Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Michigan
It’s more common for European crowds to be privy to the kind of major production that accompanied Charlie Haden’s brief pass through the University of Michigan. But being the metropolitan and forward-thinking town that Ann Arbor is, little surprise that they’d attract this presentation, which involved augmenting Haden’s regular quartet (saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent, and drummer Larance Marable) with a 20-piece string ensemble composed of university students. Taken from Haden’s album The Art of the Song, Alan Broadbent’s charts provided the fodder for the evening and the mood was certainly of the ‘soft lights and quiet music’ variety. Still, if lush orchestration and introspective beauty were to be the evening’s fare, then few would argue that Haden and company cast a spell that proved to be alluring to even the moldiest of figs. The confines of the 658-seat Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre provided an acoustically perfect environment where everyone within earshot could enjoy even the finest details and musical nuances. Only recently has the University Musical Society been utilizing the 73-year-old hall for classical recitals, but the chamber-like nature of Haden’s music made it a logical choice for this concert. Much of the first half of the program focused on ballads with a perfect integration between string accompaniment and jazz elements, including solo space for Watts and Broadbent. Suggesting that his reputation as simply a competent studio musician is somewhat undeserved, Watts was positively effusive in these surroundings and his dark timbre blended perfectly with the sonority of the strings. Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron, would then be brought on as the first of two special guest vocalists. A demure song stylist with a limited range, Cameron offered “The Folks Who Live On the Hill” and “Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life” in understated fashion. While she did nothing to discredit herself, Cameron’s delivery seemed to be missing a sense of drama which imbued the original versions as sung by Shirley Horn on the previously mentioned The Art of the Song disc. Much more sustaining was the appearance of Bill Henderson, a gentleman with a mean set of pipes and an unfortunate lack of name recognition. He belted out three obscure ditties that made the most of his hearty and robust vibrato and left the audience wanting more. As a fitting closer, Haden stepped outside of his usual role by singing “Wayfaring Stranger” with an honest and unaffected approach. It was almost as if the return to his roots had unshackled a whole new side of Haden’s personality, where splendor and substance could coexist in a deeply satisfying manner.