Hearing Charlie Haden is one thing. Seeing him is another. I've been listening to the man who won Down Beat's critics award as the top acoustic bass player in jazz--not just once, but 17 years in a row--ever since his Quartet West released Haunted Heart and Always Say Goodbye in the early '90s. Haden described the recordings at the time as soundtracks to a film noir movie that never got made--potent, evocative combinations of uptempo bebop (by Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, among others), atmospheric show tunes and love songs from the movies ("My Love and I") and smoky torch songs from the mid-century or shortly after.
The newly fashioned musical frames the quartet placed around the original tracks of jazz standards by vocalists Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Teri Southern and Jo Stafford were seamless and in the best of taste. No doubt they're partially why Haunted Heart made Time magazine's list of top 10 recordings in 1992, and Always Say Goodbye was designated Down Beat's jazz album of the year in 1994.
But another Charlie Haden story concerns his protests against the Vietnam War, our country's interventions in El Salvador, and apartheid in South Africa. You can hear them on the three Liberation Music Orchestra recordings he's made since 1970--each recorded, as he's pointed out, while a Republican was president.
If you listen closely, you hear that political conscience inform a version of "America the Beautiful" on American Dreams, his current album with saxophonist Michael Brecker. While sections of the song have a reminiscent air, others almost seem to pose a musical question, before the track closes on an ambiguous tone cluster at the end. At this uncertain hour, a traditionally patriotic song significantly ends with something still left to be resolved.
"That's exactly what it's supposed to be," Haden said when The Independent spoke with him last week. "American Dreams is kind of a quiet protest, that shows what America should be and what it could be--and if it was that, it would be seen completely differently through the rest of the world." It's also a tribute to Haden's artistic sensibilities that the song makes a critical point just as clearly as it expresses concern and love for its subject.
Still, you have to see him once. In Raleigh in 1997, a pudgy, owlish individual in schoolboy glasses moved almost surreptitiously about the stage before the concert with his hands pressed together--not in prayer, but to keep the muscles flexed, warm. He had all the stage presence of an older-generation alpha geek, in short--until the split second he picked up the acoustic bass.
From that point on, the wings were visible. With genial arranger Alan Broadbent on piano, saxophonist Ernie Watts and Lawrence Marable on drums, Haden swung, danced and flew, before exploring the deep indigo blues of "First Song (for Ruth)." The song is arguably his "De Profundis"--a Socratic, existential meditation on a spiritual place we all know in our bones.
Trust a bass player to go deep. It's on the playbill Friday night at Hanes Hall.