Jazz musicians have also done this for a long time - fusing one style with another, "jazzing" up simple ditties, exploring the rhythms, harmonies and feelings of an exotic culture’s musical heritage. Latin music in particular has seen close examination by jazz practitioners, to both styles’ benefit, going back to the 1940s. It’s been an enduring relationship, resistant to the fickleness of the listening public, and, as bassist Charlie Haden shows on his new CD, Nocturne, it is still rich with possibilities.
Haden grew up in the heartland of Missouri where, starting at a young a age, he performed with his family on an old-time gospel radio program. Twenty years later, he helped forge a new musical language as regular bassist for Ornette Coleman’s quartet. Over the years, he has led or been involved in many other projects, including the Liberation Music Orchestra, a large ensemble that performed traditional and original tunes that protested the hostilities that wracked the world at the time.
He’s something of a pro at duet albums, having recorded countless volumes with everyone from avant gardists Archie Shepp and Don Cherry to balladeers Hank Jones and Pat Metheny (with whom he recorded the Grammy-winning Beyond the Missouri Sky in 1997). His Quartet West has turned out a half-dozen poignant and lush discs that effectively evoke the Hollywood heyday of the ’40s and ’50s while remaining fresh, new and contemporary. And a series of concerts recorded during the annual Montreal Jazz Festival captured him leading a number of outstanding piano trios, yielding five or six popular discs.
One of those Montreal trios introduced a young Cuban pianist to many Americans for the first time: Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who at the age 38 is already considered to be one of Cuba’s most influential pianists. A student of classical music who toured Europe and Africa extensively in the ’80s, he met Haden in 1986. The bassist brought him to the attention of American listeners (who knows what other talents we will discover in Cuba when - or if - we ever lift our embargo on the island country?), and during the ’90s he recorded dozens of albums as both a leader and a sideman, including three with Haden.
Nocturne is their fourth collaboration, a languid, meditative, headily romantic collection of mostly Cuban and Caribbean dance forms performed by expert improvisors, including saxophonists Joe Lovano and David Sanchez, violinist Federico Britos Ruiz, and Haden’s favorite fellow Missourian Pat Metheny. Nocturne focuses especially on the bolero, a traditional dance that originated in Mexico and found its way to Cuba in the early 20th century.
The disc sets its tone immediately with "En la Orille del Mundo," or "At the Edge of the World," with Rubalcaba playing an introduction that brings to mind great French piano composers such as Debussy or Ravel, with the melody floating on an orchestrated breeze. Then Ruiz enters on violin and Lovano comes in on sax, blowing us back to the new world, where we realize just how much of an influence the European impressionists were on Cuban music.
"Noche de Ronda" ("Night of Wandering"), featuring Metheny on guitar and Ignacio Berroa on percussion, sounds very much like a track off Beyond the Missouri Sky - nostalgic, dreamy, sweet, with just a touch of sadness. The trio of Haden, Rubalcaba and Berroa takes "Nocturnal," swinging about as upbeat as the disc gets. Rubalcaba’s playing is exquisite, seemingly simple but pulling out profound and complex feeling from deep inside, and also venturing off on a wonderful solo. It leads naturally into "Moonlight," a Haden original, which has Lovano blowing cool and crepuscular over the changes.
Sanchez takes the solo on the heartbreaking "No te Empeñes Mas" ("Don’t Try Anymore"), and Lovano returns on Rubalcaba’s familiar "Transparence," perhaps the jazziest, least Cuban number of the set. "El Ciego" ("The Blind") is my personal favorite, with its rippling piano figure setting it into motion and Ruiz playing both with heart-wrenching romance and suave sarcasm.
This is a slow and thoughtful album, so full of lush beauty it almost drips, but for the masterful control of emotions by the players. Any more romantic and it might by embarrassing, but instead it’s sly, coy, sexy and even swinging.