This Is Our Music – A tribute to Charlie Haden

I was saddened at the weekend to hear of the death, on Friday 11th July, at the age of 76, of the great jazz bassist, Charlie Haden. I always associate Charlie Haden with a series of great records he made with Ornett Coleman and Don Cherry during the late 50s and early 60s, including The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, both of which I’ve blogged about already. I thought I’d pay a little tribute to Charlie Haden by writing about another of these masterpieces, a disc called This Is Our Music. As with the other two, this is also available in full on Youtube so you can listen to it here:

When he first arrived on the jazz scene the licence Coleman allowed himself in his improvisations drew criticism bordering on abuse from several prominent musicians. This a view echoed, for example, by the great Charles Mingus in quote I got from another blog about Ornette Coleman

Now aside from the fact that I doubt he can even play a C scale in whole notes—tied whole notes, a couple of bars apiece—in tune, the fact remains that his notes and lines are so fresh. So when [the jazz dj] Symphony Sid played his record, it made everything else he was playing, even my own record that he played, sound terrible.

Although he clearly admired his originality, Mingus may have been right about the very young Ornette Coleman’s technical ability; but I don’t think any unbiased listener could argue that he lacked mastery of his instrument by the time this record was made, in 1960. His skill in sustaining notes (always difficult on alto sax, which he plays throughout this album) is especially evident on this album in the standard Embraceable You whilst the precision of his articulation at any temp makes it quite clear that he really had little to learn in any aspect of control of his instrument. The slurs and distortions that are so much a part of his style are beautifully managed, and combine with his daring tonal approach to give the impression of great freedom that he strove to convey in his music.

It used to be question whether the liberties in which Coleman indulged were not so as extreme as to preclude overall unity, yet for all his virtuosity in rhythmic and melodic invention, he displays a genuine continuity of line in everything he does on this record. On Blues Connation, for example, his solo evolves with impeccable logic, each phrase growing almost inexorably out of the one before, whilst the general melodic shape bears continuous affinity to the theme. Moreover, his music boasts an intensity of feeling that no charlatan could ever hope to achieve. As I hear it, the dominant emotion in his playing at fast tempo is not love, as some have claimed, so much as fear, although this mood is often relieved by flashes of lyrical sadness. In the slower pieces, such as Beauty is a Rare Thing and Embraceable You, and the medium-paced Humpty Dumpty, the latter sentiment comes through even more strongly.

Don Cherry was an ideal partner, for his work is cast in a similar mould, but at this stage in his own development he did tend to stand in Coleman’s shadow. Drummer Ed Blackwell is very good throughout, but Charlie Haden is nothing short of brilliant, which is why I chose this as a tribute piece for him.

The bassist Haden not only displays all the classic jazz virtues expected of him, but also possesses an amazing sense of anticipation that enables him to work hand in glove with the two hornmen. Blackwell is neither a loud nor an aggressive drummer, but he evinces genuine drive and the interweaving mobility he and Haden achieve together is truly remarkable in its own right as well as fitting well with the richness of the leader’s own work.

Had I the time, I could write a lot more about this album in particular and about Charlie Haden in general, but all I can do his suggest that you listen to the LP for yourself. Coleman was still refining his concept of how his Quartet should function, so it’s a little rough around the edges in places, and in any case I know many devout jazz fans who find this kind of music challenging. It is worth it, though. Charlie Haden was only 22 when This Is Our Music was recorded. He went on to many great things during his subsequent career. Sadly that spark has now gone out, but he will live on in our hearts through his music.

Rest in Peace, Charlie Haden, Jazz legend (1937-2014).

2 Responses to “This Is Our Music – A tribute to Charlie Haden”

  1. That’s a name you can’t fail to know even if you have only a passing interest in jazz. Nice selection of pre-free Coleman here. The tempo on the opening track is perfect for getting shit done. I even found myself typing and reading in time with it!…

  2. I saw a report on his death on the prime-time news in Germany. There is also an article in the web version, including a short film which was shown on the television news.

    Interesting tidbits: he started out as a singer, but had difficulty singing due to polio, so switched to bass. Much later, in 2010, post-polio syndrome prevented him even from playing bass. Three daughters and a son were/all all punk musicians, though the son later started playing jazz bass. One daughter is married to Jack Black who, though known mainly as an actor, is an accomplished musician as well.

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