Charlie Haden is gone. He follows Jim Hall, Horace Silver, and the mounting toll of modern jazz masters who’ve moved on in the past few months.
When I was just getting into jazz in the 1980s, his was a name obscure to me. I wanted to listen to a Pat Metheny record the guitarist had made with Michael Brecker, a track of which I had heard on the radio. The album was 80/81 on ECM, and while I grabbed it for Metheny and Brecker, I soon loved it for drummer Jack DeJohnette and, especially, for bassist Charlie Haden, who apparently had never played together. Specifically, I cherished it for Haden’s section of the twenty-minute opening track, “Two Folk Songs.” Brecker finishes his best Coltrane-inspired out-there solo on the first song, then DeJohnette turns his drum solo into a bridge between the two, and then Haden weighs in. Emerging out of the soundscape like a nineteenth-century backwoodsman from the wild, Haden’s 1840 bass sounds a melody somehow related to the folk tune “Old Joe Clark.” Maybe it has to do with legendary ECM recording engineer Jon Erik Kongshaug’s skill, but I think this was the first time I really heard the double bass in jazz. I mean really heard it, not just in terms of volume but timbre, and feel. Haden’s statement and variations are a kind of folk jazz, and they set up Metheny’s seven full choruses on acoustic guitar that are some of the loveliest variations on anything you’ll ever hear, with Haden and DeJohnette propelling everything forward.
That’s just one extended moment in an extraordinary career that began as a singing two-year old on his family’s Ozarks radio show. I got to hear what turned out to be Haden’s last gig with his popular Quartet West at Catalina’s in Hollywood in 2011. He looked and sounded frail then (though he sounded fine on his instrument) and it was only later that I learned he was suffering from post-polio syndrome and wasn’t able to eat properly. But he graciously signed a cd and seemed happy to chat with his admirers between sets.
To comprehend Haden’s career, listeners have to first make peace with Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett. If you are not on board with them, you’ll not get far down the Charlie Haden trail. Haden’s angular lines were the perfect geometrical response to Coleman’s melodies in the late 1950s and through parts of the 1960s and early 70s. As radical as Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry sounded, Haden and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins were anything but along for the ride. They commented on the conversation even as they kept time, and it truly was “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” Jarrett, who employed Haden in the late sixties and early-to-mid 1970s, has said that Haden liked to personalize his approach to a tune and he never wanted to play a straight vamp. That was just the ticket for Jarrett’s remarkable “American” quartet with Haden, Dewey Redman, and Paul Motian. Pianist Ethan Iverson has called them a “pack of wild dogs” making music that rendered the boundaries between free and funky superfluous. (Iverson’s fascinating blog Do the Math has a wealth of Haden-related material.)
Then there is Charlie Haden the leader of Liberation Music Orchestra, whose “Song for Che” from the first album in 1969 became a classic, and whose reappearance at some of America’s most embarrassing political moments could be counted on every decade or so. And Haden the master of the duet, as recorded encounters with the likes of Hampton Hawes, Hank Jones, Metheny, and Jarrett attest. And Haden the keeper of the Coleman flame with the Ornette alumni band Old and New Dreams. And Haden the nostalgic conceptualist, leading his elegant Quartet West through daydreams of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles from the 1980s on. His smallish bag of compositional gems—“First Song,” “Silence,” “Waltz for Ruth,” “Bay City,” “Our Spanish Love Song”—found reinterpretation across a number of these platforms, and so sturdy and melodic are they that they never wilt. And he turned in terrific sideman work as well (check out his solo on “The Cost of Living” on Brecker’s solo debut from 1987).
Perhaps the best place to start (or stop?) with Haden is in Montreal in 1989. Over the course of more than a week, he was the featured artist of the jazz festival and gave eight concerts in various configurations, from duets to the Liberation Music Orchestra. This is a career peak, with Haden joined by Cherry, Blackwell, Motian, Geri Allen, Egberto Gismonti, Joe Henderson, and other luminaries. In concert after concert, we hear the musician at his best, weaving together all he had learned since he first heard Charlie Parker in 1951. The generous and lively musical conversations in Montreal are perhaps the best testament to what Haden was all about.
“I’m in heaven,” Haden said to the audience just before his set with Cherry and Blackwell that week. “Every night. Every night.” He spoke for the audience as much as for himself.
Some essential Charlie Haden recordings:
Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959) and much else Coleman recorded for Atlantic, which may be found on the box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing (1993).
Charlie Haden, Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!, 1969)
Keith Jarrett, The Impulse Years, 1973-1974 and Mysteries: The Impulse Years 1975-76.
Pat Metheny, 80/81 (ECM, 1980)
Charlie Haden, Quartet West (Verve, 1987)
Charlie Haden, The Montreal Tapes (concerts with various artists recorded in 1989 and released over several years thereafter on Verve and ECM)
Charlie Haden, Nocturne (Verve, 2001)