42. A different voice

First Song: For Ruth, from Charlie Haden Quartet West, In Angel City. 1988

Charlie Haden has already appeared here, but he was always going to crop up again. His lovingly nurtured Quartet West project produced a series of gorgeous albums that were love letters to LA, and its mid-century culture. This, the second, remains a favourite of the bunch.

Haden could play anything, of course, but like all my favourite “free” players he dug deep into regular tunes when he felt like it – never more so than with this band – and wrote a few memorable ones himself. This one is a shining example.

In keeping with the inspiration for the band, Quartet West featured West Coast players. Larance Marable on drums took over from Billy Higgins from this recording on, Alan Broadbent played piano, and – most crucially for the overall sound – uber-session man Ernie Watts played tenor saxophone.

The variety of sounds people extract from the tenor is one of the great pleasures of the music, and Watts – who I first encountered on Frank Zappa’s King Kong and in his Grand Wazoo big band – sounds like no-one else. Well out of the main line of tenor heroes, he has a light, slightly keening tone, and perfect control, deployed to good effect one assumes on innumerable LA studio sessions. He has made a few well-regarded albums of his own, but to my mind this is his best setting. He at least comes across so well that Morton and Cook remark that the quartet sounds like “the Ernie Watts group under an alias”.

All the Quartet West recordings show what an outstanding soloist he is. There’s a lengthy version of Lonely Woman on ths one which was reprised at a much later Quartet West gig in London, yielding one the single best tenor sax excursions I think I’ve ever heard. But this romantic ballad also shows him at his best. Like all great tenor players, his technical command allows him to weight each note in a phrase differently, at this tempo at any rate, giving him a near unlimited variation of expression. That gives the first theme statement great emotional heft, Watts outlining the tune accompanied just by piano chords. That carries through beautifully into his solo, with Haden and Marable gently cushioning the tenor’s first choruses and a limpid response from Broadbent before Watts returns to play us out.

Nothing to get critics excited about edges being sharpened or envelopes pushed going on here. No honks, screams or shrieks. No circular breathing or sheets of sound. Just seven minutes of simple beauty.

Why the No 42? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify

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