Montreal Jazz Festival: Days 7-9, July 7-9, 2009
Those only familiar with Charlie Haden's inestimable work in the jazz sphere may be surprised to know that the iconic bassist started out as "yodeling Charlie" with the Old Haden Family Show, a radio show from the late '30s when he was only two years old. Still, as the bassist explained to a near-capacity crowd at his July 8, 2009 performance at Place des Arts' Théâtre Maisonneuve, that his ties to country music have always run deepand how he's been an inspiration for use of the music in ways that could never have been predicted.
During the recording session of Ornette Coleman's "Ramblin'" for the saxophonist's groundbreaking Change of the Century (Atlantic, 1960), the bassist quoted the traditional barn-burner, "Old Joe Clarke" in his solo. When Ian Drury, of infamous British '70s new wave group Ian Drury and the Blockheads, heard it, he lifted Haden's solo to create the melody for the hit song "Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll." Clearly music has a strange way of getting around.
This was just one of the anecdotes Haden provided at an uncharacteristically not jazz performance by the bassist at FIJM. Performing music from Rambling Boy (Verve, 2008) with the Haden family including daughters Petra, Rachel and Tanya ("The Haden Triplets) and son Josh, in addition to some heavy-hitting friends including ubiquitous mandolinist/vocalist Sam Bush and banjoist/vocalist Dan Tyminski (a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station), Haden delivered an often touching and instrumentally impressive 90-minute set that provided the opportunity to see the bassistwho also sang back-up vocals on a few tunes with a high, clear voiceat his most open and vulnerable, going back to his roots in traditional folk and country music.
Clearly happy to be sharing the stage with some marvelous instrumentalists and singers, but most importantly with his own familythe pride with which he continually introduced his daughters and sons was heartwarming throughout the performanceHaden took the time to introduce every song from a set that included such country and traditional classics as "Single Girl, Married Girl"sung by the Haden Triplets with a synchronicity that can only come from siblings"Ocean of Diamonds," "Rambling Boy" "He's Gone Away" and "Road of Broken Hearts."
Josh Haden sang both Waylon Jennings' "Stop the World" and his own touchingly fragile "Spiritual"performed instrumentally by Charlie Haden and guitarist Pat Metheny on the classic Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories) (Verve, 1996)an early highlight. Tyminski, the most identifiable voice in Union Station outside Alison Krauss, sang a number of tunes including his own hit, the traditional "Man of Constant Sorrow," made famous in the Coen Brothers' 2000 film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
l:r: Sam Bush, Bryan Sutton, Charlie Haden, Dan Tyminski
Beyond his introductions, Charlie was happy to leave others front and center, but his warm and woody bass remained a clear presence. After an opening instrumental that gave all the players a chance to stretch, Haden introduced the show by saying, with respect to bringing the show to the FIJM, "I've thought a lot about playing this music at a jazz festival, but it's great to see people who just want to hear good music." And good music it was. There were clearly some who didn't read the program notes when they bought their ticketsexpecting a jazz show and, upon discovering this was a set of old-style country music, leaving the hall. But they were in the minority, with the rest of the audience remaining for some great, old-time but timeless country music with a bluegrass tinge. Delivered with unassuming sincerity, it provided a clear window into a part of Haden that remains integral to who he is and what he does, whether inside or out of the jazz sphere.
A popular festival regular for many years, guitarist Bill Frisell brought a quartet of friends old and new to FIJM, blending a variety of musical interests to create a sound that clearly came from the jazz sphere, but expanded far beyond even its furthest reaches.
Frisell goes back many years with trumpeter Ron Mileswho played exclusively on the warmer-toned cornetappearing on Frisell's uniquely configured Bill Frisell Quartet (Nonesuch, 1996), Americana-inflected Blues Dream (Nonesuch, 2000) and ambitiously structured History, Mystery (Nonesuch, 2008). Bassist Tony Scherrwho lives inside and out of the jazz world as an equally compelling singer/songwriter/producermay not appear on many of Frisell's recordings (his first appearance was on 2004's Unspeakable, also on Nonesuch), but he's been gigging with the guitarist for over eight years. Drummer Rudy Royston is the relative newcomer, but has been playing with Frisell regularly for the past couple years, including a date at the 2007 Ottawa Jazz Festival.
A longtime friend of The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, a Frisell show is often a bit like the sonic equivalent of one of his cartoons. Quirky, ironic and often possessing a hint of comic absurdity, Frisell for many years has been mining an improvisational area that's based on structuresometimes as simple as a repetitive pattern, like the rootsy "Monroe" from Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999), which this quartet played at a brighter clip, with a hint of Western swing but greater edge and angularity. But by surrounding himself with players who can turn on a dime, he makes every performance fresh and wonderfully unpredictable.
And the strange thing about it all is that Frisell's reputation as a guitarist's guitarist is based on an approach that often eschews delineated soloing, always looking for more musical alternatives to guitaristic grandstanding. Miles, Scherr and Royston received plenty of solo opportunities, but even when Frisell was at the forefront, there was something unmistakably collaborative in the way he worked in and around his band mates. Working with more effects pedals than ever before while rarely using them as frequently or overtly as he has in the past, Frisell altered his tone regularly, from a warm, distinctly clear sound where every note in his uniquely voiced chords could be heard, to more aggressive distortion, a welcome return to a tone he's adopted far less often in recent years.
One of his best performances at FIJM, it seems that Frisell is coming out of a period where he focused on individual ideasthe world music-centricity of The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch, 2003), the roots Americana of Good Dog, Happy Man, the more idiosyncratic composition of This Land (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1994) and History, Mystery and the clearer jazz vernacular of the "East" disc of East/West (Nonesuch, 2005)now bringing them together into a mélange that's all of them and, at the same time, none of them. An abstract and gradually coalescing introduction led unexpectedly into a lyrical reading of Henry Mancini's often-covered "Moon River," with Scherr taking a lengthy solo while Frisell painted around the edges.
l:r: Ron Miles, Tony Scherr, Rudy Royston, Bill Frisell
Miles, along with Ralph Alessi, is one of the most undervalued hornists in jazz, and played with a combination of fierce energy and nuanced understatement. He also provided, as an additional front line voice, the chance for Frisell to weave harmonies, colors and melodic counterpoints; freed up, as he was, from being the primary melodic instrument. It gave familiar songs like Frisell's ballad, "Strange Meeting," a deeper harmonic sophistication as the guitarist demonstrated his remarkable ability to take a simple chord and skew it viscerally just by shifting it marginally.
The entire performance had the feel of a completely free exchange of ideas, where the group could, at times, descend into a turbulent maelstrom of unfettered free play. And yet, Frisell's appealing tone, uniquely structured writing, and ability to take a song like the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic, "What the World Needs Now"part of a two-song encore that was an unexpected segue from an up-tempo and powerful version of The Intercontinentals' "Baba Drame"and twist it on its side while respecting the song's essence, kept even the most angular of moments strangely appealing. Frisell has always believed that good music is where you find it, which made his highly interactive performance the perfect dovetail to Charlie Haden's show a couple hours earlier.