Charlie Haden

Charlie’s last song

It pains me that this blog increasingly looks like a jazz musicians obituary  but what can you do, they are passing on, one after the other.

The profoundness of Charlie Haden’s contribution to modern jazz and bass playing cannot be overstated. In Ornette Coleman’s opinion, he had the biggest ears. If there ever was a sound close to the human voice on the upright, Haden was probably its quintessential representative. My admittedly screwy theory is that when he lost his vocal chords to polio aged 15, he got even with life and decided to turn his bass into a midrange baritone voice (not sure it’s the right descriptor though!).  He could carry a tune, that’s for sure. I’ve already contributed some basic analysis of his style in an old post. So I feel like the best way to remember him by is to listen, over and over again, and realize ecstatically how deeply he listened. Unsurprisingly, my man over at DTM has all the good stuff, complete with lengthy interviews, insightful analysis, and a wealth of archives.

Very nice tribute post from Hank Shteamer here.


Selected recent recordings:

Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden: Last Song (ECM, 2014)

Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden: Jasmine (ECM, 2010)

Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian: Live at Birdland (ECM, 2011)




All the things you’ve always wanted to know about modern jazz, but were afraid to ask

Photo by Ruth Cameron

Photo by Ruth Cameron

From left to right and top to bottom: Dave King, Joshua Redman, Jeff Ballard, Larry Grenadier, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson

Talk about inspiration. What a lineup! I just lifted this photo from Ethan Iverson’s indispensable DTM blog. To think that this was taken backstage last Saturday at a concert featuring the double bill of The Bad Plus + Joshua Redman and The Brad Mehldau Trio, with Charlie Haden in attendance, can only make me want to do two things once the goose bumps on my skin have subsided and the frustration of missing the gig wears off:  play any record by these musicians over and over again, or pluck away at my bass strings until Haden’s voice agrees to rub off on me.

Sometimes words cannot match the evocative power of a simple picture. This coming-together of peers with Haden as elder statesman is a case in point of the jazz continuum. This art form has always been about cross-pollination, mentorship and a relentless quest for creativity. On the surface, The Bad Plus pairing with Joshua Redman feels like a revival band of Keith Jarrett’s so-called “American quartet” from the 70s, a modern jazz group consisting of Jarrett, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden and Dewer Redman (Joshua’s father). In fact, the band has proudly acknowledged their musical debt to these trailblazers and it’s striking to hear traces of that music reshaped into, well, Bad Plus music. I have yet to warm up to Joshua Redman’s albums but he sure picked up the Plus’ infectiously gnarly songs fast!  That’s enough for me to give him a good listen and recognize his awesomeness. As to Mehldau, Grenadier and Ballard, they fit right in there as well, having shared the bandstand with Haden, Redman and Motian in various settings and embodying a like-minded generation of seasoned improvisers. With that kind of apprenticeship on your resume, you’ve got some serious chops to look ahead and forget the meaning of unemployment. The late Paul Motian is sorely missing from this picture, though. So is Ornette Coleman. That might have been a little over the top.  Once again, Haden comes off as the unifying veteran of this continuum, a ubiquitous icon whose influence beyond sheer bass playing has yet to be adequately appreciated. The LA Times review will give you a snapshot sense of what he heard from his seat.  But what did he actually think? We’ll probably never know.

Selected song recommendations:

The Bad Plus, 2.P.M. (Never Stop), one of Iverson’s signature angular songs, where the American Quartet/Ornette Coleman influence shines through.

Ornette Coleman, Street Woman (Science Fiction). Ornette’s “Lonely Woman”, a tad disoriented.  Also tastefully covered by The Bad Plus on Give.

The Bad Plus, Snowball (Never Stop). Kill the lights, get your warmest sweater and listen to Reid Anderson’s Hadenesque ode to slowness at 2:30. Time stands still and everything is slow, slow, slow.

The Sound of Soul

The year-end top ten lists are rolling in on the Internet and I still don’t know where in the world 2012 went. A good excuse not to go through the ordeal of finding ten albums actually released in 2012.

The adjective soulful has to be the hardest to define and translate into French (presumably into any language). Yet it immediately comes to mind when I reflect on the music I’ve listened to ad nauseam this year. Pianist Geri Allen and bassist Charlie Haden clearly stand out from the pack when I try to condense a year’s worth of intense listening. Both musicians have incorporated wide-ranging influences into their playing and artistry. Both have a profound sense of soul.

Charlie has a deeply resonant tone that’s immediately recognizable, a unique way to reach into the depths of the bass and extract its earthy substance. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to trace this sound all the way back to his boyhood days in Iowa as a bluegrass singer in the family band. One thing that keeps blowing my mind about his bass lines is their consistently singing quality, no matter who he plays with, from Ornette Coleman to Keith Jarrett. His style could be described as economical, lyrical, and deeply grounded. He often goes for a few well-chosen notes that he breaks down into descending or ascending motifs, like a melody moving in half or whole steps. One record I’ve been playing a lot this year is the Mehldau, Konitz, Motian Live at Birdland (ECM, 2011). Everyone plays ridiculously great here even though I wish Charlie’s accompanying lines had been a little higher in the mix. But when it’s Charlie’s turn to give his rendition of the standard, his lines unfold with amazing clarity and even the subdued but very present Paul Motian lays out. They all want to hear Charlie’s song.

Charlie also has a knack for quoting, and his inspirations range from La Marseillaise (I forgot on which tracks but he definitely digs this one!) to Lady Sings the Blues, on Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. The way he brings that up casually in his solo as if it was part of the tune is just insane. The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson is a huge fan and you can probably track down his insightful analysis of Charlie’s playing somewhere on DTM.

As for Geri Allen, she is definitely my favorite of the year. Her album The Life of a Song (2004)with heavy players Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette has been on the player about 50 times this year. Boy, can she lay down the groove and still sound highly melodic and inspired. Like Charlie, Geri runs the gamut of improvised music, equally at ease with free or straight-ahead jazz.  Mix in Herbie Hancock’s funkiness, McCoy Tyner’s modalism and Cecil Taylor’s percussive attack and you get Geri Allen. In fact, her solo album Flying Toward the Sound references these influences explicitly. How she synthesizes this lineage and still sounds like her distinct self commands attention. That, and her ability to imbue every song she plays with deep sensuality without succumbing to sentimentality. When I went out to hear Geri with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel earlier this fall in Paris, my jaw dropped so low I thought it might come off. Geri’s playing is so tight she’d put James Brown and Otis Redding to shame, with all due respect to these masters of soul. Am I right or am I right?

Selected recordings of Charlie Haden:

With the Ornette Coleman Quartet: everything!

Charlie Haden and Hampton Hawes,  As Long as There’s Music (Verve, 1976)

Charlie Haden, Geri Allen, Paul Motian, Etudes (Soul Note, 1987)

The Golden Number, duets with Keith Jarrett, Don Cherry, Hampton Hawes, Archie Shepp (Horizon, 1976)

Brad Mehdlau, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Live at Birdland (ECM, 2011)

Selected recordings of Geri Allen:

The Life of a Song (Telarc, 2004)

Flying Toward the Sound (Motema Music, 2010)

Twenty One, with Ron Carter and Tony Williams (Blue Note, 1994)

Etudes (Soul Note, 1987)

The Gathering (Polygram records, 1998)

Ursina Commedia

Credit: Rick Smit, Creative Commons License

Credit: Rick Smit, Creative Commons License

I seem to be obsessed with animals these days. But when one of them happens to be a talking bear that plays the alto sax and waxes philosophical about the human, uh, bear condition, I feel compelled to go ahead and look under all that fur.

The Bear (or alternatively Bear), as he is simply referred to in Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home (Norton, 1998) has gotten sick and tired of the freak show routine under the friendly supervision of his sidekick Jones ( a human).  Getting up on his hind legs to impress the incredulous crowds is a bit undignified for a bear that can play the clarinet part of the Mozart quintet with a few snout adjustments. But the musical odyssey he embarks on with the benevolent assistance of Jones, now become a proactive manager, presents an equally daunting challenge: Coming into his own on the saxophone without compromising his musical vision, making it through the late-night gigs as police squads prowl around, keeping a band together as the success of a recording contract comes with the drawback of touring US backwaters where mediocre gigs are sapping group morale. To add insult to injury, Bear is in love with the stunningly beautiful and tormented Iris, and this improbable but passionate relationship is proving too overwhelming for his big-hearted self. Their dialogue often has a bantering yet fairly intellectual edge:

“My thoughts ain’t worth that much,” he said.

“I don’t’ believe you.”

“You know that line of Rilke’s? Beauty is nothing but the beginning of a terror we are just able to bear?”

“You think it might be a reference to you? That’s rich.”

Amazingly enough, for all the Bear’s quirks and witticisms, there is never any doubt about his genetic identity. He is a bear, a talking four-legged mammal striving for beauty and love in the tumultuous world of humans.  And it is precisely his hard-edged humanness that causes him to experience the most uplifting moments of life (playing his heart out alongside his musical heroes, making love, rambling through the wilderness and teaching a bird how to sing Monk right!, etc) as well as the darkest hours (a dreary time in prison with a wacky German doctor who has “trouble with ze dipdthssong”). Meanwhile, Jones, also has his share of troubles and when a gang of angry kids beat up on him in Washington Square Park, he comes to reflect on his own humanity:  “How to be human, how to be human, I don’t know how it’s done. What is a man anyway?”

The bear, “on the other paw”, is incessantly engaged in a soul-searching quest to transfigure his gigantically awkward self into a caring and dependable presence (for Iris, Jones, or his band members). Filled with humor and insightful descriptions of the tribulations of jazz life, the book features an impressive cast of fictitious and genuine characters including bassist Charlie Haden or drummer Billy Hart among others. This is obviously a gem for music lovers, replete with highly detailed musical analysis and jazz memorabilia. But the book doesn’t let down the neophyte, who will also find food for thought aplenty. As he picks his way through a second solo during a fast and eventful tune, Bear ponders on the music playing out around him, revealing the compelling urgency at work in the most fervent artistic pursuits:

            “Listen to these guys, he thought, hearing Haden and Billy’s accompaniments and insinuations, the flex of beat, the suggested harmonic divagation, the threat or promise of distant thunder, eventual rain. Where else could you find a music like this? Where else encounter such simultaneous discipline and abandon? It was a whole rich multifarious world, and if you went outside its visible parameters you could draw from anything out there and bring it back in without bowing obeisance to any foreign gods. All you had to do was be able to play. All you had to do was know how to put it together. All you had to do was see how it already was together in potential, articulate and complete, and at the same time throw yourself wholly into the maelstrom of unknown process. All you had to know was the little secret that made it swing. It was no big deal. It was life, is all, no more no less.”

 By the end of the novel, the Bear is still struggling with the vagaries of life but he seems closer than ever to resolving the existential dilemma: “Who could have imagined how large joy is once you’re cut loose from the farce of having to be someone”. While the book does get a little lengthy in places, the serpentine sentences have a musical quality that seems entirely justified here. Jazz fans will revel in the inside stories sprinkled in throughout the narrative and the characters’ dialogue but beyond the music, or accompanied by it, it is the bigger picture of social alienation and the quest for the healing power of art that is depicted here. That should speak to quite a few of us furless humans.

The Bear Comes Home (Norton, 1998) is the first novel by writer and jazz drummer Rafi Zabor. Thank you D. for hipping me to this one. Amis francophones, le livre est paru sous le titre Un Ours à Manhattan (Denoël, 1999, traduit de l’anglais par Philippe Rouard)