Thursday, July 24, 2014

Going Down Swinging: Remembering Charlie Haden 1937-2014

Charlie Haden (1937-2014)
The jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who died July 11, was an easy artist to pigeonhole. It pleases me to believe that, because I unfairly pigeonholed him for years, admiring his playing but thinking of him as a sidekick to the great saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. When Haden was twenty-two, he played on Coleman’s third album, the aptly titled The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959). Haden continued to play with Coleman on bandstands and on tour and on such albums as This Is Our Music (1960), Free Jazz (1961), Science Fiction (1971), In All Languages (1987), and the 1971 set of duets, Soapsuds, Soapsuds. He also came together with three other Coleman acolytes—Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, and Ed Blackwell—to form Old and New Dreams, a free-jazz super-group devoted to interpretations of the master’s early repertoire.

I discovered Coleman and Haden in my late teens, long after the revolution in sound that Coleman had begun in the 1950s had been won, or at least fought to a standstill. Moldy figs—a group that, in Coleman’s case, included such unlikely counter-revolutionaries as Miles Davis—no longer called the man a charlatan who was most likely insane, at least not out loud, where people could hear them. At the time, I didn’t know anything about jazz, old or new, and lacked easy access to the stuff. For myself and a lot of other people like me, who were into wild, abrasive rock, the electricity and crazy force of Coleman’s music, and the music of such disciples as the guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer and the late drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, provided the clearest gateway into the music. Both those guys would drop massive, album-length statements—in particular, Ulmer’s Odyssey (1983) and Jackson’s Red Warrior (1991)—that mesmerized listeners at the nexus point between rock and jazz like the Monolith from 2001. But neither demonstrated the range of interests and abilities that Haden displayed over the course of his career, until his shadow loomed almost as large as Coleman’s own. (Haden’s own connections to rock were also familial: he had four children, musicians all, including Petra and Rachel Haden of the great lost ‘90s indie band That Dog. Petra also recorded an awesomely weird “a cappella” version of the single greatest rock album of all time, The Who Sell Out.)

My first inkling that Haden was a great big deal all by himself came through his fusing of music with revolutionary politics. He debuted his Liberation Music Orchestra with a self-titled album in 1969, which included Coleman’s “War Orphans,” interstitial compositions by Carla Bley, and a Haden original called “Song for Che.” Amazingly, the music isn’t covered with dust now; it’s still alive and kicking, because Haden was committed to communicating through feeling and beauty. In 1982, he revived the LMO handle for The Ballad of the Fallen, an achingly beautiful album dedicated to the spirit of the Spanish Civil War, and to the angry, rueful feelings inspired by American policies in Latin America during Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term. (Haden’s willingness to put his money where his mouth was extended beyond releasing music meant to express anti-imperialist sentiments at a moment when there was no market for it; in the early ‘70s, he was briefly jailed for playing “Song for Che” and dedicating it to anti-colonialist guerrilla forces while touring Portugal with Coleman.)

In a culture that celebrates specialists, that honors people for their determination to cover the same ground over and over again (or maybe their inability to do anything else), Haden may have gotten pigeonholed by people like me because it was hard to take in how much ground he covered, how many different sounds and styles he mastered. The day I learned that he had died, I had, on a whim, put on Haunted Heart, an album he released in 1991 with yet another of his bands, Quartet West. That group, which featured the pianist Alan Broadbent and the saxophonist Ernie Watts, may have been Haden’s purest expression of Haden’s desire to simply, in critic Fred Kaplan’s words, “play a gorgeous song.” Haunted Heart, which begins with an “ouer feature presentation will now begin” fanfare, includes songs by Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Cole Porter, Glenn Miller, and Howard Dietz, along with movie themes and new songs by Broadbent named for Raymond Chandler novels (“The Long Goodbye,” “Lady in the Lake”).

It also seamlessly incorporates vocals by singers from the ‘40s and ‘50s: Billie Holiday, Jo Stafford, and Jeri Southern—not as a show of technological gimmickery, as in the “duets” that Natalie Cole and Hank Williams, Jr. released with their famous fathers, but for the bluesy aesthetic quality the old voices bestow upon the neo-noir feel of the music, almost as collaborators. The sound is very far away from the jagged, wild rhythms of Coleman’s early work, but it’s as alive as the thousandth showing of Double Indemnity or The Big Sleep on Turner Classic Movies. It’s one of the best movies you will ever hear.

 Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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