Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Remembering Charlie Haden

I never met Charlie Haden. I never heard him play live, for that matter. Old and New Dreams, Haden’s Ornette Coleman-inspired quartet, came to the Children’s Theater in 1979. But I’m not much of a fan of that strand of Haden’s diverse oeuvre.

Remembering Haden (he died a few days ago following a long illness), would consist, then, of a trip down the discography, spotting an LP or a CD here and there that’s familiar to me. As a bassist, he was a bit of a “thumper.” But to my eyes, seeing his name on a performance was a seal of quality. He had very good musical taste.

Haden was a Iowa native, and he started his musical career early singing folk songs with the Haden family band on the radio. When singing was no longer an option due to a bout with polio, Haden started to fiddle around with his older brother’s double bass. By his early twenties, Haden was in Los Angeles playing with Paul Bley, Art Pepper, and Hampton Hawes.

Haden joined Ornette Coleman’s group in 1959, and appears on Coleman’s seminal The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959). It’s a bouncy production, as I recall, full of child-like tunes with microtones here and there but no real chord changes. I haven’t listened to it since the turntable went down decades ago. Likewise with Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (Atlantic, 1961), a larger ensemble that sounds like a haunting multi-car freeway pile-up.

But Haden was also deep into mainstream jazz, as is evidenced on one of my favorite albums of the era, pianist Denny Zeitlin’s Carnival (Columbia, 1964). I did love Archie Shepp’s  Mama Too Tight (Impulse!, 1967) during my high school years, though less for the free jazz screaming than for the rich brass sound on “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Basheer.”

When fusion arrived on the jazz scene, I left. My next encounter with a Haden recording was Gitane with French guitarist Christian Escoudé (All Life, 1978). Not bad, though only the first track really swings. Ten years later Haden reappears (in my collection) on a stimulating trio date, Etudes, with Geri Allen and Paul Motian (Soul Note, 1987); and a meditative but somehow classic quartet recording, Silence, with Chet Baker, Enrico Pieranunzi, and Billy Higgins (Soul Note, 1987).

One of Charlie’s misfires was a duet album,  Dialogues, with Carlos Paredes, a master of the Portuguese guitar (Antilles, 1990). That instrument resembles a mandolin and is typically played in the semi-halting mournful style of fado. You can hear it to good affect on Paredes’s solo album, Guitarra portuguesa (1967). The bass accompaniment on Dialogues doesn’t add much to the sound. Haden seems always to be a half-step behind.

At about the same time. Haden got into a fertile groove with his Quartet West ensemble, spinning sophisticated solos off lush arrangements of movie tunes from the forties and fifties. I still listen to Haunted Heart (Verve, 1991) and Always Say Goodbye (Verve, 1993) quite a bit. Then there’s a sprightly trio date, Wanton Spirit, with master pianist Kenny Barron and ageless drummer Roy Haynes (Gitane, 1994) followed two years later by a superb album, Night and the City, recorded live in a nightclub setting with Barron alone (Verve, 1996).

Other recordings of that year suggest how broad Haden’s musical interested still ranged: Falling Off the Roof (Atlantic) with rock drummer Ginger Baker, guitarist Bill Frisell, and banjo player Bella Fleck; Alone Together (Blue Note, 1996) with bebop elder Lee Konitz and the then-young Turk pianist Brad Meldhau; and Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories) with guitarist Pat Metheny (Verve).

When the Metheny album came out, I recall saying to myself, “Charlie Haden will make a duet album with anybody!” failing to consider how deeply indebted both he and Metheny were to Ornette Coleman. Reading the liner notes, I discovered their ties ran deeper still. The two, Midwesterners both, had known each other for decades, and Haden had been best man at Metheny’s wedding.

Haden’s American Dreams (Verve, 2002) with Michael Brecker on tenor, Brad Mehldau on piano, and Brian Blade on drums, is largely ruined by the string orchestra. Translinear Light (Impulse!, 2004) with Alice Coltrane and her son Ravi, is enlivened by the Wurlitzer organ and the Eastern sensibility of the melodic lines. And Jasmine, yet another duet album recorded in pianist Keith Jarrett’s home studio, (ECM, 2010) is a master class in thoughtful collaboration.(They're pictured together at the top of the page.)

Pondering this vastly incomplete personal cross-section of Haden’s long career here in front of the computer, I listened to a few iTunes excerpts from his Old and New Dreams phase, but in the end, I downloaded  Special Encounter (Cam Jazz, 2005) a straightforward trio date with Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi.

It’s not an earth-shattering date, but it’s a consistently musical one, as usual, with quite a bit of open space and a lyrical bass solo on the opening track, “My Old Flame.”


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