Eight 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.