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Charlie’s Angels: New York Pays Tribute to Charlie Haden

Metheny, Frisell and other friends gather to remember

Charlie Haden
Carla Bley (piano), with Steve Swallow playing bass, lead an incarnation of Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra at Town Hall, NYC, 1-15

In that beautiful, no-holds-barred, Irish-wake sort of way, Charlie Haden’s friends and collaborators let the late iconic bassist have it at New York’s Town Hall on Jan. 13. The occasion was “Charlie Haden: A Memorial and Celebration of His Life,” an admission-free program that stretched beyond three hours and brought together a mighty cast of headliner-caliber musicians. Jazz is a culture whose ability to revere and tributize, after so much practice, is state-of-the-art. Still, the loss expressed here felt deeper and wider. Many of the musicians spoke, and many of the speakers weren’t musicians but family, industry colleagues and lifelong friends. Unlike most posthumous genuflections before jazz greats, you got a palpable sense of the man.

And the man, as more than a few attested in good humor, was an irrepressible neurotic with a heart of gold. “As soon as I put my bass down, I’m in trouble,” Haden once said, a reference to the heroin addiction he conquered and that no doubt inspired his sometimes obnoxious need for control. Denardo Coleman, whose game-changing father, Ornette, made Haden’s name but couldn’t attend the memorial due to illness, recalled an arduous stint as the men’s road manager. “I don’t think I ever found a hotel [Charlie] liked,” he said. Haden’s lawyer, Fred Ansis, offered hilarious anecdotes, including one in which the bassist made a label-related request and placed follow-up calls with an urgency usually reserved for house fires. But Haden’s charmful innocence made everything OK, and quirks aside, his impact could be profound. “It was love,” Pat Metheny remarked of their relationship, after delivering a gorgeous acoustic solo medley of Haden compositions. Brad Mehldau, who performed a near-mystic blues improvisation with Lee Konitz, intimated that Haden helped to guide him out of his own struggles with substance abuse. Joshua Redman, whose father, saxophonist Dewey Redman, collaborated with Haden in Old and New Dreams and elsewhere, explained how listening to their recordings helped him to love and understand a dad who didn’t raise him. (Redman appeared in a quartet with Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Barron and Scott Colley.)

But of course you learned how life-altering Haden’s presence could be, because there was the music. Among the highlights: Bill Frisell and Haden’s four children invoked his “Cowboy Charlie” youth with “Voice From on High” and “Oh Shenandoah.” Henry Butler brandished his operatic voice on the hymn “Deep River.” Ravi Coltrane, Geri Allen and harpist Brandee Young, summoning the spirit of Alice Coltrane, aimed heavenward on Haden’s “For Turiya.” And two incarnations of Haden’s namesake ensembles were rightly saved for last. In his Quartet West, Colley filled the bass chair and tenorman Ernie Watts delivered show-stealing solos. And the Liberation Music Orchestra, with arranger Carla Bley on piano and bass guitarist Steve Swallow, served as a glorious reminder of Haden’s devotion to people-first politics. Especially in these times, it was a reminder Haden would have loved.

Originally Published