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RIP Charlie Haden

by Seth Colter Walls

RIP Charlie Haden


About this playlist

The bassist in Ornette Coleman’s first mature quartet — a musician who eventually played on recordings with everyone from Keith Jarrett to James Cotton, from Beck to Rosanne Cash — died this month at the age of 76, after complications from post-polio syndrome. He leaves an incomparable discography that is full of melodic invention, propulsive groove-work and subtle craft.

Click play on our mix and you’ll start off with five selections from the first three albums by Ornette Coleman that appeared on Atlantic Records, starting in 1959. Listen for Haden’s expert support of the free-jazz saxophonist on a tune like “Ramblin’” — Haden’s walking basslines and chordal riffs establish a ground that can support the idiosyncratic nature of Coleman’s tart timbres and microtonal blues honks. Pianist Ethan Iverson, who conducted an exquisite and fascinating interview with Haden in 2008, has said: “I am of the firm opinion that there are two kinds of Ornette Coleman music: the kind with Charlie Haden on bass, and the kind without.”

Haden’s solo features on early Coleman tunes, like “Focus On Sanity,” are a glory to behold. And then of course there is Haden’s introduction to Coleman’s most famous tune, “Lonely Woman.” If you haven’t heard this group’s first three records — The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century and This Is Our Music — these five cuts are just the beginning of your (fun) education. (And if you already know these tunes, you probably won’t mind hearing them again.)

From there, our mix starts to embrace the wide range of music that Haden delighted in playing. The Missouri-raised bassist’s early training in country music perhaps helps explain the songful qualities that he was capable of lending to even the most hurly-burly avant-garde session. A late album, Rambling Boy, contained down-home collaborations with Cash and Elvis Costello. And that’s also Haden playing bass on Odelay’s alt countrified closer, “Ramshackle.” (Beck knew the value of the Haden touch, too.) Spirituals and hymns were the focus of two key recordings — Steal Away and Come Sunday — that Haden recorded with pianist Hank Jones.

In the 1970s, Haden was part of what became known as Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet. Whether in soft-touch mode (on a track like “Everything That Lives Laments”) or engaged in a power workout with Jarrett, Dewey Redman and Paul Motian (such as on “Diatribe”), Haden’s pulses were an ideal fit for the group. Our mix includes selections from many of their most famous recordings on the Impulse label.

Put all those songs together with tunes from later albums by the Coleman quartet (see Haden’s fiery playing on “Civilization Day”) and Haden’s own ensembles (groups such as Quartet West or the protest-oriented Liberation Music Orchestra) and you have the makings of, well, quite a long playlist! But that length is deserved. When you record at the top of your field(s) for six decades, it's not entirely surprising that you ended up playing with John Coltrane (on “Cherryco,” from an album co-led by Coleman Quartet trumpeter Don Cherry) as well as with Alice Coltrane (“Isis and Osiris”) — and then eventually with both Alice and her son Ravi Coltrane (“Translinear Light”). Haden’s authoritative playing and winning personality will be missed by his many surviving colleagues, and by audiences, too. (I particularly recall a sweet and powerful duo performance with Paul Bley at the Blue Note in 2010.) In the meantime, the 30 recordings included in our memorial playlist remain candidates for lifelong listening. RIP.

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