,” where the echoes of trumpet and, not surprisingly, organ move in concert like a jellyfish and its tendrils toward open closure.
The music world lost one of its most innovative figures when Collin Walcott perished in a car accident while on a European tour with Oregon in 1984, and the CODONA trilogy is but a flash of what this inimitable project might have further accomplished had he lived on. As rooted as the music is, the edge of time has severed its earthly ties. If jazz had developed from one mystical seed (and who’s to say it didn’t?), then certainly its originary tales would sound very much like the elder’s musings preserved here. Through their own brand of talk-story, these attuned sages brought forth truths of fragmentation, permeability of mind and body, and of the knowledge that nothing matters anymore once sound opens your ears.
Want to see ECM at its finest hour? Then set your clocks to CODONA time.