Tag Archives: Charlie Haden

Musical (un)talent

I’ve previously touched the topic of musical talent in my discussion about the young Jacob Collier. I recently came across a sort of opposite case in terms of musical talent. H. Jon Benjamin is an American voice actor and comedian who’s got into the music world from the “wrong end”, so to say. He has a record deal and brought out his first album before he actually learned to play [Junkee].

As always I’d urge you to listen for yourself before reading on to make up your own mind about Benjamin’s undertaking.

First, let me say that I haven’t heard the whole record, just the clips available online, which I’ve included here as well. Frankly, I’m not sure if I could endure listening to the whole album 😉 But I do think these clips give a pretty good idea of the nature of Benjamin’s project.

Benjamin’s Jazz Daredevil raises many questions and thoughts of the nature of jazz as a musical genre but in a more general level also about what the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu has called “cultural capital”. More specifically, it challenges the notions of skills and talent required to perform music we call jazz and raises questions as to where lies the value of artistic enterprises in general and in jazz in particular.

Music as language

I’d like to here approach these questions through the common comparison between music and language. I’ll leave a more thorough discussion of this comparison for later and pick out a few themes from the music-as-language discourse that apply to the present discussion.

As discussed here before, jazz can – at least be attempted to – be defined by naming some essential characteristics such as specific rhythmic (swing) and melodic (blues) “vocabulary”, if you will. To be able to play jazz, then, would entail a command of these vocabularies in a way that others familiar with this musical language understand “what you’re saying”.

The comments in the clip above by some of the musicians involved in Benjamin’s project suggest that they didn’t feel like they were exactly “speaking the same language” musically. In the clip it’s also suggested that Benjamin’s album is what jazz sounds like to the uninitiated. Some online commentators [NPR] also share this view.

Cultural capital

The narrator of the clip has a view in between the above two hearing Benjamin’s efforts as “fresh” approach to jazz. This, in my view, speaks of one of the biggest problems with some avant-garde art, it’s view of artistic novelty as cultural capital; trying to do something “new”, something nobody has done before as the main value of their art.

The underlying ideal of this aspiration to constantly reinvent the western musical tradition comes from one of the backbones of modernism, progressivism; the idea that the human condition is on a linear, constantly improving path (for the history of this line of thinking see here [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]).

In musical avant-garde this first took the forms of expanding the conventional parameters of music, mainly harmony, in musical impressionism and eventually attempting to do away with them entirely in expressionism. The latter also began experimenting with instrumentation such as the Italian musical Futurism of the early 20th century.

The group Performa discussing and performing parts of Luigi Rulloso’s Art of Noises.

While Benjamin undoubtedly was not particularly inspired by the pioneers of “Art of Noises”, the musical programme of the Futurists did include avoiding conventional musical training in favour of auto-didactic learning. However, both share the aim of creating something “new” and unconventional by setting themselves consciously apart from the “mainstream”.

loopool reading Russolo’s manifesto and providing some context to it 100 years after.

Unorthodox musicians are of course not a new phenomenon in jazz. Already in 1950s Ornette Coleman stirred the scene with his plastic saxophone and was told “You can’t play that” (Charlie Haden in the BBC documentary). However, Coleman found other musicians who shared his musical vision – or they found him – such as Charlie Haden and went on to “rewrite the language of jazz” with his playing that was rhythmically and harmonically “out of the box”.

Blues Connotation is one of Coleman’s classics revealing his rootedness in the Black American musical tradition and showing how he springs from it.

A quick listening experiment, however, reveals – even to the uninitiated, I believe – how Coleman is in fact very well at home in the musical language of jazz – or black music in general – and chooses to make his own version of it. Benjamin, on the other hand, seems to have a very rudimentary idea of how to “speak the jazz language”. Some of his rhythms and melodic shapes suggest that he’s not completely at loss in his musical environment, but in absence of any technical command of his instrument of choice or any knowledge of the “grammar” of the language he’s trying to convers in, his playing does sound quite as random as it actually is.

To say that this is how jazz sounds like to people who don’t know it says more about how people listen to music than about anything else. You don’t need to know a language to be able to tell when someone’s faking it. You just need to listen a bit more carefully and compare to something you know to be the “real thing”. In Benjamin’s case it’s actually quite easy if you listen to the exchanges – or dialogue, if you will – between the saxophonist and Benjamin.

In terms of cultural capital, I think the value of Benjamin’s project lies elsewhere than in its musical merits. As one of the online commentators mentioned this could be an “Andy Kauffman/Borat kind of ‘meta-gag’”. Benjamin himself is not admitting it, but then again that would spoil the gag, wouldn’t it?

It’ll be, however, interesting to see what comes of this if Benjamin actually pursues with his musical career as he says in the interview. Although jazz is no longer in the centre of Black American culture like it was in Coleman’s early days – or it’s even considered “dead” by some – high jacking it for such a “meta-gag” could be seen as controversial in perhaps a broader sense than Benjamin thought of. Him actually learning the language and then finding his way to speak it would bridge that gap. But whether that’s his end game with this project we’ll have to wait and see what his “untapped un-talent” brings us.

Charlie Haden – Part 2

When I first began writing this piece about Charlie Haden I could only think of the above-discussed duo album with Pat Metheny that I really know of Charlie Haden. But while browsing YouTube for his music I was reminded of three other albums on my shelf he plays on. These are from somewhat different eras and bring out different sides of Haden’s bass playing and career and worth a few more word, in my opinion. Again I leave the more extensive biographical commentary to others and discuss here my experience with Haden’s work as sideman on these albums.

The first one is a trio recording Somewhere before with the pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Paul Motian, recorded live in 1968 at the Shelly’s Manne-hole in Hollywood. The second is 80/81 (1980) with Pat Metheny and third Michael Brecker from Michael Brecker. None of these albums have had so profound effect on me and my playing as the first discussed duo album with Metheny, but there are certainly remarkable albums on their own account. I also find it interesting to see the connections between musicians and how their careers evolve and cross each other. A long career such as Haden’s provides a great opportunity to retrospectively “witness” a slice of jazz history being made.

Somewhere before (Keith Jarrett Trio)

As mentioned, different sides of Haden’s playing can be heard on these albums. The trio album with Jarrett and Motian is a very free flowing one. Jarrett and Haden make a good match musically as they both like to keep things open to work freely on their melodic ideas without too many structural boundaries set by the composition. Haden always wanted to break out of the confines of bass playing and play melodies and counter melodies rather than just keep time and mark the harmonies. With Jarrett he’s able to do that and you can hear how they’re both “just ears”, playing off of each other.

The record itself is producer George Avakian’s selection of performances recorded during the groups stay at the Manne-hole. Here’s a performance of the same group a few years later which, I think, illustrates my point pretty well. In this one Haden also, rather atypically, play very high on the bass – but for a very clear musical reason.

80/81 (Pat Metheny)

According to Haden in the liner notes to Beyond the Missouri Sky, he first met Pat Metheny in 1973 when Metheny, age of 18 at the time, came up to introduce himself after Haden’s concert with Ornette Coleman (with whom they were collaborating a decade later on the Song X album). It was, however, during the extensive touring with the 80/81 project that they became friends. In addition to them, this group consisted of the saxophonists Dewey Redman, with Haden had played in an Ornette Colean project in the  above-mentioned Jarrett group in the early 1970s, Michael Brecker, with whom Metheny had played at least in the Joni Mitchell group of the late end of 1970s, and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

80/81 is also a rather free oriented album. The opening track Two Folk Songs is a 20 minute long elaboration of two folk song like melodies, one from Metheny and the other by Haden, tribute to both artists’ Mid-Western routes. Ornette Coleman is also tributed in the form of his blues Turnaround. This features a hard-swinging Haden demonstrating the power of walking bass line, not only in providing the rhythmic and harmonic foundation, but also as creatively and interactively participating in the musical conversation between the musicians.

When I was still learning the basics of jazz bass playing I was picking up a lot of stuff from bassists I heard. The “walking” motion in a walking bass line is a result of regular, on the beat, rhythm and continuous scalar melodic movement. While Haden indeed swings like no other, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear him repeating some notes in his lines occasionally. But then again, this is not a conventional bebop context and Haden’s lines contribute rhythmically as well as melodically to what’s happening in the music; he’s taking part in the conversation, in a language, one might say, that is not strictly bebop.

Michael Brecker (Michael Brecker)

Michael Brecker’s album Michael Brecker is in a way continuation of the collaboration we saw/heard on 80/81; but now Brecker as the leader. Apart from Kenny Kirkland on piano and the absence of Dewey Redman, this is the same group. By this time Brecker was already a very established jazz musician with e.g. a discography dating back two decades. He was perhaps best known of his fusion jazz groups Brecker Brothers and Steps Ahead.

Considering the rather prominent fusion sound on this album the choice of Haden as a bass player might seem a peculiar one. Together with the music production technology/philosophy of the 1980s, it’s often hard to hear the “rainforest” in Haden’s sound (see Part 1). On the other hand, it’s one more example of Haden’s versatility as a bass player and musician. Nothing Personal is a good example of this. It’s a minor blues featuring a bit fusion-like bass figure on the first part of the form and walking bass on the second part and under the solos. Haden’s walking bass lines are in the highly chromatic style he played on 80/81 as well; adding a sort of Coleman-style free jazz element to the fusion. The repeating notes in his lines can be heard here as well.

In Cost of Living we get Haden really in his element again with his familiar “wooden” sound as well as a beautiful solo. With Metheny on acoustic guitar on this track there’s something of flashback (or flashforward, really) to the duo album I discussed in the previous post.

Coda

This concludes my ruminations on Charlie Haden. Much could also be said of his philosophy of life and music, but I’ll leave that for others at this point. As you see here my musical acquaintance with Haden hasn’t been the most extensive one, but I’ve been able draw quite a few lessons from his music. I think we should all consider ourselves lucky to have had such a remarkable person and musician amongst us leaving his legacy for us to enjoy, study and learn from. So hats off and hands down to Mr. Haden!

Charlie Haden – Part 1

"Charlie Haden" by Geert Vandepoele from Gent, Belgium - Charlie Haden. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Charlie Haden” by Geert Vandepoele from Gent, Belgium – Charlie Haden. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The passing of this great bass player on July 11th brought up some thoughts about studying and making music, I’d like to share with you. I’ll leave the writing of more extensive and well deserved obituaries and tributes to Charlie Haden for those who are better acquainted with his life and career. As my modest tribute to this pioneer of bass I’ll reflect here on my “musical encounter” with him and what it meant for me.

Institutional study of jazz mostly begins with learning the basics of bebop; swinging on one’s instrument, alone as well as in an ensemble, bebop harmonies and building melodic lines on them according to the voice leading principles, repertoire, etc. Why bebop has been chosen as the centre of the jazz universe in the educational institutions has to be discussed another time. However, we have much to be grateful for to Charlie Haden for showing us “the shape of jazz to come”; showing all the wonderful things the music could and can be – whether one would call it jazz or something else.

To me this world began open when my bass teacher of the time Ari-Pekka Anttila gave me a tip to check out the then fresh duo album of Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny Beyond the Missouri Sky (1997). 15 years later that album continues to touch me and has now become part of the “soundtrack of my life” bringing back many memories. I’m also happy to have had the chance to see the maestro playing live once on his tour with Pat Metheny in 2003.

I’d suggest you to go ahead and listen to the following track at this point. Below I’ll say a few words about this track, how I hear it and what it has meant to me, but I’d recommend you to listen to it first so you’re not “primed” by my views of it. You’re then able to compare your own experience of it with mine and see/hear for yourself whether you agree with me or find my description useful in any way.

Our Spanish Love Song

Charlie Haden is the bass player who stays down low, who plays only the notes that are necessary. He is quiet, in a sense, even as he has a resonant sound, a singing, distinctive tone that speaks of the wood of the instrument, the flesh of his fingers on the strings, the intelligence of man who is thinking his way though the songs he plays and the humanity of a man who can hear the lyrics in his heart with every measure. Will Layman (PopMatters.com)

When I play, it’s very important to me to bring out the wood – like the tree – of the bass. I like to sound like a rainforest. Charlie Haden

Musically the lesson I was trying to learn from Haden was to say what I had to say with less notes. I find the duo performances with Haden and Metheny very effective in driving that point home. Pat Metheny is a master of playing long, elaborate, melodic lines. Forming a continuous flow these lines draw a firework-like picture rich in colours and details in dynamics, timing and harmony for the keen ear to pick up. Charlie Haden, on the hand, plays a few carefully chosen notes executed with equal mastery, cherishing every note, every stroke of his musical brush, embracing the very touch of the canvas, the creation of a musical space for the audience who is invited to share it with him. This is the musical being-in-the-world in a Heideggerian sense I’ve talked about before.

Our Spanish Love Song, from the above-mentioned album you’ve just heard is a great example of what I’m trying to say here; as well as a tune I spent a lot of time studying in attempt to emulate Haden’s approach. The bass solo in the studio version is nothing short of haunting in its beauty and simplicity. The ascending melodic line breaths through the harmonies of the song, marking the changes and building up the tension towards the last part of the form where he resolves it with some arpeggios on the finishing cadence of the form.

In short, Haden has taught me much about the sound of the instrument and the effective use of it in self expression in a way that is economic rather than flashy, and emotional rather than “academic”.  My first teacher at the Conservatory of Amsterdam Arnold Dooyewerd also helped me a great deal in this search,  more specifically advising me to try and bring forth the “Spanish” in this song.

The closest I got in my own playing to realising the lessons from Haden, in my opinion,  can be heard on Rauhaton Rinta from the Finnish-Dutch group Aina.

Rauhaton Rinta from Aina – Leino (2005).  Composition by Izak Boom, lyrics by Eino Leino

When I first began writing this post I could only think of the above-mentioned duo album with Pat Metheny that I really know of Charlie Haden. But while browsing YouTube for his music I was reminded of three other albums on my shelf he plays on.  See Part 2 for my thoughts about/around those albums.