Democracy Now

Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, and a band that looks almost like America take back the flag

Saying it feels like blasphemy, and I probably wouldn't be doing it if I lived near ground zero or lost a loved one there, but last year's election was no less a tragedy than 9-11. If fear of more attacks was what clinched the vote for Bush, then the terrorists won. But if it really was a referendum on "values," decided by voters goaded into thinking intolerance was the highest form of morality, the results were even more distressing. It's almost comforting to believe Ohio was rigged (Mark Crispin Miller supplies ample evidence in this month's Harper's, though we won't know for sure until Karl Rove publishes his jailhouse memoirs).

Maybe because it was all so pleasant and ordinary, I still remember where I was the night before 9-11—hearing Uri Caine at a club in Philadelphia and catching up between sets with his wife, Jan, with whom I once worked in a record store. So why is Election Eve a blank? Given that I'd recommended the gig as "the perfect exit music for George W. Bush," why wasn't I at the Village Vanguard for Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra? Along with a reluctance to miss the news, it must have been travel fatigue. I was just back from a few days in Boston, where my hotel room looked down on the Red Sox victory celebration and the podium from which John Kerry planned to speak on election night.

I wasn't the only one confident of Bush's defeat, so the LMO's performance on November 1 must have been celebratory, even gloating. The mood on Not in Our Name, recorded in Europe last summer and due in stores August 30, is merely hopeful—but under the circumstances, hopeful means a lot. The cover poses a band that looks reasonably like America—male, female, black, white, Hispanic (though no Asians)—under an LMO banner handmade by Carla Bley and held in place by her and Haden, who both look considerably more weathered than they did holding it in 1969 on Haden's first album as a leader. The photo prepares you for one of the album's most stirring moments—toward the close of a 17-minute medley encompassing "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a theme from Ornette Coleman's Skies of America, "America the Beautiful," and Gary McFarland's questioning variations on it—when the band sounds like it's marching back from battle bloodied but defiantly flying its colors.

Not in Our Name is only Haden's fourth album with the LMO—one apiece under Nixon, Reagan, and the first Bush. Insofar as instrumental music can ever be "about" anything, previous LMO albums addressed American imperialism, occasionally interpolating African and Latin American folk themes. This time, the 12-member ensemble's material is entirely homegrown—numbers by Haden, Bley, McFarland, Coleman, Pat Metheny and David Bowie, and Bill Frisell, as well as "Amazing Grace," Samuel Barber's Adagio, a movement from Dvorak's New World Symphony based on a Negro spiritual, and passing references to patriotic and military hymns. The entire program is Haden and Bley's attempt to take back the Stars and Stripes. The only reference to Iraq is the implicit one in the album title, which comes from a buoyant Haden original that sounds like it could be a song from Michel Legrand's score for The Young Girls of Rochefort, though the title promises something closer to Ennio Morricone's for The Battle of Algiers.

Haden's peculiar sensibility—his combination of gravitas and spiritual lift—pervades everything he does, which is remarkable considering his dependence on other composer/arrangers and the difference in tone and intention between his collaborations with Bley and his small groups with Alan Broadbent and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. On Not in Our Name, it's as if some of Quartet West's nostalgic noir has seeped into LMO, along with the Latin bravura of Haden's work with Rubalcaba; and just as Haden's red-state upbringing as a member of a God-fearing hillbilly radio family has always lent his leftism grassroots credibility, Not in Our Name derives much of its power from rueful lyricism where you might expect indignant cacophony. Barber's Adagio—now as linked to Vietnam as Hendrix and the Doors, thanks to Oliver Stone— is an apt vehicle for Haden, who has specialized in slow movements ever since 1959, when he held his ground against the rushing alto and trumpet on Ornette's "Lonely Woman." He pivots gracefully amid the massed horns, and Bley's arrangement, dissonant and swirling and faithful to Barber, achieves an Ivesian profundity. So does her own "Blue Anthem," with its mordant allusion to "From the Halls of Montezuma."

Unless only one female composer and arranger is permitted fame at any given moment, and it's Maria Schneider's turn now, there's no rational explanation for why Bley has fallen from critical favor since the late '70s, when she vied with Toshiko Akiyoshi. The originator of a mix-and-match irony now ubiquitous in avant-garde jazz, she's made a signature of personalizing the anonymous—national anthems, nursery rhymes, stock classical melodies, and funk riffs—and while I'll stop short of drawing comparisons to women in the visual arts, it's tough to think of another arranger who could have located so much untapped potential in "Amazing Grace," "Goin' Home," and "Lift Every Voice." Not the least of an arranger's responsibilities is showcasing improvisers, and trumpeter Michael Rodriguez's reflective choruses on the Dvorak, altoist Miguel Zenon's Bird-flight on "Not in Our Name," and—most impressive of all—the smolder of Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby's consecutive tenor solos on Frisell's "Throughout" are as much a credit to Bley's setups and backings as to the focus and skill of the players. The other band members I'd be remiss in overlooking are drummer Matt Wilson, who signals the transitions in the medley with style, and guitarist Steve Cardenas, who introduces several numbers suspensefully.

I might hear a better album before the year's over, but I don't expect to hear one more in touch with this historical moment. I hope it doesn't take another Republican administration to inspire an encore.

 
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