Saturday, November 13, 2010

Classy Affair: Charlie Haden's Quartet West's Sophisticated Ladies

In 1992, Charlie Haden's Quartet West released a remarkable jazz album. It was called Haunted Heart and it featured the bass player’s quartet with Ernie Watts on tenor sax, Alan Broadbent on piano and Larance Marable on drums. The album was a soundtrack to Los Angeles, without the pictures, although it portrayed L.A. in a cinematic way. The album opens with the Warner Brothers fanfare composed by Max Steiner and segues into a composition called "Hello My Lovely" played by the quartet. Even better was the use of period recordings from the 1940s. Songs by Jo Stafford, Jeri Southern and Billie Holiday were brilliantly woven into the texture and tone creating a moving picture in the mind.

Two years later, Quartet West released a follow-up album called Always Say Goodbye featuring a thematic presentation based on The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. This time the quartet was featured playing period recordings by sax great, Coleman Hawkins, Jo Stafford, Chet Baker and the Duke Ellington Orchestra featuring Ray Nance on violin. A musical excerpt from the Warner Brothers movie, The Big Sleep, including dialogue between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, concluded the album. This album also created an interesting concept rarely tried in jazz: the mash up.

This new release, Sophisticated Ladies, further re-interprets the past, but this time featuring the contemporary voices of Melody Gardot, Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Renee Fleming and Ruth Cameron, Haden's wife. Of course, with this much talent crowding the room, the results are uneven. But it's still remarkable what some singers, if they're prepared, can bring to a song. Therefore, the successful tracks on Sophisticated Ladies are by the better singers. Namely, Wilson, Krall and Fleming. The other three fail to dazzle my ears and perhaps it's because the material isn't suitable to the vocalist. For instance, Norah Jones does her best with "Ill Wind," one of the best torch ballads in the American Songbook, but I'm not convinced the wind is blowing her "no good." As for Melody Gardot, on "If I'm Lucky," a rarely recorded song by Edgar De Lange, she seems to be getting bad vocal coaching. Her vibrato styling on this song spoils the purity of the melody.

Then comes Cassandra Wilson on "My Love and I" by Johnny Mercer. It's so beautifully rendered that I wondered why the band didn't record more songs featuring her. She knows how to phrase and she's getting better as she gets older, but then Wilson has always been a gifted vocalist ever since her debut some 25 years ago. Charlie Haden's wife, Ruth Cameron does a decent job on "Let's Call It Day" recorded by Lee Wiley. It's well phrased and Broadbent's arrangement is sympathetic to the vocal, but it seems unfocussed. Renee Fleming, whose really good pop record Dark Hope was released last May, ended up universally panned, except my me (click here to read the review) and her publicist. She shows up on this album with her interpretation of " A Love Like This," an obscure song written by Ned Washington and Victor Young. The only other version I know is by Helen Merrill who is untouchable for her interpretation of American songs. But Fleming makes a good effort here stretching out the phrasing to achieve a more sensual interpretation of the track.

Charlie Haden's Quartet West
Lastly, the unstoppable Diana Krall gets to sing one of the saddest songs ever written, "Goodbye" by Gordon Jenkins. It's an appropriate choice for the vocalist whose natural inclination is to sing as slowly as possible. "Goodbye" is a lament and Krall knows it. I never tire of hearing it in any version. This song was once made famous by Benny Goodman as his closing theme song from his radio broadcasts in the 1930s and this version with Quartet West ranks as one of the best in music.

And speaking of the Quartet, the album features the band on instrumental tracks designed to carry the musical narrative. Standards like "My Old Flame" and "Sophisticated Lady" grace the record making it a classy affair. It's nice to hear an album that feels intimate without being schmaltzy. It speaks to the quality of the musicians and Charlie Haden's sensitivity to the music, a quality he expresses each and every time he plays.

So while not the strongest record Quartet West has done in this so-called series, it still holds up as one of inspired quality and taste.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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