Charlie Haden's Quartet West Goes East

Charlie Haden has been playing this week at Birdland in New York with his group Quartet West or, as he calls this incarnation, “Quartet West Goes East,” with Ravi Coltrane filling in for Ernie Watts on tenor sax and Rodney Green taking Larance Marable’s chair on drums.

It may be the New Yorker in me, but I like this hybrid model better.

Haden, who’s lived in Los Angeles for 30 years, formed Quartet West in 1986, so that he could lead a working band without leaving home. Its playbook—documented on such albums as In Angel City, Haunted Heart, Always Say Goodbye, Now Is the Hour and Quartet West--is steeped in nostalgia for a mythic old L.A.: a mix of the bebop that he played on Central Avenue when he first came to town in ’57 and romantic, noir-ish ballads that evoke the hard-boiled style of Raymond Chandler detective novels.

My biggest problem with the group, to the extent I have one, is Watts, whose reedy tone and thick vibrato strikes me as too much Hollywood studio, not enough street-savvy blues. Ravi Coltrane (John’s son and sounding more and more like him these days) moves the mix in the right direction; his playing here is melodic and moody, but he adds a layer of soul. And on Thursday’s early set, when I saw the band, his solo on Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” was just stunning.

He’s the only horn player I’ve seen, besides Ornette himself, who has an idea of what to do on the song’s bridge. Coleman revolutionized jazz on that bridge: instead of playing variations on the chords, he took the song in a whole new direction—different tempo, changes, everything—while somehow preserving the structure. Ravi didn’t duplicate Ornette’s solo, but he did follow Ornette’s spirit, which is to say he navigated his own course and came out of it back on track. (He told me afterward that, when he studied jazz with Haden several years ago, one exercise he was given was to play that solo note for note—not in order to imitate it, but to discover for himself the song’s shape and thus be able to carve new paths on the shape of any song.)

Rodney Green, who is the band’s new drummer (not just a one-off replacement), has a different style from Marable’s: cooler, more insouciant, but no less virtuosic, especially with the brushes, where he scrambles around the trapset with a cascade of rhythms but so quietly. He reminds me of Philly Joe Jones.

Two bits of news I learned at the set. First, Quartet West has a new album, its first in a while, coming out next year. Second, and more exciting, Haden recorded a duet album with Hank Jones shortly before Jones died; their last one, Steal Away, made in 1996, was a masterpiece of spirituals and blues; this one, to be called Come Sunday, is already giving me the shivers, and I haven't even heard it. Alas, it’s not due out until late in 2011. Hey, Verve Records, give us a break; put it out sooner.

steven's picture

Ernie Watts, like a dear friend of mine, was born in segregated Virginia in 1945. That IS the blues and street savvy besides. You're right, Haunted Heart is a tribute to L.A. in the forties, but Ernie makes negotiating Lennie's Pennies in the altissimo range sound easy -- which it's not! Reading Andy Hamilton's book about Lee Konitz, I learned something I didn't know -- that Alan Broadbent was a student of Tristano's. On the other hand, I have to question why Robin Kelley would dignify what Monk's manager said about Oliver Nelson. Timeline of Desegregation in Virginia: