Each year the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal organizes a series of concerts to feature a single artist. A different jazz musician is chosen and he/she performs with different people, chosen by the artist, on different nights in featured performances. In 1989 perhaps today’s most versatile jazz bassist and Grammy award winner Charlie Haden was selected as the featured artist. On eight separate nights Haden performed with a variety of musicians in a variety of contexts. The four tracks on this disc are taken from the live concert on the first night of Haden’s run, June 30.
Haden, forever immortalized as a member of Ornette Coleman’s revolutionary free-jazz quartet, has crafted a career that always aspires to the highest standard of music making. Work with The Liberation Jazz Orchestra, Jan Garbarek, and Pat Metheny, as well as recent work with Michael Brecker, as just a few examples, shows the bassist willing to extend himself into almost any format with the desire for the highest musical sincerity being the desired outcome - no matter the configuration.
Performing here with legendary tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and perennially underrated drummer Al Foster, Haden and company set out to perform without the help of a net, in this case a chordal instrument. As if to underscore what these musicians were about to embark on, the liner notes mention that Henderson came to Haden right before the concert began and said he wanted to, "play something free like you did with Ornette." Henderson’s quote that, "Chords and key signatures are just excess baggage, let’s just through them overboard," is prophetic when coming from a musician who established himself as one of the greatest straight-ahead jazz musicians ever. That choice both makes and breaks this recording.
Surprisingly enough, the best playing on the disk, as a unit, is on Haden’s ostensibly free tune, In The Moment. Henderson plays with such wild abandon you’d think he played this way all the time. Foster and Haden are exception in their support and give Henderson all the room he needs to explore not only the ambient sound he is able to create with his horn, but also some extra-musical sounds straight out of the 60s avant-garde movement. It’s a real joy to hear Henderson is this context and a shame he didn’t work this way more often.
At times the three musicians play with exceptional accomplishment. For example, the disc fades into the group already playing, in a free manner, on the All The Things You Are cut. The group has already started when the track fades in. We don’t exactly know what happened previously or why the playing here is scattered and not cohesive - not having the initial set up from which to see how the musical thoughts began. The lines each musician weaves, for the most part, fail to find sympathy with the thoughts of the others. When, however, they actually kick into the head of the tune, wow! All of a sudden you hear three master musicians swinging like nobody’s business in a manner that is worthy of their designations as giants of jazz. Henderson’s tone is full-bodied and strong. His solo is full of penetrating phrases that dance in a whirling trance of cyclic ideas with expansions and contractions of the ideas presented in what can only be described as truly inspired playing. Haden and Foster’s backdrop doesn’t just enfold Henderson’s lines, they push him on to even greater heights.
The down times of this disc are those moments when it’s obvious the three musicians are trying to figure each other out within the context they’ve placed themselves for the evening. Because the CDs four tunes are all lengthy, the shortest being 12 minutes, within each tune there are moments of greatness and wandering. For example, there are moments on Round Midnight when Henderson doesn’t sound like he is able to work his ideas into the conversation being held by Haden and Foster, and at times on In The Moment, following Henderson’s solo, Foster and Haden have difficulty getting a musical conversation going that is anything more than individual unconnected ideas.
This, however, is a small criticism. In every live concert there will be those moments that don’t go as well as one strives for. This concert is no exception. Overall, however, the concert, as judged by this fine recording, must be considered a success.