Charlie Haden Family & Friends
Nov. 17, 2009; Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, Calif.
For anyone unfamiliar with the rambling back story of jazz bass great Charlie Haden, it might have seemed that his most recent musical adventure, a full-fledged swan dive into country, old-timey and bluegrass music, was off his beaten path. Of course, that assumption is far from the case, as Haden’s earliest musical experiences in Iowa were with his family’s popular country radio show seven decades back.
Finally, after venturing into many other musical areas and attitudes, from Latin-American music to the loaded repertoire of the Liberation Music Orchestra, his film noir-ish Quartet West and myriad other projects, Haden literally went to Nashville to get reacquainted with his pre-jazz roots. Ironically or not, the resulting album, Rambling Boy (Decca), outsold all of his jazz projects to date. But that’s another story, something perhaps to do with jazz-phobia in America.
Homecoming was in the air, double-duty, when Haden gathered together great country pickers—including dobro master Jerry Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolinist Sam Bush and guitarist Bryan Sutton—and various friends and family to put on a grand concert in the atmospheric finery of L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Here, the Disney Hall was duly transformed into a facsimile of a Nashville legend: The venue became “just like the Grand Ole Opry,” a cheery Haden remarked onstage.
Haden has been one of a handful of world-class jazz musicians hailing from Los Angeles for over 30 years, partly because he wanted to be near his children—triplets Petra, Tanya and Rachel, and son Josh. All Haden’s children were gathered for the album and this special concert, along with his wife Ruth Cameron, who offered up a lustrous reading of “Down by the Salley Gardens,” with lyrics by Yeats.
Early in the show, the Haden girls struck up a glorious, clean-toned sound on “Single Girl, Married Girl,” the kick-off song of the album, and, later in the program, on “Wildwood Flower.” Father Charlie himself stepped up to the microphone to join in on the project’s title song, “Rambling Boy,” which he recalled hearing Mother Maybelle Carter sing when he was but a 7-year-old sprite in Iowa.
A link to Haden’s “other” musical life came when son Josh sang his haunting, quasi-gospel song “Spiritual,” a version of which appears on the popular Charlie Haden/Pat Metheny duet debut, Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories). Josh later sang a version of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind,” sounding somehow more classic and even mystical in this acoustic setting, with Douglas injecting ripe dobro riffs between vocal lines (Douglas’ own sometimes jazz-flavored lines also inserted extra-Nashville spice into the music).
One significant moment in the show came when guitarist-vocalist Dan Tyminski reprised his version of the classic “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the anchor of the T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack for the Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which effectively instigated a revival of old-timey American music in the public sphere. That project actually created the spark in Haden’s mind to finally get busy with his own long-desired “country project.”
For comic relief, the wily actor Jack Black—husband of Tanya—sang “Old Joe Clark” and then launched into comical gymnastics, ogling each of the several soloists up close in well-earned awe and somersaulting between each picker. Later, he and Tanya wriggled into lighter terrain again, with the perky, quirky “Who Broke the Lock (on the Henhouse Door)?”
We might have expected Haden to return for an encore version of “Shenandoah,” with the bassist doing vocal honors, as he does on the album. Instead, Haden asked his hot band of mostly Nashville transplants to spark up an exuberant and slightly odd bluegrass tune, with a bar of 5/4 thrown in at the end of each verse. In that mind-twisting moment, and others along the way, the mix of the earthy and the brainy almost triggered a jazz synapse. No doubt, that’s a cross-idiom response that the diversity-loving Haden would appreciate.