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Posts tagged ‘Charlie Haden’

Liberation Music Orchestra

liberation-music-orchEight years ago I was fortunate enough to be at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village to hear Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra on the night of the US presidential election, and then again the following night after it had been confirmed that Barack Obama would be serving as America’s first black president. The anxious optimism of the first night and the joy and relief of the second could hardly have formed a greater contrast with the current mood of the world, in which the orchestra — minus Charlie, who died two years ago, and now directed by his long-time collaborator Carla Bley — arrived in London to play at Cadogan Hall as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

I don’t think I was the only one to find their music even more emotionally charged than usual, which is saying something for a band that began life in 1969 delivering an uncompromising musical protest against the evils of the age, with a line-up including Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri and Roswell Rudd. Tonight’s 90-minute set maintained the tradition by concentrating on the concerns of the hour and consisted of material from their last two studio recordings: Not in My Name (2004) and the new Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings), the environmental album on which they were working before Haden’s death, and which was completed under Bley’s supervision. All of it resonated powerfully.

The new pieces included Bley’s beautifully plain arrangement of “Blue in Green”, her own “Silent Spring” and Haden’s “Song for the Whales”, which featured a lovely passage for Seneca Black’s trumpet, Tony Malaby’s tenor saxophone, Darak Oles’s double bass and Matt Wilson’s drums. Bill Frisell’s gorgeous, slow-burning “Throughout” made a lovely encore. The evening was sprinkled with fine solos from Malaby and his fellow tenorist Chris Cheek, Loren Stillman on alto, Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Marshall Gilkes on trombone, Vincent Chauncey on French horn, Earl McIntyre on tuba and Steve Cardenas on guitar. Oles, who perhaps had the hardest gig of the night, did the right thing by playing Haden’s parts and evoking his spirit without trying to be him.

But the heart of the concert came in the long, carefully wrought medley of “America the Beautiful”, “Lift Every Heart and Sing” and Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America”, and particularly in the arrangement of “Amazing Grace” to which Bley brings every bit of her great and precious expertise at making highly schooled musicians sound like the world’s greatest town brass band. As they played it, investing every note with humanity, I couldn’t help thinking of Obama’s sudden decision, during his address to the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a US senator, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June last year, to sing the song as part of his eulogy to the priest and the eight other victims murdered by a white supremacist during a Bible study class. It’s a different world now.

* Time/Life is out now on the Impulse label.

Jarrett & Haden revisited

Keith Jarrett:Charlie HadenI like Keith Jarrett best when he’s forced to deal with vulnerability. Sometimes it’s his own, as in the exquisite solo album called The Melody at Night, With You, which he recorded at his home in 1998 when his store of energy was still depleted after two years of musical inactivity caused by a persistent condition called chronic fatigue syndrome (he talked about it to me the following year, and you can find the interview here). In the case of his new album, Last Dance, it’s that of Charlie Haden, his long-time friend and musical partner.

Jarrett’s virtuosity is undeniable. No doubt it was hard-won, and it has led him to some interesting places, but I prefer it when he has to think about music from another perspective. To me, that’s when his real musicality becomes apparent: when the essence, rather than the surface, is all there is.

Last Dance is the second release from sessions he and Haden conducted in 2007, when they played standard tunes together in the relaxed environment of Jarrett’s home studio in New Jersey. The first, titled Jasmine, was released four years ago and, like The Melody at Night, With You, found a large and appreciative audience (beguiled not least by a brief but glowing reading of Joe Sample’s “One Day I’ll Fly Away”). I think Last Dance is the better of the two.

Haden, who suffered from polio as a child, has encountered further health problems in recent years, including a couple of conditions, tinnitus and hyperacousis, related to his hearing. His playing is no longer as strong as it was when he strummed that famous solo on Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin'” in 1959 or plucked the beautiful melody of his “Song for Che” on the classic Liberation Music Orchestra album 10 years later. When I listened to Jasmine on its release, I thought the signs of debilitation were evident: if his lines beneath Jarrett’s improvisations, were clear, they seemed to lack vitality.

I have no such problem with Last Dance. Whether it’s me, or whether Jarrett and Haden (or the executive producer, Manfred Eicher) selected tracks for the first release that expressed a certain mood, I can’t say. But the programming of the new album — including lengthy explorations of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship”, Monk’s “Round Midnight”, Richard Rodgers’ “It Might As Well Be Spring” and Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, with a change of pace on Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels” — creates an ambiance that, while no less reflective, seems to possess a greater degree of intellectual vigour.

For evidence, compare the two versions of Gordon Jenkins’s “Goodbye”, one on each album. It’s probably my favourite song, as I wrote here last year, so I always listen to it with special interest. Whereas the reading on Jasmine didn’t move me greatly, and still doesn’t, this alternative take seems absolutely perfect, drawing out the finest eloquence from both men (and Haden in particular). Maybe it’s a matter of context: the choice and sequencing of tracks. Maybe it’s just a mystery. Whatever it is, Last Dance is a wonderful album. A small masterpiece, in fact.

* The photograph of Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden is from the sleeve of Jasmine and was taken by Rose Anne Jarrett. Jasmine and Last Dance are on ECM Records.

Charlie’s angels

Haden Triplets 2Richard Thompson once told me his theory, rooted in an early devotion to the Everly Brothers, that there is nothing quite like the sound of blood relatives singing together. Tanya, Rachel and Petra Haden might be a case in point.

They were born in New York on October 11, 1971 to Ellen Haden and her husband Charlie, who had come to prominence as the double bassist with Ornette Coleman’s great quartet of 1959-61 and later as the leader of his own Liberation Music Orchestra. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Haden’s classic solo on Ornette’s “Ramblin'”, from Change of the Century, and over the last 40-odd years the Liberation Music Orchestra has been one of the great positive forces in the music.

Charlie was born in Iowa; at the age of two he started singing with his family’s band, who performed country songs on radio and at country fairs. When polio ruined his voice at 15, he switched to the double bass and developed an interest in jazz. Later he moved to Los Angeles, and the rest is part of jazz history. A few years ago he explored his roots in a fine album called Rambling Boy.

His triplet daughters, born (like his son Josh, who leads the band Spain) to his first wife, grew up surrounded by music. On visits to their father’s parents in Missouri, they learnt the country songs of his childhood. At home there was usually something good playing — “whether it be our mom playing Billie Holiday and Nina Simone records, or our dad playing Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman in the living room,” as they write in the notes to their first album together, The Haden Triplets. They’ve all worked in music for many years, with credits including the Foo Fighters, the Queens of the Stone Age, Beck, Green Day and Todd Rundgren. Almost 10 years ago Petra recorded a acappella album called Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out, which was exactly what it said and earned Pete Townshend’s admiration.

Here’s a short promo film for the sisters’ album, which is released on Third Man Records, Jack White’s label. Perhaps a little confusingly, Tanya Haden’s husband is the actor Jack Black, and the album was recorded — at the insistence of Ry Cooder, who produced it — in their house, with one microphone for the singers and their accompanists: Cooder on guitar and mandolin, his son Joachim on drums and Rene Camacho on bass, with occasional touches of fiddle from Petra and cello from Tanya.

The bulk of the repertoire is drawn from hallowed country and bluegrass sources: the Louvin Brothers (“Tiny Broken Heart”, “My Baby’s Gone” and “When I Stop Dreaming”), Bill Monroe (“Voice from on High” and “Memories of Mother and Dad”), the Carter Family (“Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?”, “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “Oh Take Me Back”), the Stanley Brothers (“Lonesome Night”) and Kitty Wells (“Making Believe”). It suits their voices very nicely: while none of the three seems to be a particularly distinctive singer, together they make close harmonies that are appropriately plaintive. When they step outside the idiom, with the poppier “Slowly” or Nick Lowe’s “Raining Raining”, the results aren’t quite as convincing, although never less that pleasant.

On the best songs the sense of intimacy is very appealing. The Haden Triplets has the atmosphere of music made in the family parlour, for their own enjoyment and for that of their circle of friends, of whom we are made to feel a part. And sometimes, as with the glorious “Voice from on High”,  you just want to lift your own voice and join in.

* The photograph of Rachel, Petra and Tanya Haden is from the inside cover of The Haden Triplets and was taken by Jo McCaughey.

Lee Konitz: the improviser at 85

Lee Konitz 1No musician interrogates a song more thoroughly than the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz: separating its components, wiping off the accumulated dirt and scraping away the rust, holding the bits up to the light, examining them from all angles, and then reassembling them in a more interesting form. He was doing it in 1947, when he made his first recordings with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, aged 20. He is still doing today, halfway through his ninth decade.

He’s featured on a new CD, Costumes Are Mandatory, released on the HighNote label and recorded in August 2012 with a quartet under the leadership of the pianist Ethan Iverson, noted for his work with the trio The Bad Plus. The bassist Larry Grenadier and the drummer Jorge Rossy complete the group. Together with two other albums released in the past couple of years, Live at Birdland (ECM), recorded in December 2009 with Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and Enfants Terribles (Half Note), made in June 2011 with Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock and Joey Baron, it provides a view of a great artist in his final years, his work subject to the changes imposed by time and the ageing process.

The late work of a long-lived great artist is always interesting and can provide a fascinating distillation of his or her career-long preoccupations. Sometimes the reduced powers are physical, sometimes they are mental. The painter Willem De Kooning was suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s disease when, in his eighties, he produced a series of strange, pale, almost luminous canvases that seemed like the ghosts of his former work. Fortunately, any reduction in Konitz’s powers is purely physical; the articulation might not be as swift, but the intellect is as sharp as ever.

No longer the fleet-footed musical athlete of his youth, when he and his fellow saxophonist Warne Marsh leapt with such alacrity over the high hurdles set for them by their mentor, the pianist Lennie Tristano, now Konitz deploys his reduced powers to different ends. The last of his strength is being spent on searching his material — almost always drawn from the standard American songbook — for new connections, new angles, new avenues of approach.

My best memory of Konitz is also one of my best memories of music, full stop. It comes from about 30 years ago, and a night at a short-lived jazz club called the Canteen on Great Queen Street in Covent Garden, occupying premises that had formerly been Blitz, the headquarters of the New Romantic movement, would later become a discotheque and now house a lap-dancing club. The Canteen, although ultimately unsuccessful in its attempt to rival Ronnie Scott’s, was for a while a very good place to hear such people as Esther Phillips, Chet Baker and Lee Konitz.

On the night in question Konitz was accompanied by an excellent British rhythm section: the pianist (and composer) Bob Cornford, the young bassist Paul Morgan and the experienced drummer Trevor Tompkins. What I remember most vividly is that one complete set was taken up by a treatment of “On Green Dolphin Street”, the Hollywood film theme composed by Bronislau Kaper in 1947 and rescued just under a decade later by Ahmad Jamal, who was responsible for its subsequent popularity among jazz musicians. Konitz started out by improvising unfamiliar and seemingly arbitrary phrases, inviting the other three musicians to go along with him as he gradually allowed these shreds of melody to take new forms, uncovered the connective tissue between them. This mesmerising process reached its apogee when, after much feinting and seeming disgression, Kaper’s theme gradually began to emerge and was stated for the first time as the piece ended. It was like watching a film of an explosion being run backwards in super slow motion.

Lee Konitz 3He does something similar, at a more compressed and less exalted level, on the version of “What’s New” included in Costumes Are Mandatory, allowing Iverson to lead the way, before entering with a phrase from the theme which is quickly deformed into a series of glancing allusions to the original tune, inventing their own sense as they go along. This is something that used to be called “thematic improvisation”, and it is almost a lost art. His distinctive tone — which once proposed an alternative to the all-pervasive influence of Charlie Parker — may be more fibrous and less robust than in his youth or his prime, and the comparison with Live at Birdland and Enfants Terribles indicates that time is having an inevitable effect, but it remains the perfect vehicle for his thoughts.

Konitz, of course, was a member of Miles Davis’s famous 1948 nonet, the Birth of the Cool band, and another personal memory of his playing comes from 1991, when he appeared at London’s South Bank with a band billed as Re-Birth of the Cool, an attempt by another original member, Gerry Mulligan, to recreate those celebrated sessions. Lew Soloff played Davis’s parts, and the other original present was Bill Barber, the tuba-player. For me, the outstanding impression was left by the way Konitz approached the project: he was the only one not interested in honouring the past by recreating it note-for-note but was intent on playing as though more than 40 years had passed and the world had moved on.

Working as a soloist for hire suits him because it presents him with a constant variety of challenges. That is how he has operated throughout his career, which has never been short of recorded documentation, from those early sides with Thornhill, Davis, Tristano and Stan Kenton through his own albums on Atlantic and Verve, his fascinating and fearless encounters with Martial Solal, Elvin Jones, Albert Mangelsdorff, Kenny Wheeler and countless others, to this most recent crop of albums. As a body of work, it offers not just a vast quantity of great music but a salutary lesson in the value of living in the present.

* The photograph of Konitz at the top is a detail from the cover of the 1955 Atlantic album Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh, taken by William Claxton. The lower photograph is a detail from the cover of Costumes Are Mandatory, taken by John Rogers. For those who want to know more, I thoroughly recommend Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art by Andy Hamilton, published by the University of Michigan Press in 2007.