This isn’t the first time Charlie Haden’s Quartet West has sidestepped its postbop proclivity to settle into silkier settings alongside preeminent vocalists. Back in 1999, Haden and pianist Alan Broadbent, saxophonist Ernie Watts and drummer Larance Marable (since replaced by Rodney Green) examined The Art of the Song, with splendid assistance from Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson. This time around, with the vocal net cast wider to include Melody Gardot, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Renée Fleming and Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron, the results are every bit as sublime.
Of the six guest singers, all but Jones is also backed by lush waves of strings, elegantly arranged by Broadbent. Gardot opens with “If I’m Lucky,” masterfully undercutting the lyric’s optimism with bittersweetness. On “Ill Wind,” impelled by Green’s brushes, Jones echoes the bruised pathos of Billie Holiday. Wilson casts the Johnny Mercer/David Raksin rarity “My Love and I” in shadows, lending it a surreptitious furtiveness. Cameron’s “Let’s Call It a Day” is a superb study in soigné heartbreak, while Krall’s “Goodbye” is artfully scorched. Most surprising is the haunting, earthy passion of Fleming’s “A Love Like This.”
Between the vocal tracks, the quartet serves up a half-dozen instrumentals. Two-a sumptuous, strings-laden “Sophisticated Lady” and a marvelously spare, lean “My Old Flame”-are fully in keeping with the album’s theme. A Watts-led treatment of Hank Jones’ noirish “Angel Face” fits too, but is included not in homage to les femmes but to the legendary pianist himself.