Saturday, July 12, 2014

Folk hero: Goodbye, Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden, 1937–2014


I'm listening to Ornette Coleman's "Street Woman" (fall, 1971), probably my favorite Charlie Haden performance.

There is a joyous, maniacal folk energy coursing through this recording, and Haden is its nerve center. I don't know the technical term for what it is that Haden is doing during the opening head, but it's a sound I know, and cherish, as the Haden Slide—this sort of sticky, slippery journey down the neck of the bass, creating a descending drone that underpins the horn flurries like a subterranean river of molasses. (There's another beautiful Haden Slide, this one running low-to-high, from about 1:03 to 1:07.) And then the zoned-out ecstasy of the bass break at 2:07, as though Haden were weaving his ideas on a foot-controlled loom, heaping momentum on momentum. Then slamming on these completely punk, throbbing offbeat notes underneath Don Cherry's solo at 3:59. And then back to the Haden Slide for the concluding head—aspirating, invoking, drawing in and out, and up and down. Charlie Haden is the dark, pulsating heart of this piece, and, I'd argue, of the Ornette Coleman aesthetic in general. (He is also, of course, the keeper of the trance on the original "Lonely Woman.")

He served the same function in Keith Jarrett's American Quartet and Old and New Dreams—this collective body of work, the output of these two groups as well as the various Coleman recordings over the years, is highest-echelon art, the most human that jazz, or music in general, can get. Charlie Haden was the steward of what I think of as the earth element in jazz. He was the soft, dark, rich, fertile soil of any performance he participated in. Last night, a friend referred to Haden's principal contribution simply as love, and yes, that is really the most direct way to say it. He dug in and spurred himself to emotive ecstasy so that the music could take off. As jazz attained lift-off in the late ’50s, and in new ways on through the ’70s, Charlie Haden was right in the middle of that. What he represents is "free jazz" not as obscurantism but as a quest for utopia, for greater humanity. He was always just trying to get to the song, and, through it, to you.

The aforementioned collaborations are my favorite Charlie Haden contexts, the ones I know best. The Liberation Music Orchestra and Quartet West, to name just two other major Haden endeavors, are more or less blind spots for me, and I need to fix that asap. In a somewhat more obscure vein, the two 1976 Horizon duo albums, The Golden Number and Closeness, are treasured items in my LP collection: A) because they're every bit as special as the personnel (Jarrett, Coleman—who plays alto on Closeness and trumpet on TGN, and would reprise this team-up on ’77's Soapsuds, Soapsuds—Cherry, Paul Motian, Alice Coltrane, Hampton Hawes, Archie Shepp) would lead you to believe, and B) because they sum up so poetically the Charlie Haden ethos of music-making:

This is—forget "jazz"—music as communion, with a collaborator and with something higher. It's only listening—yes, closeness. This is music that smothers the rarefied, chops-and-theory-forward impulse in jazz beneath its pillowy bootheel. It's about spending time, getting into it, sublimating, chasing collective beauty. But not some New Age–y ideal. This music is frequently meditative and gorgeous ("Ellen David"), sure, but also hard and gritty when it needs to be (see "O.C.," with its wiry physicality). Mostly it's about meeting his collaborators where they live—plunging into Alice Coltrane's blissed-out universe during "For Turiya," for instance, or reveling in Hampton Hawes's deep blues bag on "Turnaround." Or forging pan-ethnic sound spaces with Paul Motian and Don Cherry on "For a Free Portugal" (demonstrating Haden's trademark way of making political music feel noble and artful, not pretentious and heavy-handed) and "Out of Focus," respectively.

The liner notes to these records are masterpieces unto themselves, with so much love, wisdom and goodwill being tossed around among Haden, his collaborators and the listener. You read all this, and it drives home what you already knew: Charlie Haden was a true American folk hero.

A few selections:

"Charlie Haden plays for the existence of the listener. This reason alone makes him a musical guru."

"Charlie's music has its roots in Viva la humans. It is not Capitalistic, Communistic or Socialistic. His music does not dictate."

Ornette Coleman

"As inner-directed musicians continue to become rarer…, Charlie Haden becomes more of a phenomenon each year… His stature is very often not even admitted among musicians themselves, as they, in general, are externally directed by mere circumstantial forces. He is one of the very few consistently musical players I know… and my participation on this album is a small tribute to his commitment."—Keith Jarrett

"He has contributed much to JAZZ and ranks as one of the greatest players of all time. To say that he is a sensitive, sympathetic musician would be an understatement. He is a natural, original and beautiful player and on this album has created music from the heart."—Paul Motian

"One of the rewards in playing music is the opportunity of meeting and playing with special human beings that come along, not very often, but when they do, bring a message so strong and beautiful that you feel and you know a giant has come to play. This is the feeling I experience whenever I hear Charlie."—Hampton Hawes

"Closeness: one part of the creative process; feeling a closeness to Life; having a need inside to express your feelings in a creative language; dedicating your life to the language we call Jazz (creative music born in the United States); being close to others who have also dedicated their lives to creative music; wanting and hoping to communicate this closeness to as many people as possible through music. These are some of the things this album is about."—Charlie Haden


Some of the great tributes that have turned up so far:

*Fred Kaplan // Slate
*Peter Hum & Co. // The Ottawa Citizen
*Patrick Jarenwattananon // NPR (plus this awesome archived Haden/Jarrett encounter)
*Nate Chinen // NY Times


And finally, a gem you may not have seen. Three fourths of the Jarrett quartet, playing with Baikida Carroll under Haden's leadership:

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