Don Cherry, Nana Vasconcelos and Collin Walcott’s modal archetypes as CODONA produced three exceptional, pioneering albums between 1978 and 1983 that were compiled on this ECM ’Trilogy’ which is now thankfully available again. Kodwo Eshun described the trilogy as "18 intimations for new genres, 18 proposals for a poetics of principled perambulation and intense propinquity, each of which vindicates the capacity of jazz to make effectively fictional worlds, to hint at the possible forms implied by those worlds, to enact phonographic propositions for equality, hospitality, intimacy, distance, utopias.”
In 1977, Collin Walcott decided to form a trio with free jazz trumpet legend Don Cherry and Brazilian berimbau master Naná Vasconcelos. He'd worked with both musicians before, and the three had found common ground in their obsession with non-Western instruments and hybrid musical forms. Walcott had studied sitar with Ravi Shankar and tabla with Alla Rakha, and performed with Miles Davis on his legendary "On The Corner" album, while Vasconcelos was responsible for bringing the berimbau to Western audiences via his collaborations with Pat Metheny and Jon Hassell. Cherry of course was best known for his association with free jazz innovator Ornette Coleman, he performed on Coleman's best-known records before collaborating with Krzysztof Penderecki and composing the score to Jodorowsky's "The Holy Mountain". Together, the trio was able to reach into parts unknown - they were operating in a landscape not only before Jon Hassell had coined the term "fourth world", but before “world" music itself had reached a popular, widespread definition.
The first Codona set arrived in 1979, and is credited with shifting the dial on jazz globally. It was tempting for a while to label it “world" music, before that descriptor became identified as outmoded and condescending, but what Cherry, Walcott and Vasconcelos were attempting was fundamentally more experimental anyway - bringing their unique experiences, naturally global and explorative, to a broadly improvisational, jazz structure, and the result was new and invigorating. Anchoring the music is the tangled interplay between Cherry's trumpet and Walcott's sitar; Vasconcelos operates more subtly, but his impulsive rhythms are just as crucial to the music's unique breath. The group's cyclic back-and-forth is immediately evident on opening track 'Like That of Sky', where Indian rhythms, Chinese flutes and jazz horn sounds coalesce so perfectly the song almost levitates. On 'Colemanwonder', Cherry, Walcott and Vasconcelos weld together two Ornette Coleman tracks and Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" track 'Sir Duke', disintegrating all three pieces with the same sparse, free-form instrumentation, using sitar, vocal chants and cuíca. But it's closing track 'New Light' where the band's magic is fully pushed into the clouds: fusing an almost ambient sensibility with minimal shaker rhythms and spine-tingling dulcimer from Walcott, the sound they manage to arrive on is still without parallel.
Codona's second album was released in 1981 and found the trio challenging each other to lift their ideas further into the stratosphere. This desire is evident on 'Godumaduma', a solo piece from Walcott that reinterprets an African traditional standard using overdubbed sitar, influenced by Steve Reich's pulse music concept - the result is a brain-expanding two minutes of resonant and rhythmic sound that stands alone on the album, but feeds its concept perfectly. A skeletal cover of Ornette Coleman's 'Drip-Dry' provides another stand-out, with clattering percussion, dancing trumpet and particularly evocative sitar, but it's closing track 'Again and Again, Again' that lifts the album highest, balancing horizontal drones with whistles, bells and birdsong. 1983's "Codona 3" would be the trio's last album, as Walcott died tragically in a car accident a year later in 1984. Here the band expanded their scope, pulling in influence from ancient Japanese music and West African sounds, with Don Cherry playing the Malinese doussn' gouni.
In many ways, the trio's third album is their most complete, as at this stage their chemistry had reached a level many groups never graze. The fluidity at play on tracks like 'Hey Da Ba Doom' and 'Travel By Night' gives the record warmth without diluting the focus - it sounds as if all three musicians are flexing not only their instrumental skill, but also their exploratory muscle, poking into ideas they may have had for decades and inspiring each other constantly. Opener 'Goshakabuchi' is particularly effervescent, again highlighting Walcott's hammered dulcimer, rubbing its rhythms against shaker percussion from Vasconcelos and singing trumpet wails from Cherry. 'Trayra Boia' is another high point, a collaboration with Brazilian contemporary artist Denise Milan that circles chattered vocals with blasts of overdubbed horn and Vasconcelos's evocative coos. But it's yet again the closing track that has us fully ruined: 'Inner Organs' juxtaposes Western church music with tabla percussion and psychedelic vocal chants to create a sound that's ghostly, affecting and unforgettable. It doesn't get much better than this - truly foundational sounds, and one of the most essential collections on ECM.