Wednesday, January 14, 2015
"…as long as there's an Earth": Celebrating Charlie Haden at the Town Hall
At some point during last night's Charlie Haden tribute at the Town Hall, I realized that the expectations and considerations I'd walked in with were meaningless. As I attempted to convey last year, upon Haden's passing, I adore this man's music and felt compelled to show up to this public event to pay respects. I also, I'll admit, felt a bit of what they call FOMO—fear of missing out. Denardo Coleman was listed among the participants, and as I had learned over the summer, that meant that Ornette himself might show up. And who could say for sure, I thought, that Keith Jarrett, whose Haden collaborations have been a recent obsession of mine, wouldn't surprise us all and make an appearance?
So when was it that I chucked this admittedly narrow-minded checklist mentality? It could've been when, during a duet by Lee Konitz and Brad Mehldau, I realized that I was witnessing one of the most relaxed and conversational musical events I've ever seen take place on a stage. "Performance" seems almost too pretentious a word for such a casually majestic and—to use a word that Joshua Redman, after his own too-brief turn with Kenny Barron, Scott Colley and Jack DeJohnette, attributed to Haden's own musicality and humanity—empathic duet, which found Mehldau gently buoying that exquisitely sweet, breathy Konitz alto sound, as well as the saxophonist's impromptu scat-style vocalizing. Or during a piece commemorating Haden's love for and collaboration with Alice Coltrane, which featured staggeringly gorgeous harp ripples from Brandee Younger, saxophone work of stunning poise from Ravi Coltrane and Geri Allen's warm, subtle piano magic. (Yes, I'm running out of terms of breathless praise here, a feeling that anyone who was in the audience last night can probably relate to.) Or maybe it was when Dr. Maurice Jackson, an author, Georgetown professor and Civil Rights Movement veteran, spoke movingly about his longtime friendship with Haden, singling out the bassist as one of "too few good white men" and aligning him with Anthony Benezet, an 18th-century French Quaker whom Jackson, in a 2010 biography, labeled the "Father of Atlantic Abolitionism."
What I'm trying to get across is that during last night's proceedings, a certain kind of alchemy occurred, through music and through speech and through the projection of emotion, that made the late subject feel palpably present, as though, at the event's conclusion, Haden's name would be called and the audience would all turn to face him, standing in the crowd or onstage, and honor him with an ovation. Having not attended many political rallies in my lifetime, I can't remember being present at any other gathering where I felt such a strong sense of consensus, shared by audience members and those onstage alike. And the collective conviction was, simply, that Charlie Haden was an extraordinary man and an extraordinary musician, and that these two qualities were inseparable.
Haden's wife, Ruth Cameron, a wonderfully dignified, gracious host throughout the three-hour event, spoke candidly about her husband's struggles with addiction, about how he had always told her that he was "in trouble" as soon as he put down his bass and had to navigate life as it existed apart from music. True as that may have been, Haden must have sorted out his issues to some degree, because nearly every associate who stepped on the Town Hall stage last night spoke about how knowing Charlie Haden and playing with him had enriched their lives. From Cameron herself, who spoke of Haden's sense that it was his mission to bring beauty into the world. To Mehldau, who, speaking after his performance with Konitz, alluded to his own history with substance abuse and how Haden's example had helped him cope. To Pat Metheny, who played a beautiful acoustic medley of Haden pieces and then reflected on his countless collaborations with the bassist, and on how he had shared things in conversations with Haden that he had never shared with anyone else. To Denardo Coleman, who spoke, self-deprecatingly but with great dignity, on his father's behalf, and discussed how Haden had always—from their first session together, when Denardo was only 10—helped him feel happy and at ease, as well as personally and musically validated. To Joshua Redman, who, remarkably, spoke of listening to Haden's many collaborations with his father—Dewey Redman, who had been mostly absent during his upbringing—and how the intimacy he felt radiating from that music actually helped him learn to love a dad he hadn't really even known.
Everyone spoke of Haden's zeal for beauty and positivity, each in their own way: Putter Smith, a fellow bassist (in the extraordinary Mintz Quartet, for one) who had known Haden in L.A. in the ’50s, asserting that Haden's contribution to the language of the bass was a certain kind of profound intimacy, the handling of the instrument as though it were a baby to be cradled. Ernie Watts, saxophonist in Quartet West, which played a marvelous two-song mini set near the end of the show, with Colley on bass, talking matter-of-factly about how Haden's musical language was nothing less than the manifestation of God speaking through him. Haden's friend and lawyer Fred Ansis and friend and record-industry associate (seemingly there was no figure in Haden's life that did not also earn the distinction of friend, along with whatever other role they might play) Jean Philippe Allard recalling with good-natured exasperation their years of fielding Haden's ever-urgent phone calls about session budgets or packaging design, all of which would begin with, "Hey man…" (Haden's religious use of that phrase became an in-jokey refrain throughout the evening), and how despite the day-to-day difficulties, they were always happy to help Haden realize his unwavering commitment to excellence. And the comedian Richard Lewis, who in a video statement spoke of how much he valued Haden's friendship and inspiration and, like Ravi Coltrane, Maurice Jackson and several others, alluded to the bassist's deeply corny sense of humor. ("Charlie—in heaven, if there is a heaven, play bass; do not tell jokes.")
And those who didn't honor Haden's quest for beauty verbally did so through music. As epitomized in the Konitz/Mehldau performance, there was a deep humanity and soul coursing through all of last night's musical events, one that like Haden himself, transcended genre, transcended the notion of a "tribute concert" and felt like nothing less than a collective embrace, an affirmation, with each player summoning an almost superhuman, and quintessentially Haden-esque generosity. Trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, saxophonist Tony Malaby, trumpeter Seneca Black and others taking, in turn, stupendously emotive solos during the Liberation Music Orchestra's rendition of "Amazing Grace" during their show-concluding mini set, presided over by the magisterial, impossibly cool Carla Bley; Ernie Watts displaying, in his tenor work with Quartet West, otherworldly degrees of virtuosity and passion; Henry Butler and Gonzalo Rubalcaba offering solo piano performances (the former also singing) that blended staggering command with wrenching tenderness; Petra, Tanya and Rachel Haden (a.k.a., the Haden Triplets) and their brother, Josh Haden, accompanied by Bill Frisell and bassist Mark Fain, displaying their magical vocal harmony on the gospel song "Voice From On High," an echo of the honoree's own upbringing singing country and folk with his family's band. (We got a taste of that via one of several clips from Reto Caduff's wondrous Haden documentary, Rambling Boy, still sadly unavailable as a DVD or download due to music-rights issues. Can anyone help remedy this?)
There was no intermission, no lull. The unfamiliar faces were as riveting as the stars, the speeches as profound as the music. The event, and here I have to credit Ruth Cameron again, had a real narrative arc; it told a story of a musical life, and gave you a sense of the life in and around that music. There was so much giving, verbally and sonically. What wasn't there—Ornette, Keith or, and this last part was strangely welcome, any sort of imitation, invocation or even recorded representation of Haden's own bass sound; nor did the program feature what to me is the bassist's signature composition, "Song for Che," which had to be a calculated decision—was ultimately irrelevant, because of the bountiful richness of what was.
Any Charlie Haden fan feels, through the countless recordings, through the immense humanity and courage of his sound on the bass, a certain kind of, to borrow the title of one of my favorite Haden albums, closeness with this folk hero of modern music. Last night's event affirmed that feeling, the sense that anyone who knew this man in life, worked with him in music, felt his presence in any way, came away uplifted. As I suggested above, I have a sense that a lot of what I've written here might, to those who weren't in attendance at the Town Hall, read like hyperbole. But just as Haden's various friends and associates related, I felt nothing but beauty, joy and profundity from this event; in short, it was like a megadose of what I feel every time I listen to Charlie Haden—with Ornette, with Keith, with Old and New Dreams, with the Liberation Music Orchestra, on his many treasured duet albums. I thank Ruth Cameron and all the other participants for affirming everything I already knew I felt for this giant of music, for encouraging me to explore all the Haden I don't know (I need to get familiar with the Quartet West catalog, pronto) and for generally illustrating in such a poetic, human way how music and emotion are the same thing, how true artistic generosity, the kind that Charlie Haden achieved, can only be achieved by living a truly empathic life. The story we heard last night is a story that bears infinite retelling. Fortunately, as Richard Lewis put it, with funny yet sincere hyperbole, it's a story—the Charlie Haden story—we'll be telling as long as there's an Earth.