LA Weekly, 11/11/04
by Greg Burk
“Beauty Is a Rare Thing” — that was the title of an Ornette Coleman composition on which Charlie Haden played bass in 1960, and Haden has made it his own motto. When Haden tells his students at CalArts never to play a note they don’t mean, he can offer himself as the best example. He doesn’t play riffs, scales or styles, doesn’t dazzle you with virtuosic exhibitions. He just chooses, or accepts, notes that make the music whole. Recognizing beauty’s humanizing power, he has cultivated it in ways few others attempt; at its best, his work resonates with a deep, eternal quality — you can rest your mind on just the tone of his acoustic bass, which possesses the gravity of a huge sea creature or a stone Olmec head. When Downbeat’s editors polled jazz players on their influences this year, they probably wanted Haden to cite Percy Heath or Red Callender. No, though; he declared his favorite bassist to be the left hand of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Wherever he travels, Haden is approached by musicians who want to share the foundation he provides, which is influenced by Coleman’s harmolodics but in no easily identifiable way. There’ve been duos with the distilled American pianist Hank Jones, with the romantic Brazilian guitarist-pianist Egberto Gismonti, with the passionate Portuguese guitarist Carlos Paredes. There’s been work with John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Geri Allen, Pat Metheny, John Scofield. He’s on the latest Ringo Starr record. He played on Beck’s Odelay, even. From 1988 to 1999, he recorded consistently with Quartet West, his tribute to the myth and history of Los Angeles. On and off, he has satisfied his expansionist and politically radical urges with the Liberation Music Orchestra, often with the help of Carla Bley’s arrangements.
Haden’s new Land of the Sun, the basis of his Disney Hall performance with an octet drawn primarily from the select roster of the album’s recording sessions, is another special convergence. He dives into the sentimental songs of the late José Sabre Marroquín, an obscure Mexican composer who came to his attention just because Marroquín’s daughter thought Haden would like the music. (A selection each by Augustín Lara and Armando Manzanero are also included.) Originally intended for popular consumption rather than concert presentation, the material could have been saccharine in someone else’s hands. But the scorings of a longtime Haden friend and collaborator, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, display the music in spare, elegant counterpoint. The partially improvised performances of trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, alto saxist Miguel Zenón, flutist Oriente Lopez and drummer Ignacio Berroa breathe with a maximum of feeling and a minimum of flourish. And anytime you feel that you’re skirting Love Story territory, just focus on Haden, whose simple dignity lends unmistakable transcendence and truth.
Haden was raised as a gospel/country singer in his family’s Midwestern band, and his speech, perking with wonder and enthusiasm, reminds you of that. Though we talked while dining outside a busy restaurant on a noisy street, his every word etched itself clearly on the tape — a miracle, almost.
L.A. WEEKLY: So you’re on the same bill with Ornette Coleman — will you do anything together?
CHARLIE HADEN: You know me, man, I’m always looking for ways to play with Ornette. I’m hoping he will invite me to play a duet with him or something at Disney Hall, because it’s a special language that only a handful of musicians knows about. But I’m glad just to be playing opposite him.
His new group has two bassists — I guess he needs a pair to substitute for you.
It would be great if somebody made that suggestion to him! Well, you know, I love Ornette, and I love the way he thinks about life. The talks that we have are all about approaching music in this way — that it’s brand-new, that you’re playing music for the first time, every time you pick up your instrument. And that’s what I tell my students.
What’s a typical class like?
What we do is listen and talk. We talk about improvisation, we talk about creativity, we talk about inspiration. We talk about things that you can’t usually find words to describe. And ever since I started playing this music, it’s kind of like the unknown to me. Where does it come from? And why do you hear it? And why do you have to play it? And what happens while you’re playing it? And it’s kind of like somebody would think when they stand in front of a Kandinsky painting or a Renoir painting, “Oh, man, what was he feeling when he did this?” I love to do that, to talk about inspiration instead of academia.
Land of the Sun is wonderful. Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s arrangements especially struck me.
We go back a long way — I met him when he was 23 in Havana. And we did lots of records and concerts, and we’ve become really close friends. So musically I can really trust him, ’cause he knows exactly how I think and my musical values. It’s the same kind of way with Pat Metheny, and it’s kind of like Carla Bley. They know what I like and what inspires me.
And inspiration was part of the motivation for Land of the Sun.
One of the things I love to do is to get people together that have never played together before, or I’ve never played with before. I know how beautifully they play, and I want to inspire them even more. I had met Miguel Zenón the summer before in the North Sea Festival. He was playing with David Sanchez’s band, and I heard him play the alto, man . . . And after playing with Ornette and Lee Konitz and Paul Desmond and loving Bird, there aren’t many alto players that really come close to that kind of sound. But when I heard Miguel play, I said, “I rarely hear anybody play the alto when you don’t even think about what instrument he’s playing.”
Did the recording go smoothly?
We ended up using the first take of every tune. Because usually the first take is the most inspired.
You just finished a new Liberation Music CD and played some live gigs with Ornette’s old sax partner Dewey Redman. What else have you been doing?
A thing with Alice Coltrane — her new record just came out. She’s playing organ and piano; it’s with Jack DeJohnette and I and Ravi her son, who was a student of mine at CalArts. I’ve stayed in touch with her over the years, but she hasn’t been playing. We played a duet. She said, “What do you want to play?” And next thing I knew, I was tuning my strings, and while I was tuning, she started playing. When you hear it, you won’t believe it.
Your output is phenomenal. How do you keep it up?
I’ve always felt that I have to do my part to keep creativity in the realm that we live in, and to make things a little better and try to touch other human beings in a deeper way. Right now especially, we need as much beauty in the world as we can get, because every day the average person is bombarded beyond their control with brain-damaging, dysfunctional, high-decibel backbeat. Horrible. Is there a word horriblebility? I told this story at one of my last concerts, in Israel with John Scofield. I told them, “I had this dream that I took over all the radio stations, all the television stations. And whenever someone turned on their radio or television, they heard Bach, they heard Ravel, they heard Art Tatum, they heard Django Reinhardt.” And everybody applauded.
How are you handling your ear ailment?
I have grown to adjust to the fact that I have very, very sensitive ears. The ear doctors tell me it’s like the volume is turned up in my head — every time I take a hearing test, it goes over the limit. Usually when people have my condition, which is called tinnitus, they start losing the highs and the midrange. And I’m just the opposite — my hearing is becoming more acute. So the ringing in my head, I just pretend like it isn’t there. But you know, I try to stay away from things that can damage your brain without you really realizing it.
That Plexiglas shield you use onstage helps.
I’ve found that everybody now, rock bands too, are using Plexiglas, especially when the drums are near somebody singing. And even symphony orchestras have it.
So you pointed the way.
I think I did, man.
What’s up with your triplet daughters and your son?
My kids hip me to all the latest bands. And Josh just made a beautiful record. You know, he had this band called Spain, and now he just did a new one, a solo record, that’s phenomenal. The girls, Rachel, Petra and Tanya — Petra just made a record with Bill Frisell where she plays violin and sings, and it’s really, really beautiful. And the three of them are singing country music, like where I came from, and they’re much better than the Dixie Chicks.
Country and folk music runs in the family.
All the music that touches something inside me, whether it’s from Latin America, or whether it’s from Bulgaria, they all have something in common, and that’s a quality of folk music.
I gotta do more, man.