Haden Braves the Blue Note Elements
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For most of his career, the bassist Charlie Haden worked in what might be called the conservative side of the avant-garde jazz movement. He was best known as the bassist in Ornette Coleman’s pioneering quartet, the one that introduced free jazz before bringing it into the post-modern age.But even though he worked with Mr. Coleman and many other experimental players, Mr. Haden’s own playing was always highly melodic, and he stayed away from the more extreme, screaming brand of outside playing.
Then in 1986, Mr. Haden put together Quartet West, a group that plays a more traditional kind of jazz, centered around bebop and standard tunes, but with something of an experimental edge and four very distinct musical voices. Mr. Haden and Quartet West are celebrating their 20th anniversary this week at the Blue Note.
Quartet West has centered around three principle players, all of whom have been there from the beginning: the leader on bass, Ernie Watts on tenor, and pianist-composer-arranger Alan Broadbent. Earlier albums featured Billy Higgins and then Lawrence Marable on drums, but the current drummer, the excellent Rodney Green, also differs from the other three in that he is the only member of the quartet based in New York rather than Los Angeles.
On many of the group’s most famous albums, like “Haunted Heart,” “Always Say Goodbye,” and “The Art of the Song,”Mr. Haden has used Quartet West as a kind of core unit to which he has added guest vocalists, instrumentalists, and a string section. Still, Quartet West is no less entertaining when performing with just its four basic members in a club setting.
How better to pledge one’s allegiance to the bebop idiom than by beginning with a tune by Charlie Parker? On Tuesday night, Mr. Haden played a boppish variation on “I Got Rhythm” and later announced it as Parker’s “Passport.”
The meat of the set was three original tunes by Mr. Haden, starting with the semi-slow ballad, “Hello, My Lovely,” which, as the titular reference to Raymond Chandler indicates, comes from the Quartet’s string of albums that reference film noir and the long-gone Los Angeles of the 1940s. The melody is in the same vein as “I’ll Remember April” and any of a number of songs of departed love from the World War II era, and primarily featured Mr. Broadbent.
Mr. Green launched the third tune, “Child’s Play,” which recalled the late 1950s, when bop saxists, led by Sonny Rollins, created a short-lived subgenre of Island-centric tunes that were equal parts calypso and mambo. The joyous, raucous melody, phrased by tenor and piano in unison, would have had everyone in the Blue Note dancing if there had been room enough to move in the packed club.
From there, the group brought the energy level way down with the very slow and romantic “First Song” (which, like “Child’s Play,” is also from “Angel City,” Quartet West’s second album, from 1988). This is the kind of material on which one expects Mr. Broadbent to shine, but Mr. Haden is, as always, a surprise — who knew a love song could be played so movingly on the bass?
The opening set on Tuesday climaxed with a tour de force: Quartet West’s reading of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” the jazz standard that Mr. Haden introduced alongside its composer 47 years ago on the breakthrough album, “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” “Lonely Woman” is, famously, a dirge, but Quartet West recast it in several different molds: Mr. Watts played it warmly and romantically, with a wide vibrato, as if he were doing an album to be titled “Ornette for Lovers.” Then Mr. Broadbent took it someplace else entirely, playing it with a gothic touch; as he began his piano solo, his left hand and his right hand seemed to have minds of their own, each playing a distinct melody. He gradually brought them together into a kind of post-modern blend of boogie-woogie and the Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto.
Throughout the evening, Mr. Haden’s own bass solos were inevitably eye-openers. On “Passport,” for instance, he seemed to be playing a duet with silence: He would play three beats of music, often a lick with quite a few notes in that space, and then wait for three beats of silence. Gradually he started filling in those empty spaces and building to an exciting solo of the kind rarely heard on his instrument bass.This is one set where you had better not talk during the bass solo.
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The New Zealand-born Mr. Broadbent, who was also in town a few weeks ago to play for an emerging singer, Hilary Kole, at Birdland, is one of those extraordinary musicians whom I would be tempted to call a “Renaissance Man” if only I could think of a musician from the Renaissance who did what this one does.
Mr. Broadbent maintains a career as a sideman (a co-star, really) for outstanding leaders like Mr. Haden and Lee Konitz, works on his own projects as leader and star, earns most of his dough as a studio keyboardist, and is widely acclaimed as one of the two or three best musical directors for singers around.
On his new album “Every Time I Think of You” (Artistry Music), Mr. Broadbent is accompanied by the Haden-influenced bassist Brian Bromberg and drummer Kendall Kay, along with the AB String Section. His writing for strings doesn’t sound classical, nor the least bit sentimental the way strings often do in a pop or movie context. Indeed, the violins serve as a fourth member of the trio, illuminating Mr. Broadbent’s gossamer touch. Mr. Broadbent is both sublime and swinging on standards like “Last Night When We Were Young,” as well as excellent originals like “Woody ‘n’ Me,” a dedication to Woody Herman, who gave him his first important job in America.
This may be the best example of a major soloist working in the context of his own fantastic orchestrations since Benny Carter. Historically, there have only been a handful of important jazz albums by piano with strings — George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, to name a few — and “Every Time I Think of You” automatically jumps to the top of that short list.