Charlie Haden Duos

Charlie Haden, the world’s most distinctive and enticing bass player, seems to have adopted a new tradition. It started as a special occasion, a dozen years ago, in celebration of his 60th birthday, when he played a week of duets at the Blue Note jazz club in New York, each night with a different pianist. He repeated the experiment on his 70th, and this week he’s doing it again, just short of his 72nd, not a round number, which leads me to suspect he’s doing it—and may do it again, semi-regularly—simply because it’s so thrilling, so fun.

The duet is, in a sense, jazz at its purest—group interaction in its most stripped-down form—but also its hardest: there’s no place for the players to hide, no moment when they can sit back and coast; they have to stick to the structure, but they also have to improve constantly, or else they bog down in clich.

Haden is ideally suited for this format, because he’s all but incapable of clich. He broke through the jazz world 50 years ago, almost to the date, as the bassist in Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet, which created a whole new way of playing jazz—improvisation untethered from chord changes or set rhythms yet sounding beautiful all the same—and he’s treated music as an adventure and a quest ever since.

Ultimately he’s a romantic, a reveler in ballads and waltzes and rhapsodies. He plucks the bass with a surefooted rhythm (there’s no one who can stretch rhythm yet stay so propulsive) and a big, warm tone.

Sometimes he’ll sound out the chord, sometimes a variation on the scale, sometimes a tone cluster or a single note matching the mood that the music makes him feel; almost always, his choices sound right, almost inevitable, even when they’re a total departure from convention. There are few jazz musicians who immerse themselves so deeply in the moment yet stay so fixed both on the song and on his bandmates.

I went to the early set Tuesday, where he played duets with Ethan Iverson, best known as the pianist for The Bad Plus but a stirring, versatile pianist in his own right. He knows Haden’s music supremely well. They played a fair number of be-bop tunes, including some obscure ones (for instance, “Wahoo,” a variation on “Perdido” that Charlie Parker played on, as far as I can tell, one album), and the interplay was uncanny, magical even when it was low-key.

I missed Wednesday night’s sets with Haden’s contemporary, Steve Kuhn, whose latest album, Mostly Coltrane, I raved about in this space not long ago. Thursday and Friday, he plays with Kenny Barron, one of the most elegant balladeers around. Saturday, he goes at it with Paul Bley, the still-innovative pianist who led the first band that Haden played with out in L.A. in ’57-58. Sunday he closes with Bill Charlap; standards will no doubt be on the menu.

If you can’t make it to the Blue Note, sit home and listen to Night and the City, a duet album that Haden and Barron recorded at the Iridium in 1996: a lovely, noir-ish affair at once haunting and brisk. Or The Montreal Tapes: Charlie Haden, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, the most riveting of seven volumes of mainly duet and trio recordings Haden laid down at the 1989 Montreal Jazz Festival. Or Steal Away, a gorgeous set of gospel tunes that Haden recorded with Hank Jones. Or The Golden Number, his ‘70s album of duets with Hampton Hawes, Archie Shepp, and Don Cherry.

Haden is also something of an audiophile (he owns a Naim high-end system), and all these recordings are satisfying sonically, too.

RG's picture

You are a lucky fellow Mr. Kaplan with such easy access to these fine musicians.I'll try to get by with a little "Beyond The Missouri Sky", another great duet recording.

Robert Horowitz's picture

I think Night and the Music is "Night in the City"?Great Blog

Fred Kaplan's picture

Actually, we're both wrong. It's "Night AND the City." Thanks for the correction (which I've made above). That's what happens sometimes when I write too late at night...Fred

Chris Sommovigo's picture

A client of mine (thanks, Ali !) turned me on to a wonderful Haden duet with his old pal Ornette Coleman. Titled, "Soapsuds," on the Artist House label, this one is deeply satisfying for anyone familiar with their synergy.I found a near mint LP for $10 ... and it's priceless.

Fred Kaplan's picture

Chris and his friend are right. "Soapsuds Soapsuds," featuring duets by Haden and Ornette Coleman (on tenor sax), is one of the great albums of any kind. A few years ago, Verve reissued it on CD, but the LP is what you want: the sound is luscious and present (rather thin on CD)...Fred

Reid W. Anderson's picture

Thanks for mentioning Steal Away, a little-noticed but absolutely sublime album.

Mike W's picture

My favorite Haden duet is with Hampton Hawes--"As Long As There's Music" I think it was Hawes last recording; great, emotionally moving stuff.