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The Boston Phoenix O Positive!

Charlie Haden adapts himself.

By Jon Garelick

APRIL 13, 1998:  This spring, the jazz bassist, composer, and bandleader Charlie Haden is everywhere. Verve recently released two more sessions from The Montréal Tapes, a document of Haden's weeklong residency at the 1989 Montréal Jazz Festival, where he played with a different group of collaborators in each of eight concerts. Verve has also released a duet album with pianist Kenny Barron, Night and the City, and Blue Note has Alone Together, with Haden, the alto-saxophonist Lee Konitz, and pianist Brad Mehldau.

Haden, at 60, has become something like the type O positive of jazz. A radical trailblazer in the Ornette Coleman Quartet of the late '50s, he has come to embrace all styles. In a number of projects he's explored a "world" music stew that's included Asia, India, Africa, Latin America. His popular band Quartet West plays jazz and pop standards and originals inspired by the milieu of film noir, Raymond Chandler, and the city of Los Angeles. He's explored American roots with pianist Hank Jones, Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns, and Folk Songs (Verve, 1995). Last year's album of duets with Pat Metheny, Beyond the Missouri Sky (Verve), looked to the common ground of folk and country that both players share from their home state.

Even when Haden is recording what you might call genre-specific music, he somehow reaches "beyond category" (in Duke Ellington's famous phrase). Steal Away proposed both a classical formalism and jazz's distinctive rhythmic lilt and expressive attack. Beyond the Missouri Sky was subtitled "short stories by Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny," and though it does suggest what Haden calls Metheny's "contemporary impressionistic Americana," it goes beyond the Missouri skyline to include Henry Mancini ("Two for the Road") Johnny Mandel ("The Moon Song"), two strains from the movie Cinema Paradiso by Andrea and Ennio Morricone, and a tune by Haden's son Josh from the younger Haden's pop band Spain ("Spiritual"). Even Haden's most sharply defined "concept" albums have a surprising breadth that can't be nailed down with a simple label. Beyond the Missouri Sky and the new Night and the City (the title of a 1950 film noir) draw from diverse material for a unity of mood and narrative that's cinematic.

The approach has made Haden popular (both the Jones and Metheny projects were chart toppers, and the Barron CD will certainly get there) even if he does draw the occasional critical jibe for diving headlong into nostalgia and veering too close to easy listening. The gonzo rock critic Richard Meltzer unleashed a hilarious broadside after the last Quartet West album, and The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD offers the backhanded compliment that he tends to thrive in "enervated" surroundings. Haden, his critics argue, has given up boundary-stretching rabble rousing for mainstream schmaltz.

But Haden's pan-stylistic musings reward close attention: however you feel about them, the level of commitment -- and the level of playing -- he brings to each project is unquestionable. Beyond the Missouri Sky risks dissolving into smooth jazz pap, but it stays afloat. On his own Pat Metheny Group albums, the guitarist's taste for sweets can be deadly, but throughout Missouri Sky, the gravity (in both senses of the word) of Haden's tone and his rhythmic drive temper both his and Metheny's taste in material. If anything, it's the limited dynamic range of the album that makes the greatest demands -- more than 70 minutes of very quiet music.

Haden's reputation as an accompanist goes back to his Ornette Coleman days, where he was able to adapt the "free" jazz imperatives of Ornette's music to his instrument. Yes, in the traditional jazz bassist's role he could keep time and mark harmonic progressions. But he was also able to accompany by playing "outside" the changes, employing a tune's melody or even simply its mood as a guidepost.

His command of both standard chord progressions and free playing has made him an ideal accompanist for almost any music. On Night and the City, he and Barron stick mostly to standards, or to originals with standard song forms. Haden can provide a broad range of rhythmic textures -- walking figures, repetitive drones, dancing rhythms and fills. Playing slightly behind the beat in straight tempos, he creates an attractive tension with Barron's free-flowing right-hand lines. Harmonically, he makes a song sound "bigger" than you'd expect because of his choice of notes as he marks time. His accompaniment, like Charles Mingus's, illustrates the contours of a tune -- he's always thinking compositionally. He blends with and augments other players to such an extent that often in one of his bands your ear will try to locate a sound -- French horn? falsetto tuba? -- until you realize it's one of Haden's triplet drones.

From his initial cred as accompanist, Haden's become justly renowned as a soloist. From electric innovator Jaco Pastorius to current acoustic hero Christian McBride, jazz's flashy bass soloists have favored a light action that makes possible greater agility and guitar-like speed. Haden favors a heavier action that gives him an enormous middle and lower register but limits his fingers. He compensates by fashioning melodic solos of uncommon lyricism, emphasizing his vibrato and vocal-like phrasing. The adept phrasing combined with his huge, lumbering tone gives his lines a poignant, yearning quality when they reach into the upper register. His bass becomes the clumsy fat boy who sings the lovely tenor solo at the school Christmas pageant.

On the current crop of Haden albums, all his skills are in evidence. On the two Montréal sessions, the drummer is longtime Haden associate Paul Motian; the pianists are post-bop explorer Geri Allen and Cuban virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba. On both, Haden is the consummate trio player, marking texture and time, articulating chord changes, digging into freer explorations of rhythm and harmony, facilitating an even three-way exchange. On his beautiful "First Song," he weaves pointed countermelodies to Allen's opening statement of the theme, articulating a clear pulse even as he expands the piece's tonal scheme. On Allen's ballad "For John Malachi" he fashions a touching, conversational solo, singing his lines in groups of four- or five-note phrases, like short, simple sentences, testifying here and there with a repeated, drone-like triplet, reaching higher in the register, then dropping for a low-note exclamation. Neither is the more rad Haden absent. On Motian's fast-flying, free-tempo "Fiasco," drums and piano fall away and leave him chattering in a fast, uninflected string of notes that gradually subside to pianissimo plucking, some gestural, scratched bowing, and then a subsonic throb that makes way for Motian's drum solo.

Rubalcaba's virtuosity can sometimes get the better of him, but Haden sets him up with an unusual program: three Haden tunes, a Gary Peacock ("Vignette"), an Ornette ("The Blessing"), and Miles Davis ("Solar"). What's impressive about Rubalcaba isn't merely his wealth of ideas or his speed but his articulation. Even at blinding velocity, every note is clearly etched, almost bordered in black. He's a highly rhythmic player anyway: his right-hand lines are often as percussive as his left-hand comping. Haden eats him up, digging into walking rhythms, reinforcing the span of Rubalcaba's lines with his own arcs of sound. On "Solar," his rhythmic, rifflike solo is the perfect complement to Rubalcaba's headlong pace.

On the Konitz date (a live club session) Haden acts almost as a referee between the 70-year-old alto veteran and the twentysomething firebrand (Mehldau first made his name in Joshua Redman's bands). In the liner notes, Konitz says that he and Mehldau took several sets over the two-day live club session to settle into each other's style, and you can hear their struggle on the CD. It's a program of standards, but from Konitz's first unaccompanied intro to the Dietz-Schwartz classic "Alone Together," you can tell the interpretations are going to run free and wild. Konitz comes at the tune from a wide angle, skipping the melody in favor of a sidelong reharmonization, all in his dry, almost parched tone. One of the headiest players around, he lacks for nothing if not a sense of proportion. At times it's almost comic to hear Mehldau shatter the mood of one of Konitz's thoughtful excursions with uptempo, two-handed pummeling. Elsewhere, it's Haden keeping the time and comping the chords while Konitz and Mehldau pass melodic phrases back and forth. More often than not pianist and saxophonist find each other. The ending fadeout on several tunes is disappointing (while Konitz is soloing!), but on the whole this is compelling chamber jazz.

The pearl of the current Haden crop, however, is Night and the City, another live session also given over mostly to standards (though Barron's "Twilight Song" and Haden's "Waltz for Ruth" are right up there). Barron's lyricism, his voicings, his feeling for songs, made him a favorite of Stan Getz, and Getz put him in the pantheon of the "last" piano players (along with Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones). Barron and Haden fit each other tongue-in-groove. Together they're like great realist painters creating a personal sense of pictorial space. The realists create a three-dimensional illusion on a two-dimensional plane. Haden and Barron create sonic illusion. Is there a guitar on "For Heavens Sake"? No, it's just Barron's left hand, "strumming" on-the-beat chords in synch with Haden while his right hand flies off into free flights of melody, expanding and contracting his lines with an impeccable rubato attack. On "Twilight Song," Haden moves fluidly across the theme -- harmonizing with Barron for a bar or so, hitting some melody notes in unison with him, stone-stepping across the rhythm elsewhere. When Haden plays with Barron, jazz's mainstream gets very deep.

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