I Have Trouble With History

“I didn’t really buy any of Sun Ra’s records because I could just go and hang out when they were performing, or go to one of their rehearsals, so I didn’t need the record!

Lonnie Liston Smith interviewed by Anton Spice .

Well, that’s cool Lonnie. The thing is, I’ve got everything in my little sardine box music screen machine here, so I don’t need to go out. Musically, I am staring blankly at the pasta section in a supermarket that stretches as far as the eye can see, marvelling at what I could eat. I’m not eating it, but I’m marvelling at my marvellous “eating future”. I’m going to check that out. The trolley’s still empty but think of what could fill it. No-Wave, post-punk, fettuccini, stuff my kids listen to, all things I’m going to check out. Really soon. It’s a really exciting time. Or it will be. The future’s bright.

Not all music, however, is designed for solitary listening, and we know that because people keep going out for it. It’s so cheap to have it sent straight into your ears, yet people spend a lot of money to be around other people listening to live music in a field where the wind may all but blow the sound out of earshot, and most of what you can hear is other people singing along to each other as the band do something somewhere out of sight. People do listen, even if it’s often with their eyes. Social media has propped up a kind of military takeover of the other four senses by the one that now reigns unchallenged; seeing. Seeing is believing.

As you get away from the festival experience, an event defined by numbers in many ways, immersion in music is more an act of will. Sometimes you have to do that yourself, make a conscious decision, lower yourself into the bath of it rather than wait for an attendant with a big bucket to pour it over you. Jazz has always been like that for me; and this goes for its history too.

My knowledge of jazz came from record covers laid out on the floor like a soap opera storyboard, this follows that, swing-bebop-cool-hardbop etc etc. I knew the accepted story, but my knowledge was not a bodily thing, it wasn’t in me, wasn’t backed up by any kind of experience. Jazz history played out like the Battle Of Waterloo with toy soldiers, and you just kind of put them in whatever position you felt most likely. The music’s past, and the past I would like to have experienced but didn’t, was for me a construct, pieced together from the musical fragments available at the time.

It all started around 1983, or thereabouts, The Churchill Library, Bromley, an exploded sonic star where the slowly falling fragments were catalogued alphabetically. Records I took home because they were there. Sun Ra’s “Mystery Of The Two”. Stravinsky’s “Requiem Canticles”. One casualty of the move from analogue to digital was the Duke Ellington with Jimmy Blanton album, which now sounds wrong because the scratch that made it jump a beat in 1984 is missing. Nothing was in any kind of order. Earl Hines, for example, he was an early favourite, but nobody had informed me that learning to play jazz required starting with later players, where it’s less about playing the piano and more about “information”, “content”. It was too late for me. Hines, Stravinsky, Ellington, Cecil Taylor – I started a file under “piano sonorities” and staggered on. For me they were connected by sound, as if the sounds themselves lived, went to school, met other sounds and reproduced.

But if I’d seen Hines bump into a young Cecil Taylor at the florist, I might have made that other connection, might have seen those worlds joined for myself. A kind of social bond that ensures the passage of the tradition, where it finds its own winding path, through accident and circumstance, seemingly disparate worlds coming together in a shared taste for daffodils. I had no history, no tradition, no reason to be doing what I did aside from a general dissatisfaction with life as it was presented to me and so, lacking a social connection, I made my history up, a fake news repository of unchecked facts and suppositions, and I surveyed it as I imagine the owner of a train set would, congratulating myself on the detail whilst knowing real engines don’t run on tables.

History was never my subject, I just couldn’t hold facts or remember names, couldn’t visualise the things happening. I never understood how, considering our impressive roster of cruel mistakes when we get together in big groups, we never learnt from them. It’s unlikely that lessons in jazz history would have helped me, but I would have liked to have seen where Duke Ellington bought his vegetables, I think I’d have learnt a lot from that.


The Way We Were

It seems to me what we don’t need now is people that come out waving their hands and claiming they know the Right Way.”

Brian Eno


Writing is hard.  Somehow what I want to say in this opening sentence, and it’s now my second sentence, escapes me.  I had an idea, but it just won’t sit.

Recently I re-watched “Fame”, Alan Parker’s film about a performing arts school in New York.   It’s a brightly coloured, pacy affair with a lot of muscle and good looks liberally splashed around the edgy New York streets.  There’s a character called Doris who does an audition.  You can tell from the inexplicable change in lighting that it won’t be going well.  She has in tow a very pushy mum and, in case that doesn’t illustrate her subservient squareness enough, she has a blouse done up past her nose almost.  She sings “The Way We Were”, a famous song from a famous film of the same name, she sings it very badly, accompanied by a very bad piano accompaniment recorded on to a cassette by her equally clueless brother.  It is supposed to illustrate bad musicianship, and it is pretty terrible.  She can’t sing, the brother can’t play, it’s all out of tune and out of sync.  It is a disaster.  But I keep thinking about it.  I want to play it.

My idea was that this scene, on a knife edge between comedy and pathos, unknowingly opens up the song in a way that Barbara Streisand, with all her belting bravura, couldn’t.  Where Streisand moves effortlessly through the tune like a hot knife through pink candy floss, Dora’s rendition reminds me of a nature documentary I saw once where a dung beetle keeps trying to push a pile of shit three times its own size, which it has fashioned into a perfect sphere, up a hill, only to watch as it rolls down to the bottom again.  Now that’s a song.

It reminds me of Nancarrow.  “The Way We Were” came out in 1973.  Conlon Nancarrow had, by then, been quietly working on his player piano studies in Mexico for years, beavering away at music that could not be played by humans.  The player piano removes the need for a performer, it is a machine; human beings were not up to playing his music.  His studies are supposed to, in other words, go beyond what a performer could do.  And yet, the effect of them is somehow to sound like three kids playing at once, randomly doodling catchy melodies without a care in the world and without any consideration of what the other is doing.  A nice illusion.

So I go back to it, back to Dora’s audition, I find it on YouTube here .  And it doesn’t really sound like any of these things.  I remembered it like that, not because it has those qualities, but because I do.   In reality, the girl can’t sing, and to find her direction in life she must first (spoiler alert) escape her domineering mother and start taking her clothes off in a nightclub, thus releasing her sexuality and her real calling, which turns out to be acting.

Films, music, art, politics.   They transmit messages, and depending on what we are set to receive, we hear what we want to hear, regardless of what might be called “facts”.  William Carlos Williams once described the idea of a poem as a “machine made of words”; substitute images, sounds, shapes, movement for words, and I think it’s a good description of any other art form.  Politics might even be called a “machine made of statements”.  Statements are often summaries of devilishly complex situations, so it’s good to go back and check the facts before letting your imagination running away with them.  With machines, perhaps watching the whirring of the wheels for the fun of it is the best use of them.

I have been thinking about a new version of “Fame”, set not in a performing arts school but in a chess club.  A somewhat more introverted setting which could preserve the elements of social realism, racism, illiteracy and poverty, sex, neurosis, class and coloured gym wear.  Sexual tensions would simmer in the background, there would be arcs, characters would learn things, hopes and dreams would be dashed and fulfilled in equal measure.  Ups and downs would be described in unflinching detail.  Basically, it would be like the original but with less noise, some peace and quiet.  We all need that.

But even that is not true, not for everyone.  Some people just work and work and get better and better, faster and faster, the noise of progress in their ears.  So around we go again.  With every sentence, an anti-sentence.  Rather than come to a conclusion, I have just had to leave it all lying here in pieces, which Doris I’m sure would understand .  Writing is hard.


I’m going to live forever.

I’m going to learn how to fly.

I feel it coming together.


Ornette Coleman

Details, details.  When you specialise in something, when it’s “your thing”, it’s always about details.  There are books , step-by-step guides, making sure the details are right.  You get from one note to another this way, but…might it be better changing those two notes?  Here, listen to it this way (sound of a scale going up and down).  Now, listen to it this way (sound of a scale going up and down).  These details are important, of course.  After playing scales up and down a lot, and eventually learning how to vary the direction and anatomy of these scales, and patterns, and phrases handed down from other people older and more famous, one becomes drawn to the finer points.  And a lot of art is about finer points, refinement, it keeps the artist motivated to work; such adjustments are not always perceived by anyone else, but…it becomes like a painting not straight on the wall, a chair in the wrong corner, a constant source of irritation that needs to be “fixed”.  The scale needs to come down that way, the mirror needs to face the windows, you get twitchy when the order is ruptured.  Jazz is littered with people who have a system, a way of relating everything to every other thing, every note has its place.  Grids, tables, pretty pictures, justifications for every note, except for those that don’t fit, which are wrong.  All preparation for music, not the music itself.  To become immersed in this is, for certain types of musician, something akin to a religious faith.  It is an unearthing of the truth, a discovery of the divine light, the system that underpins all possible combinations of notes.  All possible combinations, that is, except those deemed undesirable; the wrong notes, the notes that are only played out of carelessness, lack of knowledge or technique, sheer disrespect.  Most jazz musicians are not quite at this level of fundamentalism, but most are touched by it, and it enables us to function.  Ornette Coleman, the alto saxophonist and composer who died on June 11th, took wrong notes and redefined them, making heroes out of villains.

It’s not that he didn’t have a system.  He referred to it as “harmolodics” and, whilst there are many more qualified than myself to explain it, the general gist is that it’s almost impossible to really say what it is.  This might help.


If the tendency to reduce music to a tangible system seems fundamentalist at times, Ornette is jazz’s Zen Master, demanding that we experience it directly and, as the interview with Philip Clark above shows, wrong footing any attempt at a concrete definition.  Many personal accounts of meeting him, of which there are many, testify to his openness with complete strangers, and he lives this in his music.  A B natural on a C minor 7 chord is to some an illegal note, a mistake, to others a complex dissonance to be justified and derived from some complex pattern of associations; to Ornette it always seemed like a stranger to be greeted as a friend.  He would famously bend these notes until they squirmed out of the reach of the alphabet, like the great blues artists, there is just a gesture, a sound.  His early music dispensed with harmonic instruments like the piano and guitar, in order that these “sounds” could exist for themselves, and yet in the seventies, he let these instruments back into the fold with a vengeance, often having two guitars at once who remained gleefully at cross purposes.

In 1985, Ornette made a record with Pat Metheny called “Song X”.  Metheny was a hugely respected improviser and a master of the specific in music, the elegantly turned composition, exquisite details below a veneer that to many non-jazz fans might seem “smooth”.  You could almost see him as the Donald Fagen of jazz, perhaps; and like Fagen, he has subversive tastes.  It was re-released in 2005 on its twentieth anniversary, and included in this new edition was a track called “Police People”, omitted from the original session.  I wonder why?  It’s a masterpiece, a perfect illustration of what makes Ornette extraordinary. Here it is.


Listen to the opening; bassist Charlie Haden sets up a groove, loose and twangy, but a clear set up for Ornette, who comes in at a different tempo, and in the wrong place, not in a clever way, not displaced by some mathematical algorithm, just wrong. Delightfully wrong, uninhibited, unaware of the wrongness.  But the sheer conviction with which he does it galvanises the whole band.  Conviction is a big, cloudy kind of word; it doesn’t reduce, it expands.  Sound, feel, inflection, it’s all of these, experience, awareness, finely tuned nuance, how are we to explain these words?  Again, these things are present in all great jazz musicians, all great musicians, but Ornette seems to strip everything back to these qualities in order to draw attention to them.  So then we get the tune, a three chord trick, a bit like Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, chords a beginner could play on the guitar, shuffled around a bit. This is unusual for Coleman’s music, whose compositions rejected chord sequences in favour of a looser and more improvised approach.  Pat Metheny is steaming on this tune, finding brilliantly swooping shapes in the timeless chords and responding brilliantly to the prods and jabs of the band. Then Ornette comes in.  At first all seems well. These are chords, remember, where all the white notes on a piano will fit very nicely on the top.  It’s difficult to mess it up.  And yet Ornette does it throughout, he makes it feel good; gradually, he takes charge, the chords become not redundant, not ignored, but just another part of the soundscape to be played with, against, across and around.  Like two views of a single subject, his lines touch, flirt with, the underlying chords, only to veer off into glorious clashes.  It sounds like “Tune a Day” reflected in a cracked mirror.    And yet his line follows perfectly the contour of the piece, the band respond; I think Ornette was the first musician brave enough to rely so much on response, on dialogue.  Like John Cage, he shook things up without demanding people view him as an iconoclast, and like Cage there was a sense that he thought it was all perfectly “normal”.  And it’s so likeable.  That’s his genius.

I always imagine him practising, wondering what he did.  Can one practise responding, expression, hearing music a different way?  Maybe he played long tones to keep that formidable sound in working order?  Because that’s the thing we all need as musicians.  At two minutes thirty, when Ornette sounds like he’s been playing all day, all year, his whole life. That sound is in his head, in his body, and from that sound comes his feel, and the feel finds the notes.  He comes in like an old friend knocking over the furniture; I laugh every time I hear it.

“Music is work.”  That’s John Cage, near the end of his life when, having tried many ways of making it, he was asked finally for a definition of music.  Work takes many forms, it’s just time filled with activity.  Sometimes it’s just living in the sound, making it move, thinking about how much it needs to move to get people to feel good.  Ornette took care of the details; shapes and sounds from jazz history, a huge dollop of the blues, things that make the music go.  But there’s that point when the player merges with the instrument, inhabits the sound and takes off….

Keep Music Young, Keep Music Old

All people seem to talk about at the moment is the audience.  How to get one, how to renew one, how to keep one full of hipsters, moneyed people, people that are our kind of people.  Can we make music a bit easier to digest perhaps?  This seems to be the default position; we (the musicians) need to meet people (the audience) halfway, halfway between abject ignorance (theirs) and lofty enlightenment (ours).  Spurred on by the mentality of a Facebook targeted ad campaign, it is a “one size fits all” mentality, and it takes on the annoying habit of thinking we know what people want, need, demand, consume.

I am sitting here listening to Miles Davis, recorded live in 1969.  He doesn’t announce the tunes, he brazenly assumes that people don’t care what they are or that they already know them because of their unswerving and time consuming dedication to his music over the many years he had been patiently developing it.  All of these characteristics have been used, in his case, to sell his music, his image, to non-jazz fans.  All of these characteristics have also helped me to understand things, both musically and otherwise, about myself as a musician.  About what is possible.  And yet, for a moment, as I listen to the opening notes, I am lost.  I remember sitting with a can of Guinness with musician friends, eyes closed in intense rapture, listening with disbelief as the music coalesced, fell apart, rebuilt itself, returned to its almost non-existent fragile theme from which this had all, impossibly, emerged.  But now, and for the next twenty minutes or so, I am momentarily back in a place often reported on by people new to new music, whether composed or improvised;  It’s chaos, and I don’t care about it.  I am sick of the reverence accorded to it by people like me.  It’s two cats in a bag with a microphone.

Then I make a cup of tea, and return to it, and that feeling passes.  It is speaking to me again.  Like riding a bike, one never forgets, but one can be allowed an awkward few minutes in the saddle after a long period away.  I feel like we as a culture are obsessed with short term profit, and what this means is that people have to like things straight away.  There is no value attached to any long term view about anything.  Some things take a long time.  Some things are even worth getting through a period of hating them, because something good may come of it.

I recently went to my son’s school concert.  He’s nine.  The “orchestra” was a loose assemblage of whatever instruments and people could be matched together.  This is the other end of the spectrum, where music is new, new as a purely physical experience, music just hatching.  The theme from “Eastenders” took on a whole new pathos, a struggle worthy of the triumphant metamorphosis of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony when all the minor stuff turns to major.  Well, not quite, but maybe Beethoven was trying to capture something of what those kids may have felt.  What could be more Herculean than trying to get a trumpet that is the size of your whole upper body to produce a single unwavering note?  There were short bits of improvisation, comfortingly familiar chords forming a reassuring bed above which some truly unearthly noises were emerging.  As a musician, it was fascinating and somehow very moving; there were true moments of beauty, moments the kids may or may not have been aware of, where I was almost certain they would make it to the right note and then something so wrong comes out, and yet the concentration behind it makes it work.  It makes a moment.  It’s interesting how John Coltrane, the poster boy for complex improvisation, gradually worked towards a similarly pure sound and simplicity of utterance in his last years; he maintained, of course, the control and deep understanding that years of work had given him, but there is no denying that some people would say “a six year old can do that”.  John Cage seemed to me to aspire to this in his music, to the time in the human mind’s development before “intention”, the intention to do what one should do.  What this music had, in places, was DRAMA.  The drama of a pint sized kid with a clarinet who blows it and makes you think – not because he is amazing but because he is trying to get to…something – of Sonny Rollins.

 In music, in art, we either need a story, or we need to know pretty early on that one is not coming and accustom ourselves to being in that place.  Great music can exist where nothing really happens (Morton Feldman, Brian Eno, the early minimalism of Reich and Glass); but if music fails to make something happen, that is different.  That is “once upon a time there was…”; then nothing.  A broken agreement.  That is something completely different.  A common example might be “once upon a time I played these notes very proficiently and they all matched the chords and it was fast.  The notes are similar in their construction to the notes of someone a long time ago”.  This is, needless to say, part of any jazz musician’s training.  But Horowitz did not play scales in his recitals, and Usain Bolt does not do sit ups for the crowd.  This is under the bonnet, backstage stuff.

Imagine, as a musician, being able to access that newness, sensation of surprise, the freshness of a well intentioned noise.  And now imagine having the skill and experience to feel it as it happens.  It’s a paradoxical process, we have to go forward and backwards all the time, gain knowledge, return to its source.  It takes time, whether as a listener or as a performer.  Those two cats in a bag might just be in there out of choice.  Maybe they aren’t fighting but mating.

A Life In Jazz

Liam Noble Curriculum Vitae

Liam Noble was brought up extremely rapidly by two parents in Bromley, Kent. His interest in music started from age two, when his analyst played him Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht”
as light relief from his regression therapy, resulting in the first in a line of prestigious awards – “Patient Of The Year, 1971.”

From there it was a short step to Cannonball Adderley, the records of Miles Davis that featured his wives on the front covers, and the exuberant expletives of Jelly Roll Morton’s Library Of Congress recordings. Music and swearing went hand in hand in Noble’s early years, hopelessly splashing through mid period Beethoven sonatas and Chopin Études in a sea of curse and rage. He has since avoided sharps and flats altogether.

In a career spanning his entire working life, Noble has worked with a whole roster of international talent that reads like a list of people on a CV. Among them are some that should be singled out for special mention.

He continues to practice Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, in the hope that out of 32, one will eventually come out right.

Noble is a sought after educator, holding several negligible posts at major institutions. Teaching can often become repetitive; he has avoided this by teaching only one hour per year at each college. This hour is then taxed at source.

Liam Noble’s new solo cd marks a significant departure from his usual way of working, including as it does many of the black notes of the keyboard, which are used in new and surprising combinations. The album has received rave reviews throughout the press, and more are eagerly anticipated when the music is finally released.

Liam Noble writes exclusively in the third person.

Who Do I Listen To?

“Nature then, is just nature. I admit I am very impressed with it. The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can do for is to put some order in ourselves.”

Willem de Kooning

The cloud comes down, but too fast and too heavy, more like a blanket, or like jelly just before it sets. It always happens like this. I’m in a room with someone, and I’m teaching them. And they say something, and the room fills slowly up with an imaginary, cloying, sticky liquid. This person is aged between 18 and 21. They say :

“Who should I be listening to?”

I have been trying to think of what to say in reply to this for as many years as I’ve been teaching. It’s the key to everything. When a person says this, and eagerly awaits an answer, they are unwittingly telling you that they think they will never be a jazz musician, pure and simple. They have made this choice. Obviously I can’t tell them that. They want answers. Their parents have just forked out twenty seven grand in used notes in exchange for little nuggets of information such as the one I am about to impart. The great spirit of rebellion that spawned this music, the anger and joy coexisting in Bud Powell’s recordings, the machismo and feminine battling it out in the mind of Miles Davis, the sheer don’t-give-a-fuck fire running through Sonny Rollins’s titanic improvisations, Geri Allen’s fragile spider-like lines underpinned with the swagger of a New Orleans marching band, has it all ended up here in this room? I am starting to feel a bit claustrophobic.

Look, I’m no writer. The opening paragraph of this blog has, compared to my others, a lot of short sentences. This is because I’ve just finished James Ellroy’s brilliantly nasty, disparaging and fictionalised account of the years leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, “American Tabloid”. The anger and disgust of the unseen narrator jumps off the page at every turn. And it has lots of short sentences in it. My ear started to like the sound of them. And how they look. And that reminded me of the anger in Bud Powell’s music, anger that in his case was transformed into a kind of ecstatic energy. I imagine a lot of jazz musicians had this experience; there was plenty to be angry about, and in some kind of chicken and egg coincidence the way music was made was undergoing an explosive revolution.

With this in mind, I get on the tube; Jesus everyone looks fucking angry. Bill Evans comes on my headphones, even he sounds angry today, a taunted bull rampaging through a room full of rose petals. Ellroy, Powell, Evans, their energy is being let out in order that they can get up in the morning, write a new book, make a new record, they are making things ok.

Then something else happens; I go and see some very close friends of mine for a couple of days. The anger, the idea of anger, drifts away. The energy of friendship, of common ground both musical and personal, the way time passes and we are still here years later, the same and different. Bill Evans sounds different today, like he’s reading me a bedtime story. Monk’s angles are child-like, sincere, playful, but not quite as belligerent.

At a band reunion, a band in which I played an instrument I no longer even have, there are faces from even further back, the same but different. I remember sitting in the third clarinets playing Vaughan Williams’s “Folk Song Suite”, medleys of Broadway shows, newly commissioned overtures, “The Rockford Files”. From my vantage point, along with five other clarinets playing the same line, I could feel the air move, we were all somehow engulfed in it, embraced by the sound, so different to sitting at a piano, where one somehow hovers above it. (Watching Bill Evans play is, to me, watching someone trying to actually “climb inside” the chords, ear cocked to the keyboard with bird-like attentiveness, anxious to catch anything that passes.)

I remember the impossibility of looking demure whilst playing the bassoon, the irresistible urge to show off that frequently befell the lead trumpet or the percussionists, the way the conductor would lean inexplicably back in his seat for the “jazzy” numbers and then tense up like a cat eying its prey for the Gordon Jacob suite. I remember how, when we played “What I Did For Love” in the Marvin Hamlisch medley, I would feel waves of emotion that were almost physical and in the room, coupled with a teenage, slightly manufactured distaste for such sentimentality (anyone who’s ever listened to Keith Jarrett will know what I’m talking about). In particular, I learnt how to play with other people, and from that how to be with other people. I discovered that I wasn’t the only freak in Bromley in the 1980s. This is all valuable information that I still think about; well, maybe not the bassoon bit.

Look, I’m no psychologist. But when someone who wants to be a jazz musician asks me what to listen to, I imagine them asking me how to choose their friends. They are almost asking me how and what to feel. And it’s not entirely their fault. They are the customers now, and like all customers they are always right. Time is money, they don’t have a limitless apprenticeship to figure this out at their leisure, there’s no time for accidents, wrong turnings, red herrings. And the amount of energy needed to resist the increasingly conformist, consensual nature of modern culture is enormous. Jazz musicians are not, on the whole, still being beaten up by the police and given electric shock therapy in hospitals. But we are in a bit of a state over this whole role of music in contemporary life thing. Maybe this could, in some way, be our source of anger, our disgust, the unseen enemy that we kick against whilst all the time only putting “some order in ourselves”?

Charlie Haden, come back…

Charlie Haden, for those who aren’t jazz fans or musicians, was a bass player.  He died yesterday at the age of seventy six as a result of the onset of post-polio syndrome.  He didn’t always play the bass.  From the age of 2 until the age of 15, he was a professional singer with the Haden Family band until polio took away his voice and forced him to concentrate on the bass.  I say “forced” because, if you’ve ever heard him play, it seems as if the music just bursts out of him, as if he had to find a way to let it out or it would eat him up. 

There’s something else too.  From the age of two he was in a band.  A country band, where the songs come first, but where the simple act of making a good sound becomes elevated to the level of virtuosity.  I imagine restraint and modesty are the guiding principles in that kind of music, but in the narrow harmonic range of a three chord country song everything you do makes a difference, so bravery counts too.  The endless possibilities of stop or go, up or down, and the effect it has on the overall sound of those around you.  Simply to do nothing, to sit on something and let things happen, is often the best policy.  This also gives you time to think about the sound as a thing in itself.  It seems to me that everything Haden did relates to this idea, that a simple thing can be made profound by what happens around it, and the bass is the perfect place from which to observe it all. 

It’s as simple as this; chords in music are described from the bottom up.  A three chord song has (largely speaking) three bass notes, and whilst most recent examples of the genre tend to hover around a couple of faux emotional wails or grunts, practically any note can occur in the melody without losing that sense of what the song is.  A three chord song.  When a note changes in the bass, it only has to deviate a little to change the whole sense of the chords, like pulling out all the bottom pieces in a game of Jenga.  Haden was always able to control this power by sticking to simple phrases, melodies cutting through the form of a song like a warm knife.  Like his former bandleader Ornette Coleman, you can hear that he sees the notes on his instrument as all different, each with its own personality.  The upward curve of a line, often spun out in Haden’s trademark stepwise motion, is given character by the sound of going up.  A note on the way up sounds completely different in Haden’s solos to that same note coming down; maybe it’s the way he cuts it short, or bends into the pitch, maybe he holds it behind the beat a touch.  So often in jazz we are taught to produce an even sound across the whole instrument, to overcome the limitations of the machinery.  Haden asks us to look instead for its soul, to meet the instrument halfway, almost as if what he expresses in his playing is not “himself” but the bass itself.

Once a musician does that, he or she is always themselves.  From Ornette Coleman’s pioneering quartet of the late fifties right up to his own album of Country songs “Ramblin’ Boy”, via a dizzying array of collaborations and self-led projects, Haden maintains an unshakeable and dignified prescence, never changing his sound, his style, his personality.  The bends, the articulations, speech-like in their delivery, are always there.

Bass players are a particular breed.  You have to like it down there.  You have to get some satisfaction from making others sound good, and for reading endless reviews with your name missed off.  Bass players are like coal miners, horn players warming their hands around the fire.  The frantic myth that accompanies jazz as some kind of cathartic working through of ones own shit in the company of others bent on a similar path is possibly the one thing that has most quickly emptied the various ad hoc rooms in which it has been performed.  Charlie Haden stood for music through melody and sound, communication and cooperation. 

I’m not upset that he died because I never met him.  I still have the CD reissue of Song X, I still have him playing “You’ll Never Know” with Geri Allen, the whole of the early seventies stuff with Keith Jarrett, the trio with Paul Bley and Paul Motian where he and the drummer almost sound like they’re ignoring each other and yet, like really great friends, listening again you can hear them subtly moving together, sharing jokes and stories that only they understand.  So he’s still alive the way I knew him. 

No I’m not upset; I’m angry.  I’m angry that people talk about him and his music, and yet so often there is a failure to learn by his example.  I’m angry at myself every time I play something and it’s not true, not real, not meant.  Jazz is an eternal battle for meaning.  Not what does it mean, but how.  How is this music made meaningful and what makes people care about it.  Now there’s one less person in the world who seemed close to some kind of solution.