By Mike Brannon for All About Jazz
Published March 7, 2003
"As long as there are musicians who have a passion for spontaneity, for creating something that's never been before, the art form of jazz will flourish." — Charlie Haden
"The whole underlying theme for the new music...is to communicate honest, human values, and in doing that to try to improve the quality of life." — Charlie Haden (re: his Liberation Music Orchestra)
If lower Manhattan is the Ellis Island for jazz and creative improvised music, the heartland of America is from where it originates. Miles hailed from St. Louis, Wes from Indiana and both Haden's compatriot, Pat Metheny, and he call the land beneath Missouri's skies home; a place, as much a state of mind as a destination, from which, under the unlikeliest of circumstances, emerged this quiet icon, "a poet of the bass" and of American music: Charlie Haden.
Though personally stoic and taciturn, Haden speaks volumes with his presence, demeanor and sound. Immediately recognizable, you know who he is and what he's saying and that it all makes perfect sense. So logical, clear and obvious, yet event-horizon deep, he makes you think while you feel...things so apparent and true, leaving you wondering why you hadn't already thought or felt them yourself. Or maybe you had, but just hadn't realized it yet. It's as if it weren't music at all, but an experience, a memory, as vivid as the distant sounds and smells of summer nights at the coast, but with the darkness of reality...a reluctant acceptance of how things really are, at times, coupled with the hope of how they still can be and the choices we can make to that reality's end. That particular rhythm, that melodic line, that vibe. It's the pain and beauty of growth and of growing up, especially in this country. A longing for the way things were, (yet somehow from the perspective of the future's potential), and for the things this country was originally built upon...life, liberty and happiness' pursuit.
To this end, his latest offering is appropriately, American Dreams, which embodies far more than the standard sonic eloquence we're used to experiencing on a Haden led excursion. With its inherent grace, beauty and imagination, it's a testament to and a chronicle of both the artist's philosophies and the current state of American music: where its been, is and where its going, as well as, where it should be going. He is joined by Michael Brecker, Brad Mehldau, Brian Blade and 34 piece string orchestra, whom together weave an unforgettable tapestry evoking a world unto itself; timeless stories both real and imagined, hoped and dreamed. And so we do.
Among the many things we can thank Haden for, besides his original, heartfelt music, is his influence, early on, in integrating the bass beyond its traditional supporting role and allowing it a more fluid, responsive function. It's own value, vision and voice. A template for all that's come since and for how the jazz rhythm section is percieved and experienced to this moment.
But the story doesn't end there. Dreams are also pivotal aspects of what makes both this recording, this artist and this country itself, what they are. "One of the most important things in my life since I was a child has been the ability to dream", Haden explains. "l always dreamed of a world without cruelty and greed, of a humanity of the same brilliance as our solar system, of an America worthy of the dreams of Martin Luther King, and the majesty of the statue of Liberty". To this end, Haden has always been one of action far more than of words. For it's only in the doing, or lack there of, that we are truly who we are. To this end the past has shown him willing to sacrifice his own freedom in an effort to make his voice heard.
And though Haden is at the age where others might consider retirement, he remains one of the art form's busiest performers, now more than ever with 2 full tours for his separate projects already scheduled for '03, a Euro tour with Pat Metheny this Spring and dates with Jim Hall and Joshua and Dewey Redman, also slated for this year. That, plus more recording with various projects, including the follow-up to his Grammy-winning duo, "Beyond the Missouri Sky" with Pat Metheny, chairing Cal Arts' Jazz program (which he initiated), traveling as a clinician and writing.
Though his legacy speaks for itself, a brief list of Haden's shared stage and studio experience would soon fill pages with noteworthy names including: Coltrane, Coleman, Jarrett, Brecker, Hancock, Metheny, Ricki Lee Jones, Bruce Hornsby - all artists whom have requested his presence. A list as endless as it is varied, populated by like-minded souls seeking beauty and the not-so-abstract truth through their art, through music.
Spring tour dates: Missouri Sky Duets w/ Pat Metheny (www.patmethenygroup.com/travels.cfm)
For more info visit - www.tedkurland.com and/or www.interjazz.com/haden
AAJ: Why don't we talk about your new project, American Dreams with Mike Brecker. Can you talk about how it came about? You're doing originals as well as works by Jarrett, Metheny and Brad Meldau. How did you go about choosing those...what was the criteria?
CH: Well, I've got a collection of songs that I've had, I keep adding to and they're all great American composers. I wanted to showcase American composers and I've done that on a lot of my records and played things by American composers that I really respect and its just like in the Classical idiom, there's Charles Ives and Aaron Copeland and so I just wanted to do a record showcasing American composers and showcasing Michael Brecker and also Brad and Brian. And to show people how great the people who are born and raised in the United States (that) become involved in an art form, dedicated to an art form, are very unique and special people, and bring that to the public.
AAJ: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You chose to do it with an orchestra.
CH: Yeah, on some tracks. Some tracks are with quartet and some tracks are with synthesizer.
AAJ: You go way back with Pat (Metheny) and you're both credited with being an innovator of contemporary Americana like he and Frisell. How do you respond to that; is that something you're doing consciously?
CH: Well, I mean, that's something that writers do. l just try to play music from my heart and bring as much beauty as I can to as many people as I can. Just give them other alternatives, especially people who aren't exposed to creative music. It used to be that creative music was most of the music that you heard back in the 30's and 40's and now then its like 3%. So, its kind of a struggle getttin' it out there.
AAJ: Yeah, it's a shame.
CH: Yeah, it really is.
AAJ: Regarding the subsequent group - after Ornette - Old and New Dreams recording you're quoted as saying "The whole underlying theme for the new music...is to communicate honest, human values, and in doing that to try to improve the quality of life". Do you feel that's been a success and do you see yourself as a humanitarian and/or political activist?
CH: No I don't see myself that way. I just see myself as a human being that's concerned about life
AAJ: Do you have a particular philosophy or take on spirituality that's helped you through your career and through life?
CH: Just doing everything that one can to make this place a better place and fulfilling that responsibility, I guess.
"I want them to come
away with discovering
the music inside them.
And not thinking about
themselves as jazz
musicians, but thinking
about themselves as
good human beings,
striving to be a great
person and maybe
they'll become a great
AAJ: And you feel music's been effective with that.
CH: Well, I have music inside me and I'm very lucky to be able to play music and that's the way that l try to do it.
AAJ: Absolutely. Can you talk about your experience with working with Ornette...what was that like for you and what did you learn from him?
CH: Playing with Ornette was a learning experience, definitely. I had to really listen to everything that he played because he was always modulating from one key to another and I was the only chordal instrument in the band. There was no piano or guitar playing chords and so I had to play chords in my basslines and learn how to create new chord structures. It was a great band. I still play with Ornette.
AAJ: So I guess you had to learn to respond very quickly.
CH: Well, you know, it got to a point where he was responding to me and I was responding to him.
AAJ: Did he ever express directions or was it just through the playing that it was expressed, what needed to be said?
CH: Well, when we first started playing we did a lot of rehearsing and he used to write out everything. In fact that's the way everybody rehearses: we play the tunes and improvise.
AAJ: How do you express these kinds of concepts to your students. I mean, you probably have to get more specific. What do you want them to come away with?
CH: Well, I want them to come away with discovering the music inside them. And not thinking about themselves as jazz musicians, but thinking about themselves as good human beings, striving to be a great person and maybe they'll become a great musician, and then seeing themselves as musicians, away from jazz, so that they won't be influenced by other jazz people and they'll discover their own music, as if they'd never heard jazz.
AAJ: So you encourage them to explore other types of music as well.
CH: Oh yeah. And painting, dancing, everything.
AAJ: Find out who they are. Was it with that thought that you worked with Rickie Lee Jones and Bruce Hornsby?
CH: I worked with them because like their music and they called me to do a record with them and l did.
AAJ: Can you talk about your work with Jarrett and some of the recordings you've done? (beginning in 1966 and including Arbor Zena, Eyes of the Heart, Survivors Suite and Death and the Flower)
CH: Oh man. We did a lot of recordings and we played a lot of years together. He's a great composer and a great musician and that was one of the great quartets, I think.
AAJ: Yeah. That kind of compels me to ask what you learned there. I mean, what was he looking for?
CH: We were all just looking to play beautiful music that made people feel good.
AAJ: What about your own composing. How do you go about that?
CH: Yeah, I just sit down at the piano and rattle it off.
AAJ: Its already in your head?
CH: Sometimes. You never know...where its gonna come from.
AAJ: What are you most proud of as far as the things you've written?
CH: Oh man, I could do better on everything. I really couldn't tell you. I just gotta write more music, I know that.
AAJ: Of course not many people can say they've won a Guggenheim Fellowship for that.
CH: Yeah, that was nice.
AAJ: How do you see the present role of the bass in contemporary improvised music and how has this evolved from your beginnings with country music?
CH: Well, the bass, no matter what kind of music you're playing, it just enhances the sound and makes everything sound more beautiful and full. When the bass stops the bottom kind of drops out of everything. I always approach music by thinking about the person I'm playing with and listening to the way they play and trying to enhance whatever is going on.
AAJ: I remember you mentioned in an interview once regarding a call to record with James Cotton and that you were a little bit nervous about that but that it turned out great. What made you feel that way about a gig like that?
CH: Well, you know, James Cotton is a real blues guy and he played with Muddy Waters and it surprised me that they would want me to make a record with them, that he called me to do this record and I'd never done anything like that before. But I love blues, you know, and so I was very happy and especially when we started to play everything made sense and it was really a great experience. I learned a lot doing that.
AAJ: Was that a one shot record or did you guys tour a bit.
CH: No, we didn't tour but the record won a Grammy for best blues album.
AAJ: Can you talk about The Avant Guard album you did with Trane?. That must've been an amazing experience. What do you recall from that date?
CH: He used to come in the Five Spot a lot when we were playing (with Ornette) and got to know everybody and at some point he asked Don and I and Blackwell to do a record. And some of the tunes we did with him were destroyed in a fire at Atlantic and the ones that didn't got released.
AAJ: How about your work with Pat (Metheny). You've worked with him in so many different ways. Can you talk about the recordings: 80/81, Rejoicing, Wish and Missouri Sky ?
CH: Pat is also a great musician and composer and a close friend and we've been playing together many years and every time we play together its great and very special. He's one of the musicians that have incorporated electronics into an acoustic instrument and made it sound like his own and made it real.
AAJ: l would say that he doesn't have any boundaries as far as what he'd explore or what he'd try.
CH: That's right.
AAJ: I mean, he's got an incredible imagination.
CH: Sure does, man.
AAJ: What's the status of the next duo recording with him? ls it live material from the last tour?
CH: No. We're talking about it. Whatever its gonna be, its gonna be great. I think its gonna be in the studio. We're gonna go to Europe in April. (see - www.patmethenygroup.com/travels.cfm)
AAJ: Will you be doing the states at all?
CH: l don't know about that.
AAJ: You also did a trio record with Joe Henderson and Al Foster...
CH: Joe and I and Al did some work together at Vanguard and different places and he called me to do this recording session with him in Italy with Al. And Al and I had played many times together and I love his playing and that was really a fun concert. Joe is incredible. He told me that that is his favorite record of his playing.
AAJ: You were recently named "Jazz Educator of the Year" and you're also Founder of the Jazz Studies program at the Cal Arts. You must really value and enjoy the teaching process. From your experience how do you choose and approach passing on what's pertinent to the next generations of improvisers?
CH: I always told the people at Cal Arts that if they wanted me to do Jazz studies, first of all, there couldn't be a big band within 500 miles and that I could do what I wanted to do. And they said I could. And its all geared toward the spirituality of music and individual discovery. It's really about achieving in the other part of your life that (which) you achieve when you're playing.
AAJ: Do you find that students are surprised by that take on things? Does it take them awhile to come to that understanding?
CH: Yeah, it does. They're surprised but they're rewarded because they learn another completely different perspective of creativity.
AAJ: I certainly didn't hear that kind of thing when I was a Berklee.
CH: I don't think you ever will.
AAJ: I think so, too, and I'm sure they appreciate it. So is that an ongoing thing?
CH: Oh yeah, I've been there for 20 years and I'm going to keep doing it. I only have time for one class a week now and I have private students there.
AAJ: Is there some sort of process? I'm sure a lot more students want to take the class than are able to.
CH: Yeah, there's like a special group of people that come from different parts of the planet to study with me. It's nice. I just gave a workshop in Boston at the New England Conservatory which was really nice.
AAJ: Yeah, that's a good school. You have a tour booked for next year to support both the Nocturne and American Dreams projects. Anything else on the horizon coming up that you want to talk about?
CH: I just came back from Europe with Jim Hall - duets - and I'm going to do a special Charlie Haden invitational thing at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. One concert with American Dreams and another one with Dewey Redman and Josh Redman and another one with Jim Hall. And I'm going to Europe with Pat and American Dreams and trying to make everyone aware of that record.
AAJ: That'd pretty much fill up your year.
CH: Yeah, right (laughs). That's for sure.
AAJ: Well, I really appreciate your time, Charlie.
CH: Thanks, man. I appreciate you calling and thank you so much. I'm glad you like the record.
Charlie Haden's Nocturne
1999 AAJ Interview
Reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2006 by All About Jazz and Mike Brannon
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