Thursday, October 25, 2007

Charlie Haden and the vinyl mindset

Charlie Haden
Quartet West, 1987

After a long break, I'm back blogging again. Among a million other changes to my life, I recently moved into a new place, with room for a real stereo. And that means being able to play actual records for the first time in a number of years. Funny how listening to something I haven't heard in a while can instantly forge connections to my past, and funny how having all this "new" music around mutes my consumer impulse to go out and buy new stuff.

[On a side note - I really wish I could go back in time and spend just a little more money in the Greenwich Village Tower Records in 2002. Basement chock full of vinyl that was being liquidated. Von Karajan's complete Beethoven symphonies: $3. Pristine copy of Ornette's Free Jazz: $1.50. Die Walk├╝re: $4. White Album: $2. Obscure King Sunny Ade recording: $1. It was kind of crazy and unreal to browse down there, where Adam Smith's invisible hand created a record-collector's paradise.]

Anyway, I'm quite enjoying all the rituals of the vinyl record - carefully lifting and lowering the needle, listening to the hiss and pop (which adds texture and constantly reminds your ears that it's a recording), appreciating or cringing at the big cover art, reading the lyrics sometimes written on sleeves, smiling at the duality in the structure of a two-sided album, which some exploited and some didn't. It's a load of fun.

Which brings me to this album by Charlie Haden. One of my favorites, bought when I was a senior in high school, I believe. An avid jazz fan at that point, I really didn't listen to any other style of music for a couple of years. And since I was a bassist, this was a natural record to want. But even if I didn't, there's a serious selling point here: "Hermitage."

This track is, simply put, radiant. The tune is by Pat Metheny, about whom I can be hot and cold, but this recording really makes a case for "Hermitage" as a jazz standard. As played by the quartet (including Haden on bass and the great Billy Higgins on drums), it's atmospheric, sweet-and-sour, seemingly in constant motion yet standing still at the same time. The players explore emotional places that you wouldn't think the tune could go, especially true in Ernie Watts' sax solo, pushing at the seams of a composition that wants to be understated, and dragging the rest of the ensemble with him. It's hard to put my finger on just what makes it so memorable and great, so I suggest you listen to it yourself, and let the mood of the piece settle over you and pull you along, maybe break your heart just a tiny bit and rescue it again right after.

Other great stuff on the album - a version of "Body and Soul" wherein the main melody is never quite played, but hinted at. "Taney County" is one of Haden's countryfied jazz compositions, ridiculously simple yet so compelling, and it's just him alone with his bass. There's quite a range of approaches in this album that is nominally a mainstream straight-ahead jazz disc. There's warmth and heart in the more "out" playing, as if the players are remembering a moment in time together, or having a conversation about a shared emotional experience.

On the liner notes for one of the Quartet West albums (not sure if it's this one or "Haunted Heart"), Haden talks about evoking the spirit of Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles. Some of that spirit really does come through - the feeling that everyone is widespread and disconnected for the most part, and human attachments form on the basis of unexpected things, leading to unforseen places. Quite remarkable to be able to say things like that with sound.

Get it on itunes:
Charlie Haden - Quartet West

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