Who among us can deny the sentimental stylings of Steven Bishop? In 1985, I know you were singing along to Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin’s version of “Separate Lives” from the soundtrack to White Nights. Just admit it. Hey, at least it was better than Lionel “I had a dream, I had an awful dream” Richie’s musical contribution to the movie. Even Eric Clapton knew where to turn on his 1986 comeback album August. He and Bishop co-write one of Clapton’s best ballads, “Holy Mother”, featuring Clapton’s finest solo in years. And then there was Tootsie. Yes, Jessica Lange, it just might be you.
But what in the world is the theme to Tootsie doing on a Charlie Haden album? Haden is a jazz legend on the double bass. For years he bent and stretched the pulse of tons of important sessions. Starting out in Ornette Coleman’s band in the late ‘50s, he helped pioneer free jazz. And through the years, Haden has consistently lent a lyrical touch to the sometimes-unfocused free jazz movement. To me, he has always been the perfect compliment to his one time competitor, the late Scott LaFaro, who also started in Coleman’s band. In perhaps his most famous recording with Bill Evans, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, the legendary LaFaro played with great spontaneous energy, provoking Evans and drummer Paul Motian with a flurry of rapturous high notes while bathing the trio in his warm and intimate tone. (Note that Riverside has finally issued a fantastic remastered version of the album that restores the original track order rather than the back to back alternate takes that made the album almost unlistenable).
Haden always had a slower touch. He preferred to swing softly in the low registers with his own enveloping tone and deeply melodic sensibilities. In recent years, Haden has led us to the softer offerings of new age jazz. But he has always offered us great music. Take his innovative collaboration with jazz-rock guitarist Pat Metheny on Beyond the Missouri Sky. Leaving aside Metheny’s occasional inappropriate overdubs, that collection of guitar bass duets presented a deeply intimate landscape of Midwestern America that was as pretty as the pastel blue and pink hued sky on the album cover. Some might have dismissed the atmospheric sound as fluffy, but there was a sense of order and beauty that flowed naturally throughout the album.
On his latest album, Haden returns to his themes of America. This time around, however, the material is far less innovative, and at times, far too soft. Enter the sentimental stylings of Steven Bishop. Don’t get me wrong, Haden has assembled a strong band: Michael Brecker on tenor sax, Brad Mehldau on piano, and Brian Blade on drums. And the band’s pop leanings should come as no surprise since Brecker has played with James Taylor and Paul Simon, not to mention Yoko Ono (although his jazz credits are formidable with Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner and Billy Cobham on his resume) and Mehldau, although a devotee of Bill Evans, has taken his own stabs at covering the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son” and “Blackbird”. But when Haden waters things down with a 34-piece orchestra, the album simply devolves into stock for easy listening light jazz radio. Especially when the band offers a somewhat bloated “America the Beautiful”.
Nevertheless, the album has its moments. Although a bit out of place from the rest of the material, Haden returns to his roots with Ornette Coleman’s “Bird Food”, and the band turns in an inspiring performance. Brecker opens with a wonderful light tone that skips through the melody, with Haden offering an upbeat and intricate groove. After a wonderful Haden solo over Blades’ deft soft ride and snare, Mehldau offers a sweet light touch on the keys before giving way to a terrific Brecker solo. Haden is in top form, and the band offers a very tight laid back swing as they effortlessly restates the theme.
But the track only leaves you longing for more material to let this band stretch out. The Haden, Brecker, and Mehldau original ballad “Travels” is another highlight, with a lovely melody and a terrific Mehldau solo, but overall, the song is relatively light fare. The band challenges itself a bit more when Haden once again returns to his roots with “Prism”, a tune written by his early ‘70s bandmate Keith Jarret. But yet again, one can only be disappointed that the track sounds more like a diversion than the template for an exciting quartet performance.