Charlie Haden: Making Beautiful Music

R.J. DeLuke By

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Forget about the concept of jazz bass playing. And that way you'll discover your music. If you go from the concept of preconceptualized style, you'll never get to your music.
Music has occupied the life of Charlie Haden, the superbly melodic bassist, from as early as he can remember. Before he was 2, he was singing harmony to songs he heard around the house, songs his mother sang, songs his family performed at the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s. Songs, beautiful songs, have been at the core of Haden's work since he took up serious study of music and moved to California, where he began playing with some of the jazz greats; where he first met Ornette Coleman.

Sonorous melodies and rich sound have been springing from Haden's bass ever since the 1950s, with Hampton Hawes and Dexter Gordon and in the seminal collaboration with Ornette, Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell that produced the difficult-then deified Shape of Jazz to Come. With John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, Pat Metheny, Abbey Lincoln, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and so many more of the jazz hierarchy, but also with people like Ginger Baker, Ringo Starr, James Cotton and John Lennon. With his own highly acclaimed Quartet West and the larger and influential Liberation Music Orchestra he developed with the remarkable Carla Bley. Haden's bass has been everywhere over the years. And while he has been influenced by the likes of virtuosos like Ray Brown, his playing is not marked by a flurry of notes and virtuoso, balls-out playing, but by ideas executed to fit the situation. And gorgeous sound from the contrabass.

For Haden, musical sounds, melodies that uplift or intrigue, are more important than the bass itself that he fell in love with as a child. He expresses himself through the instrument, but what the tries to accomplish (and succeeds with great consistency) is the creation of quality music. Not necessarily jazz.

His latest recording, Land of the Sun, exemplifies his fondness for beautiful songs. A compilation of music from Mexico, largely from the pen of Jose Sabre Marroquin, is a classically beautiful album. It's largely serene melodies—no fast tempos—arranged exquisitely by pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and brought to life by Haden and Rubalcaba with the likes of saxophonists Miguel Zenon and Joe Lovano, sensitive drumming of Ignacio Berroa, the bongos of Juan De La Cruz, and occasional sweet sounds from trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, flutist Oriente Lopez, and guitarists Larry Koonse and Lionel Loueke.

Some of the players, like Zenon, Lovano and Rubalcaba, are capable of probing, flashing streams of virtuoso playing. But not here. It's about lyricism and melodies and it is carried out with plenty of heart. At the end of October, Haden brought the band into NYC's Village Vanguard and other dates are planned. Haden's also brining around another incarnation of the Liberation Music Orchestra (new recording coming soon), but he is rightly proud of Land of the Sun.

Haden says the beautiful melodies are what attracted him to Marroquin. He says with the world in a state of turmoil, beautiful music is needed more today than ever before. Haden feels that the message of music can be used to help make people aware that there are other possibilities for humankind, and possibly help bring about change.

His recording Nocturne from a few years back contained a Marroquin song, "Nocturnal." After performing it one night at a concert, a woman came back stage. Patricia Mendes said she was the daughter of Marroquin and wanted to thank the bassist for doing her father's song. She also gave Haden more music her father had written

"I went back to LA (his home) and played the music... It was all really, really beautiful," he recalls. "I called Gonzalo and told him I had this music and probably nobody else had recorded it. I said, 'Let's do it.' He started writing arrangements."

"With the musicians I chose, it turned out to be more than I expected. I had no idea how beautiful it was going to be. One of my favorite things to do is to get together musicians who have not played together ever, together. Then sit back and watch the magic happen." The music has no "cooker" that record companies might want these days as hooks. Haden said his producers have always given him the chance to do as he pleases. His fine taste shows, as the recording has a singular beauty; elegant and intricate.

Haden doesn't call it jazz and doesn't even prefer to call himself a jazz musician, though he's known for that. If music, as Duke Ellington professed, comes in two forms—good and bad—then count Haden in with the former. His goal has always been to produce just that. He has no time, no affection for that which falls in the latter category.

"Jazz has become very limiting... For example, I don't hear my music played on jazz stations very often. I don't consider myself a jazz musician," says Haden. "The most important thing to me is, especially right now with the culture of the society going down, getting more and more shallow, is creativity, making beautiful music and bringing more people to the art."


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