Saturday, 12 July 2014


Appropriately enough, Charlie Haden was born in Shenandoah. This was in Iowa; the name is the same as one of the greatest traditional American songs. He began singing professionally when he was two, country music, on the radio with the Haden Family Band. Polio turned him into a bass player, when it damaged his vocal chords. He followed his older brother on the upright bass, but he was more taken with classical music, especially Bach, and with jazz. When he was 20 he headed out to Los Angeles to study and to seek out Hampton Hawes. He played with Hawes, and Paul Bley, and Art Pepper, before he wound up in his first great band, the Ornette Coleman quartet, with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, who were busy inventing 'free jazz'

It makes sense, because Coleman was from Texas, with a heavy blues influence, and he could hear the country roots in Haden's bass. There's a lot of modern jazz, particularly involving Bill Frisell, that sounds like what jazz would be had it come out of country rather than the blues, and there's a lot of that underlying Coleman's relentless improvisations. With Coleman, Haden pushed the bass out front.

He left Coleman to enter Synanon, which if you're not of a certain age won't mean anything to you, to kick his drug habit. When he came out he got busy as a sideman for everyone from John Handy to Bobby Timmons, Pee Wee Russell to Red Allen. Then he joined Keith Jarrett's 'American Quartet', Jarrett fresh from Charles Lloyd, along with Dewey Redman and Paul Motian. There's a lot of Coleman and Coltrane there, as there was when he began recording with Old And New Dreams: Cherry, Redman, and drummer Ed Blackwell.

That's probably where I came in, working my way back to Ornette. I was gone from Montreal by the time of the Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden and Carla Bley's always evolving big band—Montreal always seemed to have a special place for him. The 'Liberation' part wasn't taken lightly; Haden had been detained in Portugal when he performed his 'Song For Che' there, and he was quizzed by the FBI after he returned stateside. By the time I left Montreal for London I was firmly embedded in the ECM jazz world—Jarrett's European Quartet and Gary Burton led me to Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber as well as Old And New Dreams. But it wasn't until the mid-80s, when I was again living on my own, that Charlie Haden really made an impact on me.

I caught up with his albums with Garbarek and Egberto Gismondi. I was immensely taken by Quartet West; with the great and versatile sax man Ernie Watts, alongside Alan Broadbent and Larance Marable; by then I was also immersed in film noir and Haunted Heart, their first album, touched a nerve. It's an amazing record, not just for its original compositions, but for the songs sung by Jo Stafford, Jeri Southern, and Billie Holliday. Stafford's 'Haunted Heart' is so, well, haunted, that I ran out and got one of her collections, only to discover it was the arrangement and the quartet that set her voice free; it's its time it was buried under a lava flow of sickly sweet charts, apparently by her husband.

Haden had a wonderful partnership with Pat Metheny, which began with 80/81, with Michael Brecker and Jack DeJohnette alongside Dewey Redman, and the 1986 record Song X, a re-working of and homage to Ornette Coleman which confounded those who found Metheny too glib. They culminated in the 1996 classic Beyond The Missouri Sky; two Midwestern boys playing the most lovely duets imaginable. Go back to 'Shenandoah', whose subtitle is 'Across The Wide Missouri'. I've played the disc almost to death; it played a huge part in winning my second ex, and it played an even bigger part in helping me through the pain of the breakup a decade later.

What's amazing in the two decades from the early 90s is the range of music Haden was playing. Folk songs and spirituals with Hank Jones; Latin music with Gonzago Rubalcaba; with pianists John Taylor and Kenny Barron; with Ginger Baker (a great trio with Bill Frisell); with the Italian guitarist Antonio Forcioni, a disc which my late father-in-law gave me, and which I treasure. In 2008 he made another country record with a new version of the Haden family; his wife Ruth Cameron (listen to the lovely 'Waltz For Ruth' on Missouri Sky, or live in 2009 here) including his son-in-law Jack Black.

I've been listening to a lot of Haden lately. Not the daytime Haden, the trios with Gery Allen and Paul Motian, or Joe Henderson and Al Foster. But the nighttime Haden. There's a 2012 two-disc set called Magico: Carta de Amor; a live recording of that band with Garbarek and Gismonti. There's Live At Birdland (2011) with Lee Konitz, Motian, and pianist Brad Mehldau. Most of all there's Jasmine (2010), duets with Keith Jarrett. By this time Haden was suffering from post-polio syndrome; Jarrett of course had suffered Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and come back a somewhat gentler player. Haden also suffered from tinnitus; he attributed it to the loudness of those early groups, and I've no doubt the polio left his ears more vulnerable; the quiet of his late work seems a just response to that. It suited the two of them, and their versions of standards resonate. They made a sequel, called Last Dance, which came out this year and topped Billboard's 'traditional' jazz chart.

I look back on what I've just written and it seems like a list—and a fairly incomplete list at that. I thought to myself, that doesn't do Charlie Haden justice, and then I realised that yes, it did. Because in a sense, I grew up in jazz with Charlie Haden. Everything from the freest of free modern jazz to the softest of ballads, as if to belie the jokes we used to make about ECM standing for European Chamber Music, or Exceedingly Caucasian Music, as much to belie the blackness of the post-bop era. I started flipping through my discs, and finding Haden on some where I'd forgotten he played. I wished I had the vinyl, those records that played on the turntable that sat on top of one speaker on the floor of the one closet in my tiny Montreal flat. I know tonight I will play a Charlie Haden disc as I lie in bed and wait for my mind to find its space in the night, and the melody of his bass will show my pulse the way to go.

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