Charlie Haden still keeps it in the family
By Ken Eisner
Life is full of many odd circles and repetitions, but it's a rare person who starts performing in a family country band at only 22 months old and then sails past his 70th year heading his own brood of blood-related musicians. That, however, is exactly what jazz veteran Charlie Haden now finds himself undertaking.
After moving to Los Angeles in the 1950s, the Iowa-born Haden lent his probing bass lines to some of the most outré saxophone players the jazz world has ever known (Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, and Dewey Redman among them), as well as performing with idiosyncratic solo artists like Keith Jarrett, Carla Bley, and Yoko Ono. Over the years, Haden has also made his deep affection for rural folk music come alive, most notably in collaboration with fellow midwesterner Pat Metheny in 1997's Beyond the Missouri Sky.
When the Georgia Straight catches up with him, he is putting the last touches on a new album to be called Charlie Haden Family and Friends: Ocean of Diamonds. The record features the bassist-composer with his wife, singer (and producer) Ruth Cameron, son Josh Haden, and triplet daughters Petra, Rachel, and Tanya. (The last named is better known to some for having married Jack Black.) Other performers onboard include Metheny, Vince Gill, Béla Fleck, Rosanne Cash, and Elvis Costello.
"We've been talking about this ever since Pat and I did Missouri Sky and we went to visit my mom in the Ozarks and everybody sang for her 80th birthday," Haden says, reached at his L.A. home.
That was more than a decade ago, and the veteran musician is talking today because he's about to launch another tour with a different favourite entity, Charlie Haden's Quartet West. Now into its third decade, the foursome—with fellow Californian Ernie Watts on saxophone, New Zealand–born pianist Alan Broadbent, and new drummer Rodney Green—does have some connections with Haden's interest in Americana.
At its upcoming Vancouver International Jazz Festival show, Quartet West will play a blend of jazz ballads and obscure songs associated with old Hollywood and film noir in particular, as heard in a best-of album recently released on Verve. Using sampled snippets of dialogue, orchestral soundtracks, and the occasional Billie Holiday vocal, the group is known for its hushed sense of reverie, nostalgia, and surprise.
"You'll definitely get all that," Haden says. "We play music from an era when what was on the radio went a little bit deeper. I keep discovering and rediscovering things through whatever projects I'm working on. I love finding out more about the music that comes from America. The inspiration for Quartet West came from the beauty of our culture in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. But we don't just do older material. In Vancouver, we'll be playing new tunes of mine, and by Ornette Coleman and others."
After his Quartet West tour, Haden has some family-band dates, including a big August show at New York's Lincoln Centre—the culmination, perhaps, of a documentary on his life that's being filmed for Swiss television. Mostly though, he's still about the music.
"I've always been interested in all kinds of music and all kinds of musicians, ever since I was a kid," says the bassist. "My main goal has been to meet people who were on the same track—which is playin' music to help make the planet a better place."
To that end, Haden has had several runs at holding together—with pianist-arranger Bley—the Liberation Music Orchestra, a large group devoted to political provocation. (The LMO's most recent release, Not in Our Name, came out in 2005.)
"That group's about a lot of things. But mainly it's about wanting the governments of the world to appreciate life. We're playing at the Blue Note the week of the [U.S. presidential] election, so let's hope that has some small effect," he adds with a chuckle. "We're starting to have some expectations of change now, and that came into being because of the cruelty and greed of the government that came into power. Most people have finally opened their eyes to what has been going on; Pat wrote a song for the new record [Ocean of Diamonds] called ‘Katrina, 2005: Is This America?' Now these guys are in their anterooms, counting all the money they've stolen in the past eight years, and it's really sad that they won't be held accountable for their crimes."
If the bassist feels some glimmer of hope regarding U.S. politics, he still worries about the state of popular music in general.
"It's always been about good ears," he says. "If people are born with good ears, they can appreciate good music of all types. And people who weren't at least have the possibility of educating their ears. As it is now, the culture is in really deep trouble, musically. Of course, it's hard to know what people are listening to, with everyone walking around with iPod buds in their ears. I'd like to think they are into things that express deeper values, but how can you know when everyone is so isolated?"
In contrast, Haden just keeps getting more connected with his growing community of musical colleagues, and with the prairie populism that inspired him as a child.
"There's a kind of progressive innovation that comes from this country and keeps popping up," he notes. "When it happens, it can be very timely. But at its best, it's also timeless."
Charlie Haden's Quartet West plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Saturday (June 21).