november 2008

Celebrating The Unbroken Circle

By Billy Altman

Charlie Haden Family & Friends

While he has spent a full half-century as one of jazz's premier bass players, 71-year-old Charlie Haden's professional career in music actually stretches back some twenty years before that—and perhaps even more astonishing than simply doing the math is recognizing that Haden grew up immersed in a field about as far removed from the modern jazz movement he helped pioneer as one could possibly imagine.

Haden was all of 22 months old in 1939 when, as singing (and yodeling!) "Cowboy Charlie," he began appearing with his parents and siblings in their country and western act the Haden Family, who hosted popular radio shows first in Shenandoah, Iowa (where Haden was born) and then in Springfield, Missouri during the 1940s and '50s. While hearing Charlie Parker at a Nebraska concert transformed the teenaged Haden and set the aspiring young bassist on a path that would leasd to one of the most distinguished careers in all of jazz, the music that Haden (literally) cut his teeth on a youngster has clearly remained an integral part of his musical DNA.

Proof of that is strikingly evident by the appearance of Rambling Boy, a truly remarkable return-to-roots collection which, as the title implies, finds the eminent bassist surrounded by a dazzling array of singers and instrumentalists ranging from Rosanne Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglas, Bruce Hornsby and Pat Matheny to Haden's own gifted family: his daughters, singing triplets Rachel, Petra and Tanya; his son Josh; and wife Ruth Cameron.

Charlie Haden: Through his subtle expressiveness and uncanny sense of time, a presence ialways felt

The range of material here is dazzling as well. There are a brace of tunes from, fittingly, country "family act" touchstones The Carter Family: Haden's daughters deftly perform "Single Girl, Married Girl" and "Oh Take Me Back," while Cash delivers a taut version of "Wildwood Flower, and Gill provides a moving rendition of the Maybelle Carter-associated title track. Also featured are selections from the catalogues of Bill Monroe ("A Voice From On High"), the Louvins ("Seven Year Blues"), and Hank Williams ("You Win Again," sung by Elvis Costello), as well as bedrock country staples such as "Tramp On The Street" and "Old Joe Clark," the latter sung by actor (and Haden son-in-law) Jack Black and sporting exceptional picking by the core backing group for most of the album—dobroist Douglas, Sam Bush (mandolin), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Bryan Sutton (guitar) and of course, Haden himself.

Those familiar with the bassist's exceptional body of work in jazz over the years—beginning with his key role in saxophonist Ornette Coleman's groundbreaking free jazz quartet in the late 1950s and continuing over the decades with his own experimental big band the Liberation Music Orchestra, his bop unit Quartet West, and recent collaborations with progressive guitarist Pat Matheny—know that a great part of Haden's unique artistry has been his ability to use his instrument to both propel and shape the rhythm of the music without ever overpowering those around him. Yet, through his subtle expressiveness and uncanny sense of time, his presence is always felt, and that's certainly the case throughout this remarkable album. Fittingly, he steps to the forefront only a few times, with but one instrumental solo (the stark unaccompanied intro to "20/20 Vision") and, on the set's final track, a truly rare lead vocal. His choice? The evergreen ode to his birthplace "Oh Shenandoah," which Charlie Haden delivers with a soulful purity that's as disarming as it is spine-tingling. Talk about circles being unbroken.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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