Charlie Haden Overcomes Adversity at Healdsburg Jazz Festival
The buzz in the Jackson Theater was a little more anxious than usual during the pre-show hum of this year’s Healdsburg (Calif.) Jazz Festival, because the one unconfirmed guest at the festival’s Charlie Haden tribute was Charlie Haden himself.
For the past two years Haden has been on a hiatus from jazz as he fights post-polio syndrome, and the Healdsburg festival was meant to be his comeback. Haden was scheduled to headline two days of the festival’s first weekend, June 1–2, but if the performances proved more than his health would allow, bassist Derek Oles, once Haden’s student at California Institute of the Arts, was standing by.
The show began with a set by pianist Geri Allen and saxophonist Chris Potter. Allen entered dressed like a Buddhist monk with a neat pile of dreadlocks on her head and proceeded to play a stunningly introspective program that she said she’d planned “just for Charlie.” Throughout their set, Allen and Potter flowed in and out of each other’s lines with meditative intuition. Allen, who first collaborated with Haden in 1988, opened with “Silence,” one of Haden’s compositions from the period.
Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz was up next. Before he began, Jessica Felix, the festival’s artistic director, gave an update on Haden’s status. “He’s on the way,” she said. “He’s in the building!” The 85-year-old Konitz was joined by Oles, pianist Alan Broadbent and drummer Matt Wilson. He spent his set knocking on free-jazz’s door with tunes that began in another universe only to materialize as standards like “Body And Soul” and “Stella By Starlight.”
As 10 o’clock rolled around, a slow-moving Haden ascended to what can only be described as a “bass throne.” Located center-stage, it was a raised platform with an armchair, a tall stool, towel and microphones in all the right places. His band Quartet West—featuring Broadbent, drummer Rodney Green and tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane subbing for Ernie Watts—awaited him. After introducing the band, Haden said, with typical glibness, “I was gonna say this at the end, but I’ll say it now: Most people are home tonight watching ‘American Idol.’ Need I say more?”
And with that, Haden re-entered the world of jazz performance. His tone was as rich as ever, and he swung against Coltrane and Broadbent with the same authority that carved him out a place in jazz history. The performance exemplified the ore of jazz, the most piercing, unadorned elements of the music that emerge in the deliberate steps of a bass line, a mournful a cappella sax solo and loose brushes on a cymbal like rippling water.
Once Quartet West finished, Haden didn’t want to leave the stage. He brought Allen back out for an encore performance, then Konitz (despite the saxophonist’s protestation that he had “put his horn away”).
By the second day, Haden had hit his stride. The day’s program began with a solo set by pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a man with one of the most talkative right hands in jazz. Haden joined Rubalcaba for his final two songs and told the story of their first meeting at a club in Havana when Rubalcaba was 17. The second set featured Haden with guitar chameleon Bill Frisell, Haden’s son Josh and his triplet daughters Petra, Rachel and Tanya, who sang hillbilly songs associated with their father’s childhood and the family band he grew up with.
For the festival’s most anticipated set, pianist/composer Carla Bley led a 12-piece incarnation of Haden’s politically charged Liberation Music Orchestra. Bley’s arrangements were deeply emotional, with bellowing French horn lines from Vincent Chancey and soulful grooves from Frisell and tuba player Joseph Daley. As Haden closed his eyes to solo on “We Shall Overcome,” a thought came to mind: For a man whose career has focused so much on other people’s suffering, this was perhaps the first time that the pain healed by Haden’s bass was his own.