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Remembering Charlie Haden

November 25, 2016
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Last weekend, Charlie Haden was remembered in the best possible way, with a London concert by the large ensemble he led with arranger and co-conspirator Carla Bley, the inspiring and moving Liberation Music Orchestra. It was a poignant occasion, not least because if you google the LMO several stories appear about them playing in New York the night Obama was elected. The political climate now is so horribly different it almost seems a good thing Haden didn’t live to see the most recent US election. Only almost, because it would be wonderful if he was still here, and he himself would surely counsel the long view, as he did at so many earlier times since the LMO made its debut during the era of anti-Vietnam war protest.

That formation, which recorded a landmark album in 1969 (which I feel justified in listening to on Spotify because I own it on original vinyl) was drawn from the larger pool of players associated with  the co-operative Jazz Composers Orchestra. The presence of Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri, Paul Motian, and Michael Mantler gives it affinities with Bley’s monumental, unique Escalator Over the Hill from a few years later. Later, Bley’s efforts focussed on her own independent record label, Watt, one of the most successful efforts to keep control of an artistic career to come out of the self-help ethos of the ’60s, and the various versions of the LMO appeared on other labels, with varied personnel but always a recognisable sound, consolidated beautifully on Ballad of the Fallen on ECM with its strands of folk song and resistance anthems spun into orchestral gold.

The London concert has been well-served by reviewers – Peter SlavidPeter VacherRichard Williams and Peter Jones -so I’m not going to add to that little lot directly. But the evening did make me feel sad again about Haden’s loss, yet also encouraged by what can be preserved in this music.

Most of a jazz musician’s most characteristic work is only accessible on recording when they die. You feel that keenly when someone dies who you have listened to closely for many years. I first heard Haden live around 1979, or maybe 1980, when Old and New Dreams played the Hammersmith Odeon.  I remember saying to someone that night that it was a band with four members any of whom I’d happily listen to if they played alone (Redman, Cherry, Haden, Blackwell – all gone now). That sound of those four together won’t be heard again. Other strands in Haden’s work aren’t reproducible either. Live, I think of hearing the great trio with Geri Allen and Paul Motian, or Quartet West with Ernie Watts delivering some of the best tenor solos I’ve ever heard, not to mention the immeasurable delight of hearing Charlie and Ornette play a brief duet at Meltdown in 2009. On record, the two wonderful duo recordings with Hank Jones stand out as work near the core of his art which no-one else could emulate convincingly.

A large ensemble is the exception, though. It’s about the sound of the individual players, but also about the arrangements. You can, to a degree, separate the two. We have the Mingus Big Band, still playing regularly in New York, and touring. Loose Tubes reconvened after two decades with more or less the original personnel, but I have heard convincing performances of a few of their pieces by at least one other band. And the LMO, whose arrangements, all by Carla Bley, are very special, might turn out to be another vehicle that can be re-engineered to last.

It needs the right bass player of course. Steve Swallow – Bley’s partner – isn’t quite that. He is his usual superb self on the new tracks on the just released LMO CD, but that’s really the drawback – his electric sound makes it feel more like a Carla Bley big band than seems right. A new Carla Bley big band recording is always a fine thing to have, but not quite what we were after, somehow. For the live show, we had a fine upright bass player, Darek Oles, who had enough of Haden’s sound to get by, without intimating his solo style. (He was also audible: one of my less cherished recollections is an earlier LMO London gig, starting horribly late after the players were delayed on a road trip down from Edinburgh, in which the great man was really hard to hear. When I mentioned this to the sound desk, the guy at the controls replied: “Charlie says if you’re really listening you can feel it”. I obviously wasn’t.)

On Sunday we also had Bley, playing piano and conducting. The LMO has appeared live with and without her at various times, but there’s obviously more connection with the band we know if she’s there too. She looked, as several people commented, very frail on stage, though, so it’s not morbid to wonder how the orchestra might fare without her. She is always a shaping musical presence, and I love her piano playing, but it is a style that one can imagine someone else bringing off well enough to serve this band, I reckon. And a suitably skilled leader could get inside the music well enough to conduct – again, it’s the arrangements that make it all work, and they can be codified.

Was this gig the LMO’s swansong? If so, then so be it. But it would be lovely to think that something like this band will continue intermittently, or even that these marvellous arrangements will be published so that some other ensemble can keep them alive. We’ll see. Meantime, the other place the band survives is on YouTube, so here’s a helping of the 2004 edition, substantially the same as the personnel last weekend, but playing mainly pieces from Not in Our Name, the penultimate CD. If you want an even bigger helping, check out Live in Montreal, in which the closing rendition of We Shall Overcome lasts the best part of half an hour!

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