GOP inspires Charlie Haden’s music of protest and beauty

The Liberation Music Orchestra launches the Northrop Jazz Season this Saturday.
Photo by Thomas Dorn
The Liberation Music Orchestra launches the Northrop Jazz Season this Saturday.

Quick, name a protest band. Maybe Rage Against the Machine, who played the Target Center during the Republican National Convention while the police waited outside. Today’s protest music is rich with the sounds of rock, punk, folk, rap, hip-hop, bhangra, afrobeat and ska.

And jazz.

Formed in 1969 by legendary bassist Charlie Haden and composer/performer/arranger/band leader Carla Bley, the Liberation Music Orchestra proves that instrumental jazz can speak out with as much eloquence and originality as music with lyrics, whether sacred or profane.

This Saturday, Haden, Bley, and the 12-member LMO will launch the 2008-09 Northrop Jazz Season at the Ted Mann Concert Hall with selections from “Not in Our Name” and earlier LMO releases.

In 2003, soon after the U.S.-led multinational coalition attacked Iraq, Haden was touring Italy and Spain when he noticed signs saying “Not in Our Name” displayed in windows and hanging from balconies of apartment buildings. That became the title of the fourth LMO album, released in 2005.

The LMO’s self-titled debut recording (1969) was a response to the war in Vietnam. Blending experimental big-band jazz with folk songs from the Spanish Civil War, it earned a Grammy nomination. It also got Haden arrested in Portugal in 1971, when he dedicated “Song for Ché” to liberation movements in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau, which were then Portuguese colonies.

Haden may or may not talk politics at this Saturday’s concert. He has been known to hold up album covers and announce which U.S. president inspired each recording: Nixon (“Liberation Music Orchestra”), Reagan (“Ballad of the Fallen”), George H.W. Bush (“Dream Keeper”), George W. Bush (“Not in Our Name”).

Legendary bassist Charlie Haden and composer/performer/arranger/band leader Carla Bley.
Photo by Thomas Dorn
Legendary bassist Charlie Haden and composer/performer/arranger/band leader Carla Bley.

Liking the music vs. liking the politics
Last year, at the Litchfield (Conn.) Jazz Festival, he called for impeachment. At the Chicago Jazz Festival, he urged the audience to “throw the bums out.” Anticipated bookings did not materialize. This year’s LMO tour will be brief: Duke University, University of Minnesota, the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

Haden expects that most people who come to see them will know something about what they stand for but realizes that “liking the music and liking the politics are two different things.”

During a phone interview, I asked if the war in Iraq was still the main message of “Not in Our Name.”

“Iraq is not a war,” he said from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. “It was never a war. It’s an occupation. … [Not in Our Name] is a desperate attempt to reach people with beautiful music and try … to make them realize how important it is to have reverence for life. To see the preciousness of life and to recognize the injustices of the world and who caused them and are usually not held accountable for them.”

Debut album cover for LMO.
Debut album cover for LMO.

The music of “Not in Our Name” is beautiful — and bittersweet. Two selections are original compositions: Haden’s lilting, optimistic title track and Bley’s pensive “Blue Anthem.” Nearly everything else is a cover or a medley arranged by Bley of music by primarily American composers: Pat Metheny, Ornette Coleman, Bill Frisell, Samuel Barber.

Making a point
In choosing his material, Haden was making a point: “There was a necessity that I felt to play music from American composers in protest to what’s going on, to make a statement that just because you’re not for everything that this administration is doing, doesn’t mean that you’re not patriotic.”

Bley’s arrangements are ingenious. “This Is Not America” (written by Metheny, originally sung by David Bowie for the film “The Falcon and the Snowman”) is set to a reggae beat and quotes “Dixie,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “America the Beautiful” wraps around “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the African-American anthem, and Coleman’s “Skies of America.” “Amazing Grace” sounds like a bluesy New Orleans brass band.

Here are Bley and Haden and the LMO performing Bill Frisell’s “Throughout” from “Not in Our Name.”

And here they are performing Barber’s “Adagio.”

So whether you agree with Haden’s message, you can still enjoy this fine band of improvisers. And if you heard Carla Bley during her last appearance here in 2003, when she led her big band in selections from her CD “Looking for America,” you know more-or-less what to expect: music that is tuneful, occasionally dissonant, sometimes ironic, but eminently listenable.

What we won’t hear on Saturday are songs from Haden’s latest CD, released on Tuesday. It’s a family project close to his heart and a return to his country roots; Haden grew up in the Ozarks, where he sang with his parents and siblings on a daily radio program. On “Ramblin’ Boy,” he’s joined by his wife, singer Ruth Cameron, and his four grown children, son Josh and triplet daughters Petra, Rachel, and Tanya. The list of guest performers is an eclectic who’s who: Metheny, Bruce Hornsby, Elvis Costello, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Roseanne Cash, and actor Jack Black, Haden’s son-in-law.

In case this gets picked up by People magazine, what’s it like being actor Jack Black’s father-in-law? “It’s nice because he’s a great guy, great father, great husband, and he loves my daughter very much,” Haden says. “He’s been in love with her since high school but didn’t have the chutzpah to go up to her and tell her.”

Considering that the LMO was founded 35 years ago, its recorded output is relatively sparse. Are there plans for a fifth album? “The inspiration is always the Republicans getting into office,” Haden says. “I was talking to Carla, and if McCain wins the election, or steals it … the subject was not another Liberation Music Orchestra record but moving to France.

“We’re playing at the Blue Note [in New York City] the week of the election. I hope we’re going to be celebrating.”

What: Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra with Special Guest Carla Bley
Where: Ted Mann Concert Hall University of Minnesota
When: Saturday, Sept. 27, 8 p.m. ($40; $30 for U of M staff and faculty; $10 for U of M students while supplies last). 612-624-2345.

Upcoming picks

Kelly Rossum Quartet “Family” CD Release: I’ve been listening to an advance copy for weeks and I can’t wait to hear this music live. Read Britt Robson’s post here. The Artists’ Quarter, 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 26 and 27 ($10).

A Tribute to Leigh Kamman: Urban, Suburban & Way Out: Famed radio broadcaster Kamman broadcast his final “The Jazz Image” show on MPR on Sept. 29, 2007. Pianist Laura Caviani and many invited musical guests will perform at a party in his honor. Expect the cream of the area jazz scene. The Artists’ Quarter, 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28 ($10).

Bucky Pizzarelli and Benny Green: In early August, Dakota owner Lowell Pickett had the brilliant idea of pairing the elder statesman of jazz guitar with the much younger hard bop pianist and alum of Art Blakey’s band and Ray Brown’s trio. The sound check was the first time the two played together, but the shows were amazing, sweet and warm and musically satisfying. They return for two nights to record a CD for the Dakota Live label. The Dakota, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday, Sept. 28 and 29 ($25/$20/$16).

Find jazz calendars online at Jazz Police. Click on Twin Cities, MN in the black menu bar at the top.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Don Berryman on 09/26/2008 - 11:36 am.

    Your picks are also my picks! I guess we’ll be seeing you at all the old familiar places, the Artists’ Quarter, Ted Mann Hall and the Dakota.

  2. Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 09/27/2008 - 11:11 am.

    Update: The LMO tour is not as brief as reported here. Dates have been added since I last checked the schedule on Charlie Haden’s website (www.charliehadenmusic.com). In October, LMO will perform in Yakima, Washington and at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle; in November at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, the SF Jazz Festival, and, immediately after the national election, at the Blue Note in New York City.

Leave a Reply