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Influences: Bass player Charlie Haden

August 31, 2011 | 10:00 am

Charlie-Haden
Alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s revolutionary quartet stood the jazz world on its head at the end of 1959. His vigorous and intense music was in continual motion: melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. With no piano providing a chordal roadmap, Charlie Haden’s bass was the freewheeling bottom rooted in low, earthly tones.

Haden, 74, comes from a background quite unlikely for his role as musical insurgent. He debuted at 22 months in the Haden Family Band on its radio show in Springfield, Mo. The Carter Family and the Delmore Brothers were contemporaries; Mother Maybelle Carter used to hold the toddler Charlie on her lap.

The stringent textures and rhythmic complexity of Coleman's music alienated quite a few listeners and musicians. But Coleman was a Texan with a deep blues background. His melodies always had a folksy quality, which made Haden a perfect fit for the music. “Ornette always loved the fact that my background was in country music,” Haden points out.

An abiding love of well-written standard songs has always been an important ingredient in Haden's music. He’s had mutually beneficial collaborations with pianists Hampton Hawes and Keith Jarrett, trumpeter Chet Baker, and composer-arranger Carla Bley, among others. Haden began the jazz program at Cal Arts 27 years ago and a love of what he calls “deep” songs is something he tries to impart to students.

Haden’s Quartet West, celebrating its 25th year, is another format where good songs from many sources have been integral. Whether explored as four-way musical interactions on the bandstand, or recorded with orchestrations by founding pianist Alan Broadbent, the song takes center stage. Tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, Broadbent, Haden and drummer Rodney Green occupy an almost singular place in contemporary jazz for their celebration of great, though sometimes obscure, material.

Before Quartet West’s four-night gig at Catalina Jazz Club, Haden spoke about some of his influences.

Singers: On our new album, “Sophisticated Ladies” [on Emarcy], we get to play with some of my favorite singers: Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Melody Gardot, Norah Jones, Renée Fleming, and my wife, Ruth Cameron. I started as a singer and when I picked up the bass — I carried on that singing through the instrument. Working with Chet showed me how an instrumentalist sings through his instrument. And my favorite singers have always been the deep ones, like Billie Holiday and Jeri Southern.

Carla Bley: We’re very, very close, and there's nobody like her. We found out early on that we shared the same philosophy and worldview. We saw life through the same vision and we hear the same juxtaposition of intervals. She introduced me to the music of Erik Satie. We’re working on a new “Liberation” album and she’s written three new arrangements that just bring tears to your eyes. We’ll be playing a couple of those new things at Catalina’s.

Songs: I’ve always loved great composers. Ornette wrote many beautiful melodies, but I also love the great songs from the Broadway shows. Hampton Hawes knew all of the great songs; he was very inspiring. I love Chopin’s slow etudes, and Bill Evans used one of them in his introduction to “Young and Foolish.” I loved that what we were both hearing comes from the same place.

Past and future: I’ve tried to bring out the human voice in each young musician at Cal Arts. I want them to be able to see the similarities of different kinds of great music, above the categories. I’m thankful my parents provided music around me where I could hear the beautiful harmonies and melodies. Most people aren’t brought up with really deep music, so I was very fortunate.

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— Kirk Silsbee

Charlie Haden Quartet West plays Thursday-Sunday at Catalina Jazz Club. Information: www.catalinajazzclub.com

Charlie Haden photo by Steven Perilloux

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