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11 August 2016

Charlie Haden - 'Liberation Music Orchestra' (Impulse!)

Maybe it's a safe pick, a consensus one for sure - when Mr. Haden passed two summers ago, most of the online obituaries referred specifically to this record as his masterwork, along with the early Ornette Coleman recordings, of course. I often cite this among my most treasured recordings in the entire 'jazz' sub-section of my vinyl accumulation, though (like fellow Impulse genre-bender The Black Saint and Sinner Lady by Mingus), 'jazz' isn't the right term to encapsulate all the ideas at play here. So much could go wrong here - a white guy working with predominantly black musicians (though arranged by a white lady), directly addressing political struggles during the same time that Archie Shepp and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were radicalising their music. But Haden and Bley used the Spanish Civil War as their focal point, and somehow it gels in a way which survives the test of time and avoids musical-tourist trappings. Perhaps this was the Buena Vista Social Club of its day, but to me, there's a sense of adventure, and a unified feeling, a purity of vision, as well as a widening of musical possibilities. Bley's arrangements may be the secret ingredient but this is still driven by Haden's plucking -- bass is definitively the lead instrument here, and even on piano-driven segment such as 'War Prayers' or the choral elements, it clearly emanates out of his leadership. I found this record when an undergraduate, through Robert Wyatt's cover of 'Song for Che', and that song is still the most powerful to me - a warbling, fluid melody that spins around like a bead of water on glossy paper,  building through several dramatic peaks without giving in to melodrama. It's pure Haden for long stretches, and the melody (as dynamic as it is) stands up there with Ayler's 'Ghosts' for me as one of the most iconic compositions in so-called 'free' jazz. I don't mean to diminish the other players here: Gato's sax burns with its usual sizzling energy, not that it should be taken for granted; Don Cherry and Dewey Redman make this a proto-lineup of Old and New Dreams, where Coleman's vast shadow can be chucked aside.  Roswell Rudd is underrated here, as always, but trombonists are generally underrated, right? For all of the years I've spent exploring avant-garde/free jazz, the records I come back to the most are the ones which stand out against the skronky, blow-out-your-brains aesthetic so commonly associated with the genre. This record, the aforementioned Black Saint and Sinner Lady, Shepp's BlasĂ©, Art Ensemble records, Escalator Over the Hill, Sun Ra's more doo-wop influenced pieces -- for someone who claims to love free jazz, my preferences are further away from the 'free' side of it, towards a little more compositional basis, or towards other genre-influences such as classical or folk. Liberation Music Orchestra is maybe as much about the idea, the image carried through by its cover - a ragtag-looking group of musicians united in an expression of solidarity for the underclasses, in a time when that still meant something, before the all-pervasive irony of postmodernism took over etcetera, etcetera. Of course, this ragtag bunch is made up of some of the most successful and well-respected musicians of their time, but that brick-wall cover photo still conveys something. It's like the free jazz version of the cover of the first Ramones album, maybe, but musically about as far away from that simplicity as possible.