If there is a unifying factor within the multi-directional music of Charlie Haden, it would be the bassist/bandleader’s inexhaustible love of collaboration. From his redefinition of jazz’s harmonic infrastructure on Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come to the release last month of his often wistful second album of duets with pianist Keith Jarrett, Last Dance, Haden’s playing has been steadfast in its solemn, articulate beauty but gloriously restless in its sense of stylistic exploration.
This was, after all, a jazz titan whose company of collaborators included – along with Coleman and Jarrett – Ginger Baker, Beck, Michael Brecker, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Robert Downey Jr., Bruce Hornsby, Rickie Lee Jones, Joe Lovano, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Paul Motian, Yoko Ono, David Sanborn and Ringo Starr.
Haden died yesterday at 76 after an extended illness. He contracted polio at age 15 and had battled post-polio syndrome in recent years.
Haden was a jazzman by reputation – a player with a vocabulary on the bass that ranged from revolutionary soloing and arranging (as evidenced by his late ‘60s work with the Liberation Music Orchestra) to a love of surprisingly traditional jazz composition and songcraft (as shown by his ‘80s and ‘90s albums with Quartet West). But Haden was also a lover of American roots music. Perhaps his most commercially visible album was 2008’s Rambling Boy, a folk and country session cut with family members, a legion of top Nashville artists and guests that included Metheny and Hornsby.
“I always operate on the platform that there is not much time left,” Haden told me in a March 1996 interview prior to a concert with Quartet West at the Singletary Center for the Arts. “And that’s the way I play music, too. I dedicate my life to the notes that I play. There aren’t enough seconds in the day to implement all of the things that I have in my head. I really want to do so much.”
Of those myriad projects, my preferences ran to drummer-less duo and trio groups – settings that cut Haden loose from any grounded rhythm, allowing his playing room to roam. The last times I saw him perform were on a pair of 2008 dead-of-winter nights at the Blue Note in New York where Haden offered successive evenings of duets with two landmarks guitarists – John Scofield and Jim Hall. These were situations where the bassist was in peak form, summoning a level of jazz conversation that was alternately playful, exact and wondrously intuitive.
Similarly, the record I reached for last night was the self-titled 1980 debut album on ECM by Magico, a trio rooted in jazz and ancient folk that featured Haden, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the underappreciated Brazilian guitarist Egberto Gismonti. It’s by no means a career-defining work for Handen, but one rich in a collaborate spirit that resulted in some the bassist’s most spacious but stylistically indefinable playing.
“All I want to do with these projects is to make beautiful music, honest music and music of purity,” Haden said in our 1996 interview. “And I want to use it to try and bring more and more people to the art form of jazz.
“Jazz is an alternative that can enhance their lives tremendously and touch something in their souls that has never been touched before.”