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NO band in jazz has a stronger sense of place than Quartet West -- the place being Los Angeles in the period immediately after World War II, the Los Angeles that Haden just missed on arriving there in 1957. Formed in 1986, the band settled into its identity with Haunted Heart, its third album, recorded in 1991. The title tune is a gorgeous ballad from the 1940s, written by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz and rarely played by jazz musicians, despite a memorable recording by Bill Evans in 1961. Just as the track seems about to fade out, after the tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts's glowing recapitulation of the theme, a twinkle of strings introduces Jo Stafford's 1947 recording of the song, which is heard in its entirety, slight surface noise and all.
Deliberately evocative of Hollywood movies of the 1940s (it even begins with Max Steiner's Warner Bros. fanfare), Haunted Heart reminds me of a line spoken by Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade at the end of The Maltese Falcon, when a cop asks him about the jeweled bird everybody's been scheming to get hold of. It's "the stuff that dreams are made of," Bogart wisecracks, referring to the falcon and also thinking of the double-crossing woman he loves -- and whom he has just handed over to the police.
Given Haden's political leanings and his founding role in the jazz avant-garde, the last thing anyone expected from him was a love of singers and songs that are often dismissed as exemplars of middle-of-the-road escapism. Inevitably, there was speculation among jazz fans that this new direction reflected Haden's more relaxed lifestyle in Malibu, where he and his wife live in a rented house with an expansive view of the Pacific Ocean. The recordings he used on Haunted Heart by Stafford, Jeri Southern, and Billie Holiday -- ghostlike, appearing suddenly, as though from memory -- may call on emotions more refined than those triggered by the field recordings from Cuba and South Africa that he occasionally used with the Liberation Music Orchestra. But Haden brings his usual passion to Quartet West.
Haden's vision of the 1940s recognizes the beginning of modernism in jazz. Along with lush forties pop ballads and lilting originals by Haden or Alan Broadbent, the group's pianist, in the same mood, the band has recorded some of the trickiest of up-tempo early-bebop numbers by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Lennie Tristano, among others. And Quartet West is one of only a few contemporary jazz bands to capture early bebop's angular geometrics and emotional undercurrents, along with its stylish drum accents and lickety-split tempos. Parker and Dizzy Gillespie gave Los Angeles its first taste of bebop when they played a club called Billy Berg's at the end of 1945. At the same time, Bogart was preparing to play Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, a movie Haden says he tries to watch at least once a month; when he plays with Quartet West, it's as though Haden were imagining Parker and Marlowe prowling the Hollywood streets with him there beside them.
The Art of the Song, recorded last year, keeps a string orchestra, which Haden added to the band for the 1995 album Now Is the Hour, and also features the live vocalists Bill Henderson and Shirley Horn. Horn, sounding much more animated than she has when singing with her own trio in recent years, is especially wonderful on Cy Coleman's "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life." Henderson also performs capably, even if his slower-than-molasses delivery of "You, My Love," from the 1954 movie Young at Heart, is unlikely to make anyone forget Frank Sinatra. But without the voices from the past and without some bebop as a change of pace, the only frisson comes at the end of the album, when Haden steps out of character to sing "Wayfaring Stranger" -- a folk song his mother occasionally sang, and one whose grim lyrics, accepting death as a prelude to the afterlife, are typical of the songs Haden performed on the radio as a child. The Hadens' theme song was the Carter Family favorite "Keep on the Sunny Side of Life," but nothing else they sang was as cheery. On "Wayfaring Stranger," Broadbent scores the strings in intervals of fifths, which give the impression of being much wider because of Haden's uncertainty as a singer. Sounding as if he is walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Haden never seems as sure of himself as he would if he were playing the same notes on bass. But all the notes land exactly where they belong, in perfect relationship to one another harmonically. Baring his soul, Haden also displays his innate musicality.
THE nuts and bolts of what remains their primary job -- minding both pulse and chord changes -- keeps bass players relatively unpretentious, even when, like Haden, they enjoy respect as soloists and bandleaders. Everyone has some vanity, though, and for the typical modern bass player this expresses itself in the belief that he is entitled to a solo on every number, just as if he were playing piano or a horn. (Decades of prattle about jazz as an example of democracy in action have taken their toll.) Jimmy Blanton was the first to suggest the instrument's solo potential, with Duke Ellington's band in the early 1940s. Two decades later Scott LaFaro added a few twists as a member of the Bill Evans Trio. And the most compelling of all bass soloists was Charles Mingus, who had the facility of a Casals or a Segovia and a dramatic presence unlike anyone else's. But in most hands bass solos are a recipe for boredom, if only because of the instrument's pinched dynamics. After a succession of horn solos even the fleetest and most artfully conceived bass solo risks being anticlimactic. Haden is a bass soloist with a recognizable sensibility as well as technical range. His most celebrated recorded solo -- among the most celebrated by any bass player -- is the one he played on "Ramblin'" with Ornette Coleman in 1959. Fingering the instrument briskly but spacing his musical lines so that the silences between them carried as much meaning as the notes, Haden drew on his own background and underlined the country flavor of Coleman's tune by quoting snatches of folk songs he remembered from Missouri, including "Old Joe Clark," "Fort Worth Jail," and "Jesse James."
Haden usually favors a more deliberate pace, and he rarely quotes. Jazz musicians know, even if many in their audience do not, that slow tempos can be more demanding than breakneck ones; Haden has what I've heard musicians praise as a "long" beat, meaning the ability to sustain rhythmic vitality at a relative crawl. Artists whose deviations from the norm initially shock others in their discipline often turn out to be throwbacks of a sort. This was true of Coleman, who restored a primal cry to jazz and rid it of bebop's harmonic clutter, and it is true of Haden, who has gone on insisting that a bass is a bass even as other players have tried to convince themselves that it can be a horn or an oversized cello or guitar.
In a bid for greater velocity and carrying power, most jazz bass players long ago switched from gut strings to steel; Haden still uses gut strings, which vibrate more deeply but not as loudly. Half the battle for any bass player is being heard over horns and drums, and this is why most of them now attach electric pickups to their instruments. After years of experimentation Haden uses a specially designed pickup, which he says "amplifies the sound of the bass -- not the sound of the amplifier it's plugged into, which usually has its own personality." He wishes he could forgo amplification altogether, but with the sound levels on all instruments turned up unreasonably high in clubs and concert halls today, the price would be not being able to hear himself, let alone be heard.
When I spoke with Haden, he was in New York to play duets with the pianist Kenny Barron at a garish club called Iridium. Duets have been a Haden specialty since the late 1970s, when he released two albums of them with different partners, including Coleman, the pianist Keith Jarrett, and the drummer Paul Motian. "There's a vulnerability to duets, because you're so exposed," Haden told me. "You can hear the musicians' fingerprints." With Barron the most impressive aspect of Haden's solos was his sense of continuity in moving back and forth from traditional accompaniment to freestanding improvisation. Tempos never stopped dead during his solos, the way they often do when bass players have the floor to themselves. The most handsomely carved of his solos were on the neglected standard "For Heaven's Sake" and his own "Our Spanish Love Song," a lilting melody that one suspects was not written from the bottom up, with the chords coming first -- the method employed by many bass players out of sheer habit. Though Haden draws on a vocabulary of slides and drones and double stops common to all modern-jazz bass players, what sets him apart is the deep penetration of his notes, his flair for melody, and his gravitas. As on his vocal recording of "Wayfaring Stranger," there is more shadow than sunshine in Haden's bass solos -- a tacit acknowledgment of impermanence in the way he sometimes lets a note resonate and then decay, without rushing to fill the silence with another one.
Watching Haden play, one might think that he and his bass were engaged in a danse macabre. Most bass players lean the instrument against a shoulder to relieve the stress of holding it upright with one hand for as much as an hour at a time, or turn it toward them at a forty-five-degree angle for easier reach. Haden starts off with the bass turned toward him, but moves around so much as he plays that he often winds up doubled over, with his neck bent or holding the bass an arm's length away and looking in the opposite direction -- a position that requires an absurdly long reach and puts a strain on his neck and shoulders. Though he speaks of improvisation as if it were an out-of-body experience, his body has paid a price: he has had recurring back problems, and various doctors and chiropractors have suggested that he try sitting down or at least keeping still when he plays. "But it's too late to change," he told me between his sets with Barron. "One of the things you can't do when you're playing is think," he added, "because once the thought process starts, the spontaneity begins to suffer." At the end of his last number with Barron, Haden and his bass were turned the same way and were some distance apart -- facing the audience and leaning slightly forward, as if acknowledging applause meant for both of them.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.