Kennedy Center jazz honors bassist Charlie Haden
by Michael J. West and firstname.lastname@example.orgJune 3
It takes a vast concert to encapsulate the vast legacy of bassist Charlie Haden, who died in 2014 at age 76. “A note to our regular attendees: There is an intermission tonight,” Kevin Struthers, the Kennedy Center’s director of jazz programming, announced from the Terrace Theater’s stage on Friday night. Indeed, Kennedy Center jazz doesn’t do a lot of intermissions — but it doesn’t do a lot of two-band, two-set 2½ -hour concerts either. This one, co-hosted by Haden’s widow, Ruth Cameron, was glorious.
First came Quartet West, Haden’s longtime Los Angeles-based combo — with Haden protege Darek Oles taking the bass chair. It was an improviser’s showcase. Distinctive tenor sax man Ernie Watts got his jollies on Charlie Parker’s “Passport,” digging in with yelps, shrieks and a chain-link series of tremolos that ventured happily into atonality. For pianist Alan Broadbent it was “Child’s Play,” Haden’s genial calypso, his chordal solo ending with quotes from Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas” (jazz’s most famous calypso, on which drummer Rodney Green then built a melodic solo). Oles, until then most remarkable for not sounding like Haden, finally paid tribute to the master with a loping low- and thick-toned intro on the hymn-like ballad “First Song,” then with a volley of double stops on Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” the song on which Haden invented free-jazz bass.
The evening’s second half belonged to Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, a 12-piece ensemble directed by legendary composer and pianist Carla Bley (the LMO’s music director since its 1969 creation). Despite its avant-garde pedigree and the portent of “Lonely Woman,” the orchestra focused not on improvisation (free or otherwise) but on Bley’s eccentric but lush arrangements. On Haden’s “Silence,” she slowly emulsified the ensemble, trumpeter Seneca Black opening on an eight-bar line that then repeated, with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes joining in. Each time the line recycled, new players entered until the full band was engaged. It set the tone for the set.
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There were certainly solos: Bright-toned trumpeter Michael Rodriguez took a feature on “Going Home”; the LMO’s special guest was tenor saxophone icon Joe Lovano, doing remarkable work on “This Is Not America” and “Song for the Whales.” Both soloists, though, were shaped and colored by Bley’s ensemble passages and backgrounds. Nowhere was this more apparent than on her own composition “Silent Spring”: Despite a gorgeous, guitar-like bass intro from Steve Swallow and a mammoth tenor solo from Chet Doxas, it was Bley’s trudging funeral-march form that held sway — in particular, her writing near the end, a long passage for the horns followed by a mad rhythm-section scramble.
If neither act ever broke free, they still made a spectacular presentation of Haden’s range and dimension. The bass great would have been delighted.