The Jazz.com Blog
November 05, 2008 · 6 comments
The jazz community was active throughout the campaign in supporting the candidacy of Barack Obama, and while many musicians and fans were watching the returns in the comfort of their homes, a number turned out to the Blue Note in New York to enjoy a special election night performance / celebration by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Jazz.com’s Tim Wilkins was on hand, and reports on the proceedings below. T.G.
"You can't ever not have hope. If you stop having hope, then everything you believe means nothing," bassist Charlie Haden told me while we waited at New York's Blue Note for election results to come in. "I have always had hope," he added, "because I was surrounded by beautiful music growing up—even when I looked around me, and saw the injustices in the world and in this country."
It's been a long eight years for Haden, a fervent Obama supporter who has often brought politics into his music. In 1968, he partnered with pianist Carla Bley to create an experimental big band, the Liberation Music Orchestra. The group concocted a creative mix of folk music, art songs and free improvisation, to show solidarity with the antiwar movement and other causes around the globe. One cut from their first album, “Circus '68 – '69," dramatized disagreements at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, when the party refused to oppose the Nixon Administration's escalation of the Vietnam War, by setting them to music. That album ended on a hopeful note, a heartfelt and bluesy rendition of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."
Haden has revived the Liberation Music Orchestra three times, always with the same carefully crafted mix of inspirations: in 1983, to protest the Reagan Administration's unofficial wars in Central America; in 1990, during the first Gulf War; and most recently in 2004, after the last presidential elections. It is this last group which Haden has reconvened for a week at the Blue Note, and which recorded Not In Our Name in 2007 for Verve.
"Every time there's a Republican administration, I have to make a new record," Haden joked early in the evening. "But we're going to win - right? We've been doing this since 1968, and we have hope in our hearts."
The group on hand for election night performance includes Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek on tenor saxophones, Seneca Black and Michael Rodriguez on trumpets, Vincent Chancey on french horn, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Joe Daley on tuba, Steve Cardenas on guitar and Matt Wilson drums. Bley and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón also appear on the album, ably replaced here by Alan Broadbent and Loren Stillman.
The concert stuck close to the group's 2007 album for Verve, Not in Our Name opening with the title track, named for movement which protested the buildup to the second Iraq war. This was followed by a reggae-tinged version of Pat Metheny's "This is Not America," with subtle nods to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
"Have we heard anything yet?" Haden asked the audience from time to time. "Ohio for Obama! And New Jersey!" came back replies from Blackberry holders in the audience. Ruth Cameron, his wife and manager, kept her cell phone on, so she could provide election updates throughout the evening. "If Obama wins, we can retire!" Haden shot back with a smile.
"Blue Anthem," the third song of the concert as well as the album, is an ironic pastiche of the world's national anthems, which quotes everything from "La Marseillaise" to "Oh, Canada!" with martial touches added on the snare by Wilson. At one point, he leaned so insistently on a drum figure that an audience member was inspired to shout out his interpretation of the three-pitch motive: "O – ba – ma! O – ba – ma!" he shouted, to applause.
This was followed by another of the album's highlights, "Amazing Grace." Haden, who began his career in 1939, at age two, on his family's radio show in Shenandoah, Iowa, has a deep and heartfelt affinity for Americana and spirituals. However, this first set included more measured commentary on the American tradition, with masterful use of dissonances in solos by Malaby and Fowlkes, among others. Haden took an extended solo on "Amazing Grace," and ended the song not on the expected major chord, but with an ambiguous, anticipatory minor seventh.
"Goin' Home" illustrated the strengths of the band, and Haden: it is his reworking of a theme from Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony, which the Czech composer wrote in the United States in 1893. The theme was in part inspired by spirituals, which Dvorak was exposed to through his friend and pupil Harry Burleigh, one of the first African-American classical composers. Haden and the superb band go back to draw on the sources of this inspiration, in particular on the solo contribution by Rodriguez, while retaining the cultivated optimism of Dvorak's setting.
The set ended with a medley of "America the Beautiful" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is also known as "The Negro National Anthem." Broadbent began by methodically deconstructing "America" at the keyboard, from which Wilson picked up the pieces to lead the band through a swing interlude. This too was set on a course to crash and burn, ending in a seemingly centerless palette of free improvisation. Then, slowly, tentatively, harmony reemerged in a sincere rendition of "America," ending with a high note provided by Black and cries of "Yes, yes!" from the audience.
Backstage around 9:30, we checked the results and talked politics. Obama was still far from the 270 electoral votes he needed, and several battleground states were still up for grabs. Not one to mince words, Haden laid in to Bush and the Republican Party for their mishandling of the Iraq war and conduct during the 2000 and 2004 elections. "You know, truth wins out in spite of lies, and that's what everything has been with the Republicans—it’s just been lies," he said. "But at least, there's still enough of us to do something about it, I hope."
The band retook the stage at 10:30, and Haden tried to cheer the crowd with an elaborate joke about a frog who walked into a bar, and persisted until he got what he wanted—grapes—from the exasperated bartender. It wasn't until just past eleven when Ruth got the news that Obama had the electoral votes he needed to become the next President of the United States. He had also won over battleground states including Florida and Haden's own Iowa.
"Are you sure?" Haden asked, and asked again, after performing another number, fearing perhaps the recount nightmares of the past two elections. Once he was confident in the news, he said: "Well, I guess it's time for Amazing Grace!"
This time around, there were no ambiguous dissonances. Haden offered up his solo time to Daley, Fowlkes, Chancey and Cardenas, who delivered the evening's most passionate choruses, which Haden encouraged with cries of "Preach, preach!" and "Take another!" Also gone was the minor seventh, ending on the strong, affirmative cadence of the original hymn.
"Oh, I'm so happy!" said Haden, beaming from the bandstand. "I don't have to wake up depressed any more!" Yes, you can, Charlie. And yes, we can too.
This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins