Sunday, November 27, 2016

CD Review: Charlie Haden/Liberation Music Orchestra - Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings)

Charlie Haden/Liberation Music Orchestra
Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings)

"The whales represent all living creatures. They're so precious and so wonderful. Just like this universe is, like this planet is, and like you are. You have to never forget that. You're a part of it. We're here for a reason. And that's to make sure this universe stays beautiful. And wonderful. And brilliant. And it's so important to remember how precious this life is. Thank you so much."

Those words conclude Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings). They come from Charlie Haden himself, at a performance of "Song for the Whales," recorded in 2011. The message has weighed heavy on my mind over this past month, when considering the turn of political events in this country, not to mention the attitudes towards people and land in North Dakota. It's left me wondering, what would Charlie Haden think of all this?

Haden, who passed away in 2014, was not only an amazing bass player and composer, he was a guy with a big heart, who had a genuine care for humanity. Actually, he cared for all living creatures, as his words prove. I found this out first hand when I talked to him in 2003 prior to a Pittsburgh appearance. (You can find that here, along with some other thoughts about Haden and Ornette.) When he speaks on the recording, his voice sounds a little frail, but his thoughts are so strong and determined, it's easy to be moved by them.

Of course the Liberation Music Orchestra has always been about such things. In the notes to their debut (recorded in 1969) Haden dedicated the album "to creating a better world; a world without war and killing; without poverty and exploitation; a world where men of all governments realize the vital importance of life and strive to protect rather than to destroy it.We hope to see a new society of enlightenment and wisdom where creative thought becomes the most dominant force in all people's lives."

On the record there were moments of joy, humor and honor. They were also dark moments, the biggest being "Circus '68 '69" where the group recreated the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention, dividing into two sections which each blew like crazy. At the height of the noise, an organ starts playing "We Shall Overcome." After it all fades, the group reconvenes for a short ending theme, which sounds bleak. The closing track follows it: a one-chorus reading of "We Shall Overcome," as if to remind us that there is hope for a better future, if we follow what Haden said in his notes.

While that album - which no jazz collection should be without - had its darker moments, the LMO albums that followed it in 1982, 1990 and 2005 were more somber and thoughtful - ultimately hopeful. It felt as if Haden, his musical partner in crime and arrangements Carla Bley and all the members of the group, were done reminding of us of bleakness or hostility and they decided to move forward with the part about making the world a better place.

Which now leads us to Time/Life. Haden only appears on two tracks, "Song for the Whales" and its bookend at the start of the album, a version of the Miles Davis/Bill Evans classic "Blue in Green." Both come from the same concert at the Middelheim Festival in Belgium, recorded for Belgian Public Radio. Three lengthy studio pieces between the two live ones, recorded a day after a memorial for Haden last year. Steve Swallow takes over the bass duties on these tracks. Although they all have a pensive quality, they're also woven with the powerful lyrical quality that Haden projected in his work with his quartet with David Sanchez and Gonzalo Rubalcalba.

"Blue in Green," which was immortalized by its appearance on Kind of Blue, gets some strong ensemble coloring from Bley, who makes sure the group sounds lush but not lightweight. It features a Haden solo that sounds thoughtful and conversational, followed by lithe solo by Chris Cheek.

The three post-Haden pieces that follow all have a somber feeling to them, but it's never mournful, even in "Time/Life," which Bley wrote as a requiem to her friend. Tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby takes the spotlight for half of the piece, opening with the melody (which has faint traces of some old standard that I can't recall by name) and soloing for seven minutes. He builds slowly, moving into double time, as the Orchestra builds up under him. Drummer Matt Wilson takes over with a spare solo that almost feels like a chant or invocation. From there, 10 of the players each take an eight-bar solo, with the mood getting brighter and louder around the time of Seneca Black's trumpet solo. It may be a requiem but it concludes by sounding joyful.

"Silent Spring,"  a Bley piece that dates back to the '60s, opens with acoustic guitar solo by Steve Cardenas, then goes into minor dirge like something out of Sketches of Spain. That comparison is heightened by the way Michael Rodriguez's trumpet has a slow burning quality, much like Miles Davis used on that album.

"Ùtviklingssang" - "development song" according to an online translation - features trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and alto saxophonist Loren Stillman each playing the folk-like theme separately, with the Orchestra easing their way in with Stillman. Both of them solo over another minor vamp, creating some stunning performances, especially Stillman who gets a little more space.

Any free jazz enthusiast who yearned to hear Charlie Haden really cut loose will relish "Song for the Whales." It begins with the bassist bowing and scraping out a song that evokes whale noises, not in a ham-fisted or ridiculous way but in a manner that brings gravity to subject. He then starts the group on a rubato theme which recreates the spirit of Liberation Music Orchestra's original version of Haden's "Song for Che." This is due in no small part to a wild tenor solo from Malaby, who adds gruffness and shrieks to heighten the intensity. After Haden's final spoken words, Time/Life might leaves the listener missing the bassist even more, but the album also provides a celebration of his spirit, ultimately making it an uplifting experience.

Which can only be concluded with the word Haden used to show his enthusiasm: Solid.

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