Goodbye Charlie

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Several days after his passing, bassist Charlie Haden’s website hasn’t heard the news. But I know. And a few minutes before midnight during the week after his death, I feel it in my heart. I suppose the sense of loss struck me when I listened to the first track of one of my two favorite Haden CDs. The track is a spare version of “Here’s Looking at You” from an album celebrating the songs of the 1940s, in contemporary settings. I especially like the track because it opens the album with lush strings, the simplicity of Ernie Watts’ plaintive, lovely, long tenor sax reaching from the past, nostalgic, perhaps the best thing that Haden and Quartet West recorded. Alan Broadbent, the pianist who arranged the strings, is every bit as lovely for his solo. And there’s Haden, subtle but always there, just enough bass for me to follow his line as Watts comes in for his second theme. Not quite visible, but always a presence.

Haden recorded in a lot of settings, but I think I liked him best when he played an album of spirituals with Hank Jones. Just the two fo them, sounding as if they’re in an old church in South Carolina or Mississippi instead of Radio Canada’s Studio B in Montreal. “Steal Away” is an album of “spirituals, hymns and folk songs.” It’s one of my very favorite albums, and after , their work together on “We Shall Overcome” gets me every time.

From the liner notes: “They were called ‘Sorrow Songs’ because ‘they tell of death, suffering and an unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways…” yet (W.E.B.) DuBois…knew that ‘through all of the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence.”

I listen to “I’ve Got a Robe, You Got a Robe (Goin’ to Shout All Over Heav’n)” and I find comfort in the music that Haden and Jones made twenty years ago. I listen to “Steal Away” and I hear the soul of a good man, a provocative artist whose range of experimentation spanned so many forms, a family man who carried a show business tradition, someone who made me think and gave me pleasure.

I hope you will be inspired to listen, first in a quiet room to the whole “Steal Away” CD, then to the joy-filled “Now is the Hour” by Haden and Quartet West.

Finishing up the article, I wandered over to the website. And I smiled. Two reasons why. First, it caused me to remember the dozen or so Haden CDs that are sitting on my shelves, and I want to listen to them all, again. Second, I realized that there were at least a dozen more CDs that I’ve never bought, never heard. So there’s more of Charlie Haden for me to discover. And that makes me very happy.

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Three Old Pros

McBrideNow that I’ve written that title, let me check. Christian McBride qualified as a young lion in the early 1990s, but he’s just turned forty. He’s got some old soul, though, perhaps the result of coming up with Bobby Watson’s group, playing with Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson, and Freddy Hubbard. He’s a master of control, a craftsman of the first order and an ideal mate for the his very talented pianist Christian Sands, himself a protege of old soul Billy Taylor. Rounding out the trio is an equally top-rank player, Ulysses Owens, Jr. The name of the CD, on Mack Avenue records, is Out Here, and it’s very satisfying, clean and varied with tight, focused performances. This is jazz composition and performance of the highest caliber. There’s a lot of strong material here, but McBride’s own “Ham Hocks and Cabbage” is especially fine. Oscar Peterson’s “Hallelujah Time” is wistful, pensive, and sweet, nicely played by Sands. Dr. Billy Taylor’s “Easy Walker” is another of the CD’s best tracks, mostly because of the strolling, gently swinging motion of McBride’s bass, and its interplay with the Sands’ piano. Best of all: McBride bowing his way through the sentimental melody, “I Have Dreamed.” Selecting individual tracks is fun for me because everything here is so well-constructed and winning, but the funk of “Who’s Making Love” is lots of fun–with McBride doing a bit of showboating on a tune that can easily handle it. If you’re beginning to think about gifts for the holiday season, this is one in the category of “you can’t go wrong.”

So who’s older: pianist Keith Jarrett or vibraphonist Gary Burton? Both musicians started their career in the early 1960s, both have recorded dozens of albums, both are veterans of the jazz fusion era and managed to forge remarkable careers as collaborators.

2200 XJarrett’s work is immediately magical, glorious in its improvisation and sonic exploration. He’s been doing these albums for decades, and yet, every time I put a Jarrett CD on (or, for that matter, an LP), I’m immediately transported into the filagree of his imagination, sipping a drink at an after-hours jazz bar where the player is extraordinary and I just don’t want the evening to ever end. Recorded live at the KKL Luzern Concert Hall, the CD called Somewhere begins with the  mind-bending “Deep Space,” and here, it’s Jarrett’s show with just the right additional color and light provided by double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette; later in the track (the second part is Miles Davis’s “Solar,” their interplay moves the music into an even more interesting exploration, a testament to the extreme skill, experience and love of experimentation that these three musicians consistently offer. So that’s one track, again the first, and again, a favorite. (And I suppose I should mention that the sonic fidelity of these recordings is at such a high level, it would be difficult to imagine a disc sounding any better.) There are some favorite standards here (mine, anyway); it’s difficult for me not to be captivated by Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere;” and the less-often-heard “Stars Fell on Alabama” and the Jimmy van Heusen- Johnny Mercer tune, “I Thought About You.” Ooops–I’m listening to the wrong track–that’s really catchy, and less schticky than I remembered: “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”–well, a little schtick for me. Back to the dark night sky and mystery of “Stars Fell…” and my mind easily drifts to Perseids and stardust. What a lovely album.

GaryBurtonThe old guy in the crowd–Gary Burton is 70 to Keith Jarrett’s 68–opens with a Antonio Sanchez’s rocking drum, instantly establishing a more ambitious, brighter tone for the new Guided Tour, also from Mack Avenue. This is a quartet with Burton leading as one might do with a piano. Sanchez really drives this music. It’s a bigger sound than you would typically expect from a quartet. Burton is leading an exploration not entirely different from Jarrett, but more clearly articulated, more melodic, catchier. The difference is the way that Julian Lage is playing electric guitar, almost as if he’s playing in the style of Burton and his vibes on “Jane Fonda Called Again,” never passive or receding or relaxed, but instead, aggressive and punchy. Yes, they play pretty, too, working the pastoral mood on “Jackalope,”  and the Latin romance of “Helena” (especially nice guitar from Lage on this one), but it is so much more fun when these guys really go for it, with Burton playing fast and strong. Best example is probably the last track, written by drummer Sanchez, called “Monk Fish.” Scott Colley is the capable, but less showy, bassist; tough to get a word in edge-wise when the other players are clearly having so much fun. Far livelier than the other two CDs, Guided Tour is a terrific introduction to the Burton’s massive catalog.

What a great night of jazz listening. I haven’t enjoyed writing an article about anything in I don’t know how long. Thanks for the opportunity. Go–listen!

Before I Shelve These CDs…

It’s winter, so I’ve spent more time indoors than out. And that means weekend afternoons listening to lots of fine music. Before these CDs get lost on the shelves, allow me to share some recommendations:

Fahey Takoma

(Yes, I know this is vinyl, not a CD. Please read on…)

John Fahey was an acoustic guitar player with a nearly mythical story. He lived from 1939 until 2001. Beginning in the mid-1960s and until the early 1970s, Fahey recorded a remarkable series of acoustic guitar albums, each firmly rooted in the 1920s acoustic blues of the south, and yet, in their own way, contemporary and wholly original. For some time, these records were hard to find, but nowadays, there isn’t much music that’s hard to find. And in Fahey’s case, there is now a series of wonderful CDs available at popular prices. Two of my favorites are The Legend of Blind Joe Death and America. In time, I will make it my business to listen to most or all of his work. And, along the way, I intend to track down a film produced about Fahey in 2010. It’s called In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, and it’s the source of the image at the top of this paragraph. Click on the picture and you’ll see the trailer.

Karl Jenkins. Be sure to search on his image on the web. This is a very conservative portrait of a very colorful guy.

Karl Jenkins. Be sure to search on his image on the web. This is a very conservative portrait of a very colorful guy.

When I was visiting the UK this past year, I stopped by Blackwell’s Music in Oxford and requested listening recommendations. I left the store with several Oxford choral CDs, and with a three-CD box by composer Karl Jenkins entitled The Platinum Collection. According to his website, he is “the most performed living composer in the world.” Who knew? I missed him completely, and again, I’m only now getting up to date. Jenkins came up as a jazz guy, playing at the famous Ronnie Scott’s club in London, then forming the popular jazz group Nucleus with Ian Carr, and then, as part of one of my then-favorite British progressive bands, Soft Machine. After a period of writing music for commercials, he composed Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary which is included in my box set. Like the other two discs, Adiemus combines a contemporary approach to choral music, a wide range of instruments (classical, jazz, rock, whatever works best), and a wonderful range of energy from contemplative to soaring. At first, I’ll admit that I listened to Jenkins as background music (bad idea). This is music that requires full-throttle listening, preferably on a top-notch sound system with the widest possible dynamic range, accuracy, and superior reproduction of vocal parts. Jenkins can be a crowd-pleaser in the sense of, say, music composed for the Olympics, but I found more nourishment when I listened carefully, and allowed myself the time to pay attention to these works in their complete form.

I’m equally intrigued by the Kronos Quartet, a forward-thinking classical ensemble I’ve been following for decades. I missed out on their 2009 2test-600x0release, Floodplain, and now that I’ve got a copy, I’ve been playing it a lot. It’s an album of music from various nations and cultures located in and near the Middle East, mostly instrumentals, some traditional, played with the deep knowledge that this music was composed in the part of the world where “human civilization was born and first flourished.” There is respect and beauty. Respect because this is not Middle Eastern music. Instead, there is “Lullaby,” which is Black Iranian but affected by other cultures, and there is “Wa Habini” a Christian devotional song sung on Good Friday, part of the sacred tradition of Lebanon. “Tew semagn hagere” (Listen to Me, My Fellow Countrymen) comes from Ethiopia, and it is played on instruments constructed for Kronos by their designer, Walter Kitundu, who hails from Tanzania. The album opens with a hit song, from the 1930s, from Egypt: “Ya Habibi Ta’ala.” In fact, many of the songs were hits long ago. This is music you’ll want to buy on CD: the liner notes add texture and important background to the listening experience.

Garth KnoxGarth Knox’s 2012 release, Saltarello, was released by ECM New Series in 2012, and it, too, has become a favorite. Knox performs on viola, viola d’amore, and fiddle. As he performs an interesting selection of old and very new music, he does so with the attentive accompaniment of Agnes Vesterman on cello and Sylvain Lemetre on percussion. The repetoire here begins with the early British composer Henry Purcell (“Music for a While”) and continues on the old track with Hildegarde von Bingen, and John Dowland. I like the idea that this music is contrasted with work by, for example, the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and that Knox manages to pull it all together as a cohesive whole. The Saariaho piece is challenging, extreme in its special effects. To be honest, I had to check the unfamiliar name–Guillaume de Machaut–to determine whether he was an old composer or a new one (he lived in the 1300s, and was equally famous as a poet whom Geoffrey Chaucer apparently admired).

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Well, I found this tapestry on the Wikipedia site for Machaut. Clearly, he is not a contemporary composer.

Andy Sheppard

Andy Sheppard (click on the link for a bunch of neat pictures of Sheppard at play.)

Also on ECM, and also from 2012, Trio Libero is an album that I’ve enjoyed time and again. It’s one of those albums with a distinctive series of opening notes that sounds wonderfully familiar, and causes me to follow the lead line all the way through the first song (“Libertino”). Here, I’m listening to a terrific saxophone player named Andy Sheppard (he also plays soprano sax). Sheppard’s solo leads to a long, comfortable bass solo by Michel Benita (who is a major presence throughout, moreso than one typically finds on albums by a sax trio). As I said, I’ve listened to this album quite a few times, and now that I’m listening while writing about it, there’s a smile on my face. It’s just really good jazz. It’s quite varied. There’s a nice tender rendition of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” on the third track, a Weather Report-like texture entitled “Space Walk, Part 1.” And, the more I listen, the more I come to realize how much I enjoy listening to a well-played soprano sax. This is one of those albums where everything comes together beautifully, and I encourage you to be among the (inevitable) few who come to enjoy it as much as I do.

Okay, everything on this list now gets placed on the shelves, making room for the new, or, at least, for music that’s new to me.

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