Clip: Charlie Haden gets the political band Liberation Music Orchestra back together
Charlie Haden gets the political band Liberation Music Orchestra back together
Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, December 1, 2005
When Charlie Haden was invited to participate on a panel about jazz
and politics at next month's annual IAJE (International Association of
Jazz Educators) convention in New York City, the organizer told him:
"You've got to be on it. Who else is there?"
Haden may not be the first or only jazz musician to explicitly infuse
his music with a political point of view, but he has certainly been
one of the most consistent. Each time the legendary bassist's
sensitivity to injustice in the world reaches the boiling or breaking
point, he bears witness by rallying and recording his Liberation Music
Orchestra, which marches into the Bay Area for a six-night run, Dec.
6-11, at Yoshi's in Oakland.
Earlier this year, Haden issued Not in Our Name, the fourth Liberation
Music Orchestra studio album. Its centerpiece is a 17-minute "America
the Beautiful" medley that takes the classic patriotic anthem from a
straightforward statement into an arrangement that pays homage to the
1968 jazz reworking by the late Gary McFarland and then to James
Weldon Johnson's African American national anthem "Lift Every Voice
and Sing" and Ornette Coleman's "Skies of America," before returning
to the original theme, which the listener must now hear in a new
Haden and his longtime LMO arranger-conductor Carla Bley surround
"America the Beautiful" with other pieces that support and expand the
suite's sentiments -- the title track (a Haden original), "This Is Not
America" (which David Bowie sang in the film "The Falcon and the
Snowman"), Bley's "Blue Anthem," "Amazing Grace," "Goin' Home" (from
Antonin Dvorak's "New World Symphony"), guitarist Bill Frisell's
"Throughout" and "Adagio" from Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings."
"The reason you have to do something like this is so sad," Haden said
in a phone call from his home in the hills north of Los Angeles last
week, "and it's getting more and more sad every day." It was Haden's
despondency over his country's increasingly brutal incursions into
Vietnam and Southeast Asia under the Nixon administration in 1969 that
inspired him to record Liberation Music Orchestra, an album that
musically connected the dots between the Spanish Civil War, the
assassination of Che Guevara and the police riot at the 1968
Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
"I had some beautiful old folk songs from the Spanish Civil War that
I'd been holding for a long time," Haden recalled. "This music was so
beautiful, and I just imagined great jazz improvisers being inspired
by this music and playing it."
For Haden, classification by musical genre was irrelevant. Up to that
point, he was best known as a member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet,
which had set the jazz world on its ear with collective "harmolodic"
improvisations on such recordings as The Shape of Jazz to Come and
Change of the Century. He had also played with John Coltrane, Archie
Shepp, Alice Coltrane, Keith Jarrett and others, and had already
adopted the philosophy that still informs his ability to seamlessly
integrate jazz, folk, gospel and classical idioms.
"I always look at 'jazz' improvisers as just improvisers," he
explained. "To look at it away from the category of jazz is something
my mind has always done, because year by year the world of jazz keeps
limiting itself and making itself smaller, and what I want to do is
Haden's discography as a leader is relatively modest by modern
recording standards, but it is marvelously varied. It includes duets
with Coleman, Shepp, Don Cherry, Hampton Hawes, Paul Motian, Carlos
Paredes, Egberto Gismonti and Pat Metheny; trios with pianists Gonzalo
Rubalcaba, Geri Allen, Paul Bley and Brad Mehldau; sumptuous theme
albums (some inspired by film noir) with his Quartet West; and a
recent Grammy-winning collection of gorgeously arranged Mexican
ballads, Land of the Sun. And every once in a while Haden feels
compelled to add another Liberation Music Orchestra album to the
In 1982 it was The Ballad of the Fallen, with movement songs from El
Salvador, Portugal and Chile, as well as Spain. "Yeah, that was under
Reagan," Haden said. "Then I felt like I had to make another one
[1991's Dream Keeper] under Bush's father. Before the election of
2004, I called Carla and said 'I want to do this again.' She said, 'I
understand.' I went to Europe with the orchestra, we toured summer
festivals over there and we recorded in Rome."
Haden had first come across the slogan "Not in Our Name" on banners
hanging from apartment buildings in Spain and Italy when he was
touring there with guitarist Pat Metheny in 2003. "The sentiment over
there -- the feeling of compassion -- is much stronger because they've
been against what Bush is doing all along."
Then, on the 2004 LMO tour, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon came down to
a hotel lobby one morning and told Haden he'd had a dream that the
bassist should call his then untitled new composition "Not in Our
Name." It stuck for the CD title as well.
Although there is highly charged music with political themes coming
from such Asian American jazz composers as Jon Jang, Fred Ho and
Anthony Brown, and trumpeter Dave Douglas has used some of his
recordings as platforms to express his views, Haden pointed to a
paucity of jazz "recordings about the direction the country's going
But, he added, "I really believe that if you would go up to most
musicians who have made an impact on this art form and start talking
about what's going on, I think they would come across feeling the same
way. The people that I chose to play on the recording and do the
touring are all very politically conscious -- they care about life and
equality and justice."
That might have been the case in the 1960s, too, especially among
African American jazz musicians. Charles Mingus was famous for his
provocative titles during the era of the Civil Rights movement, and
1960 saw the recording of the classic We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom
Now Suite. Nonetheless, Haden met some resistance to the release of
Liberation Music Orchestra. In the time of the National Liberation
Front in Vietnam, "liberation" was a hot-button term.
"Bob Thiele called me right before the album was supposed to be
released," Haden remembered, "and he said, 'Charlie, I'm having
problems with the people at ABC Impulse! They don't want to release
this because it's too political. One problem is having "Liberation" in
the title.' So I had to go up to ABC Impulse! and talk to Jay Lasker,
who at that time was the head of the whole shebang. I sat in his
office and told him he would miss out on good sales if he didn't
release this record. I said, 'The word "liberation" is so hip that a
rock group is going to steal it and make a million dollars.'"
Although Liberation Music Orchestra didn't sell like a rock record, it
did, like every LMO recording since, feature a remarkable roster of
jazz greats of the day. LMO participants have included saxophonists
Gato Barbieri, Jim Pepper, Joe Lovano and Branford Marsalis,
trumpeters Don Cherry, Michael Mantler and Tom Harrell, and tuba
masters Howard Johnson and Joe Daley. Current all-stars include
saxophonists Miguel Zenon and Tony Malaby, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez
and drummer Matt Wilson. French horn player Sharon Freeman, drummer
Paul Motian and the late saxophonist Dewey Redman played on three of
the four studio albums. But, along with Haden, only Carla Bley appears
"I rely on our friendship and our values over all the years we've
known each other, since 1957," Haden said of Oakland native Bley. "I
know the way she hears music and I know that she looks at my orchestra
as completely different from her projects, and she writes for it
differently. She has from the beginning. I feel very close to the way
she hears and thinks about music.
"For instance, I knew about Gary McFarland's record [1968's America
the Beautiful], but she had it in her mind so strongly that she called
me and said, 'I'm gonna use part of the feeling of a Gary McFarland
arrangement on "America the Beautiful." This is perfect for what we're
"I really do look for Carla's vision because I know that she is
looking at the same stuff I am. She told me one night, 'When I write
down bass notes, I know that you're going to change them sometimes,
and whatever you change them to is going to be great, but I write down
what I think you're going to play.'"
Whatever notes come out, Haden plays the way he talks -- from the
heart. An Iowa native who grew up singing in a family country band, he
sired his own brood of artistic children, including son Josh (of the
band Spain) and triplet daughters Petra, Rachel and Tanya. And one
gets the feeling that despite the sometimes-hard jazz life he has led,
the big, generous sound of his bass embodies humanitarian impulses
that are rooted in authentic family values and faith in the
fundamental decency of the American people. And that he means it when
he says he hopes he never has to record another Liberation Music
"I never thought I would ever say that, because of the excitement of
playing with all these great musicians," he confided, "but I'm hoping
that some people's eyes are coming open a little bit with the blatancy
of what's going on, and that the eye-opening will last until the
presidential election in 2008."
Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra performs Tues.-Sun., Dec.
6-11, at Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. Showtimes 8 & 10 pm.,
Sun. 2 & 8 pm. Tickets $5-$28. For details, call (510) 238-9200.