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Artist Profiles

Charlie Haden: Liberation Music

By Published: January 9, 2004
Following the first two recordings for Nesuhi Ertegun’s Atlantic Records (The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, both 1959), the quartet went east to New York and opened the Five Spot for several months. The band was extraordinarily popular; musicians like John Coltrane and Henry Grimes came to see them nightly, as did painters like Mark Rothko and Bob Thompson (the latter painted the group). They toured extensively during 1959-1960, but Haden fell ill and returned to LA, replaced for a time by his friend Scott LaFaro (who was featured prominently on Ornette!). By the mid ‘60s, he was back in New York, playing with pianist Denny Zeitlin, clarinetist Tony Scott and Ornette, as well as making innumerable recordings with New York’s cream of the avant-garde crop including Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Alan Shorter, and Charles Brackeen. Haden also renewed contact with composer and pianist Carla Bley, whom he met at the Hillcrest club during her then-husband’s engagement: “She and I were very close and we really felt we had a lot in common in our ideas about life.” Bley and trumpeter Mike Mantler were, by the late ‘60s, running the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, a star-studded organization that grew out of the ashes of the Bill Dixon-Bley-Mantler Jazz Composers’ Guild. Haden played in the Orchestra, and out of this context came the fruits of his first recording as a leader: “I think it was when Cambodia was bombed, I was in my car one night and I heard the announcement. I thought to myself ‘something’s got to be done.’ I had all these old songs from the Spanish Civil War and I called Carla and said ‘let’s do an album about the tragedy of what this administration is doing in the world.’”

Thus, in 1970, Haden, Bley, Mantler and a large cast of compatriots recorded Liberation Music Orchestra for Impulse!, an impassioned and eclectic meeting of traditional Spanish folk music, free soloing, and orchestral weight. The recording also featured a Haden composition based around a lengthy, powerful bass solo, “Song for Ché”, now effectively canonized in the avant-garde fakebook. The Liberation Music Orchestra has been reconvened during times of political crisis: 1982’s The Ballad of the Fallen (ECM) during the Reagan administration; a 1989 concert was recorded during the Bush Sr. administration, and a new record and tour are slated for 2004, Bush Jr.’s election year.

With the varied pedigree Haden has led, including duets, quartets, and orchestras, one would be hard pressed to nail down a preferred recording context. Following his work with Ornette, there seemed to be a preponderance of piano-less quartets: the session with trumpeter Alan Shorter ( Orgasm, Verve, 1968) or tenorist Charles Brackeen’s Rhythm X (Strata-East, 1968), to name just two. In fact Haden always sought out pianists “because playing with Ornette, I was the pianist! I was playing all the chords of the notes in my bass lines, and that’s how I learned about constructing bass lines.” Of course, Haden has also found many like minds in the piano chair: Hawes, Bley, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron and Gonzalo Rubalcaba have all been worthy foils. His conceptual explorations have also included Brazilian music ( Works with Egberto Gismonti) and Cuban traditional music ( Nocturne, with Ignacio Berroa and Rubalcaba) in addition to rural American aesthetics ( Beyond the Missouri Sky with Pat Metheny) and use of string orchestras ( The Art of the Song; American Dreams ).

Haden returned to LA in the early ‘80s, and began the Jazz Studies program at Cal Arts. Far from being a traditional jazz department, Haden emphasizes the all-inclusive, empathetic approach that his koan-like bass statements engender: “It’s about beauty... everybody hears music differently, just like we all have different fingerprints. You’ve got to find your genetic musical makeup, and that’s one of the important things. What the class is really about is that if they strive to become a great human being, maybe they have a chance at becoming a great musician.” Yet for him, this is not a complex task, it just requires gradual initiation: “It’s about the music inside you, not the instrument you’re playing. Once you realize that the music doesn’t belong to you then you realize that it does...when you’re in the act of creating and touching music, then and only then do you realize your insignificance to the universe.”

Photo Credit
Joe Smith

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