Charlie Haden’s first recording as a leader was 1968’s Liberation Music Orchestra, a truly original album that dared to blend big band voicings, folk music (particularly from South America and other sources atypical for jazz), free soloing, and progressive-left politics. The project cohered because the arrangements by Carla Bley were ingenious and fresh and because Mr. Haden’s bass-playing was rooted in mid-western American soil and in the free pulse of Ornette Coleman’s music. With the LMO project, Charlie Haden seemed a worthy, if less frenetic, heir to the legacy of another Charlie—Mr. Mingus.
And no matter where his music has taken him over the years, Charlie Haden has always returned to the Liberation Music Orchestra. The most recent return, Not In Our Name, is the gentlest and most homegrown LMO recording. Though this group is usually thought of as a big band, it’s more akin to the horn-rich David Murray Octet or Abdullah Ibrahim’s Ekaya—an octet of horns (rich in low brass of tuba, French horn, and trombone) with rhythm. The group plays gently. At times, it seems like a lovely American lullaby, a sweet collection of American songs the purpose of which is to protest the country’s leadership by adoring the country’s musical soul.
Perhaps you will want to keep the politics out of it, but I’m not sure you should. The title Not in Our Name is, of course, a commentary on the policies of the current American administration, particularly its use of military force in the Middle East. So Haden’s decision to record a LMO disc of American music (much of it traditional) is meant to “make a statement that just because you’re not for everything that this administration is doing, doesn’t mean that you’re not patriotic.” This sentiment informs the tone of Bley’s arrangements and of the soloists attack—which is graceful, thankful,
The title track, a Haden original, starts with a gentle acoustic guitar—followed by a rollicking melody that sounds both Latin and easy, like the soundtrack to a ‘60s film evoking a time when America was not roiling as much as it was rolling. “This Is Not America”, a tune credited to Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays and (?!) David Bowie, begins with a contemplative piano-guitar duet, then settles into a gentle reggae groove with inquisitive solos all around. The drumming by Matt Wilson, here and throughout, is concise and inventive. The arrangement includes sly references to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”, yet the political message is a chuckle rather than a shout.
After this warm-up, the program turns more serious. Carla Bley’s original, “Blue Anthem”, is set-off by a slightly military groove on the drums that dissolves into super-hip Ellington late-night harmonies. The Webster-ian tenor solo gives way to a statement by Mr. Haden bathed in gorgeous Bley chord and horn voicings that continue under Steve Cardenas’s acoustic guitar. Again, Ms, Bley includes clever references to real anthems that, in context here, sound sad rather than proud.
The album’s centerpiece, however is the conjunction of the next two tracks. First, a medley of songs referencing “America”—“American the Beautiful”, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, and Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America”. The first—the familiar song of elementary school choruses and Ray Charles’ transformation—is treated to a divine interpretation. Critics of Mr. Haden’s politics may be tempted to hear the way Ms, Bley has turned the melody minor in places or laced it with dissonance. But, in fact, what she has done is make the familiar song even more beautiful by coloring it with the most American of musical devices—blues and jazz harmonies, followed by flowing trumpet improvisation. “Lift Every Voice” implants gospel music in the center of this American tribute, a smiling waltz of survival that leads us to Mr. Coleman’s mournful classic. When Ms. Bley brings back “America the Beautiful”, it is a conversation between Mr. Wilson’s drums and the brass—weird and angular until the full band returns to bring it home. You will be hard-pressed to find 17 more rewarding minutes of music this year.
This astonishing performance leads directly into an equally sublime reading of “Amazing Grace”. This over-familiar favorite is somehow rediscovered here, with the gospel harmonies intact but a fresh sensibility in charge. Mr. Haden plays the melody with solid grace before Curtis Fowlkes, Mr. Haden, and Mr. Cardenas drop in playful, elegant, natural solos.
The collection winds down with impressionistic tags. Ms. Bley’s version of the largo section of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” could not be lovelier or simpler. This segues into a quiet version of Bill Frisell’s “Throughout”, a song that allows Mr. Haden and the tenor players (Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby) to play over pastel horns that gradually brighten and sharpen their attack. This tune dissolves into the most mournful piece of American music there is, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio”. This piece contains almost no improvising, reaching for and achieving moments of Copland-like purity of sound and feeling.
At the end, it’s hard to feel that Charlie Haden and Carla Bley are still angry about politics or injustice. Rather, the latest Liberation Music Orchestra record suggests sadness combined with love. The music on Not in Our Name evokes Ellington’s alleys and Aaron Copland’s plains, suggesting that the most revolutionary thing you can do today is simply to love the country—the land and the people—rather than the leadership. The sadness of the album’s conclusion seems like a final judgment, but my ears keep coming back to the sublime beauty of “Amazing Grace” and “America the Beautiful”. American promise rises at the center of this album such that you can believe that Charlie Haden remains hopeful.
I know that’s how this music, a shining American thing, makes me feel.