Charlie Haden is on a square platform at the back of the Barbican’s stage wearing an absurdly baggy suit, purple tie and trademark rimmed spectacles. It’s the first gig of a two-night stint and tonight he’s joined by Quartet West, a band formed in 1987 to play more traditional arrangements than the anarchic free jazz that Haden helped create in the 1950s with Ornette Coleman.
Luckily the quartet soon launch into spirited and vibrant playing, dispelling any notion that they are a leisurely boys’ club living off past successes. Saxophonist Ernie Watts tears into some light and rapid soloing and drummer Rodney Green knocks out an energetic drum solo that barely touches the cymbals but pounds out a compelling rhythm on the toms.
The show is far from a male-dominated affair, though. Several women take the stage to perform songs from Haden’s Sophisticated Ladies album, including his wife Ruth Cameron and the glamorous Melody Gardot. The latter, dressed in black fur and shades and carrying a cane, performs a rather theatrical version of If I’m Lucky, during which she flourishes four aces from a deck of cards.
But it is Watts who is the star of the show. At one point the band dies down entirely and he solos for several minutes, an electrifying exploration of the more experimental, discordant jazz that Haden made in the early part of his career. Later the band play a track from this era, Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. It sounds as fresh as ever, despite being first recorded in 1957.
Haden himself is expressive though rather languorous on the bass, allowing the strings to purr gently during the solo in First Song, written for his wife. And though he is diffident and mumbling when it comes to announcing the music, he is clearly the focus of attention. The band receive a standing ovation after Haden offers a slightly syrupy thanks to the audience.
“You guys are great,” he says. “We need more great people in the world like you. People who appreciate depth, beauty, compassion, mountains, wind, clouds, love, yeah.”
The second night of the residency focused on the music of the Liberation Music Orchestra, a mini big band combining music with political protest. As with their last London performance at Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown festival, this was an Anglo-American version of the orchestra, featuring Haden, legendary pianist and arranger Carla Bley and a raft of impressive UK jazz talent, including the superb guitarist John Paricelli and contrasting saxophonists Andy Shepherd and Jason Yarde. From the other side of the pond come the sensitive. engaging and versatile drummer Matt Wilson, authoritative trumpeter Mike Rodriguez and the idiosyncratic, imaginative saxophonist Tony Malaby.
The group repeated much of the content from the Meltdown set, with a strong emphasis on Not In Our Name, the album recorded during the George W. Bush administration. Beginning with Not In Our Name and a slightly awkward reggae treatment of Pat Metheny’s This Is Not America, the concert began in sprightly fashion, but there was a sense that something was being held in reserve. It took an impressive medley incorporating Bley’s imperious arrangement of America The Beautiful and Coleman’s Skies of America to push the performance to another level. A major contribution to this was Matt Wilson’s unusual, resolutely unshowy, motivic drum solo.
Bley’s arrangements of over-familiar material (Amazing Grace, We Shall Overcome) are playful but respectful – they seem like attempts to reclaim tunes for those who advocate peace and reconciliation over violence and the pursuit of interests. Yarde and Mallaby impressed with flighty, celebratory improvisations. Perhaps the real highlight was Haden’s own Silence though – a lyrical and meditative composition delivered with quiet intensity. His improvisation re-introducing the theme of We Shall Overcome was relaxed, confident and melodic.
Haden ended the concert with another rather earnest, slighly inarticulate speech about the wonders of people, nature and the universe, and the value of ‘good ears’. This could be seen as rather trite, were it not for the obvious sense that Haden feels blessed and privileged to be performing this music for another time. As he still feels this music is important, regardless of the political change in America since Not In Our Name, it would be wonderful if there were to be another instalment in the unpredictable history of this project. Let’s hope it doesn’t take Sarah Palin to force the issue.