Sour turns to sweet

Jazz Albums Round-up

The American bassist Charlie Haden has always had a remarkable ability to make his unwieldy instrument sing, excelling on plucked solos whose notes resound with a deep, melancholy tone like the voice of some lugubrious baritone crooner. Now, for his new CD, The Art of the Song (Verve), Haden has chosen to sing himself. It's only for one track, the traditional gospel tune "Wayfaring Stranger" that closes the album, but it's quite a performance all the same.

With his high tenor voice half-talking the mythically-inclined lyrics like a sweet-sounding version of Lee Marvin croaking out "Wandering Star", Haden might crack and falter a little, but this only serves to enhance the rather ominous atmosphere of the song. And when he needs to, Haden rises to the top notes quite superbly, his uncannily pure voice standing out against the swirling background of strings like a blasted oak in a barren, windswept landscape. The effect is deeply moving, for, just like the wayfaring stranger or the imagined tree, Haden has somehow managed to endure. Once a heroin addict, his later work has increasingly displayed an near-palpable sense of loss, with a superficial nostalgia for the past concealing hard-won feelings of grace and beauty.

This isn't the first time Haden has sung professionally, either. As a child in Missouri in the early 1940s he sang with his family on their daily radio show from the age of two, until an attack of polio at 15 temporarily paralysed his vocal cords. A striking group portrait on the album sleeve shows the Haden family broadcasting from KWTO Springfield, circa 1942, with little "Cowboy" Charlie standing on a chair in front of the microphone. Although the incongruity of the future Ornette Coleman Quartet bassist starting his career in hillbilly music is fairly well known, the influence of Haden's early training on his mature work hasn't really been acknowledged.

After this new album, however, it's tempting to use the hillbilly past to deconstruct his entire career. Heartaching ballads like "Silence," the keening laments in his album for Nicaragua, "Ballad of the Fallen", and the harking back to the impossibly exotic and romantic Southern California of Raymond Chandler in previous Quartet West albums, all perhaps testify to a deep longing borne out of country music's unique mixture of gloomy stoicism and corny sentiment.

Although Haden's last few albums for Verve have increasingly favoured a kind of limpid romanticism, The Art of the Song is unprecedented in its willingness to wear its heart on its sleeve, and for some listeners the recipe will probably prove too sweet. Credited to Haden's regular West Coast group Quartet West, "with Chamber Orchestra", the album is a no-holds-barred tribute to the persuasive powers of melody. It includes substantial contributions from the veteran jazz vocalists Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson on a series of often obscure "standards", as well as arrangements of Rachmaninov's early piano piece "Moments Musicaux", and a Ravel Prelude from 1913. There's also Haden's own love song for his wife, "Ruth's Waltz", with lyrics by Arthur Hamilton.

While almost everything comes wrapped up in a thick skein of strings arranged by Quartet West's pianist Alan Broadbent (and one remains aware that the history of jazz with strings has been a chequered one), with the tenor saxophone of Ernie Watts often tootling over the top, the 13 tracks combine to make a very effective suite. If you can accept that jazz has the right to sound sweet as well as sour, and that lush doesn't necessarily mean naff, The Art of the Song is a beautiful record, and a major addition to the honourable genre of late-night jazz. When Shirley Horn - an outstanding singer, unaccountably undervalued in Britain - breathily sweet-talks her way through Jerome Kern's `The Folks Who Live On The Hill', it's hard to resist. That one of the founders of free jazz has gone all soft and sentimental might seem strange, but few albums this year will communicate so expertly and so forthrightly such feelings of, well, love.

The melody also lingers on very effectively in two lyrical new albums from the French imprint Label Bleu. Lower the Walls by the bassist Michel Benita is a quintet set featuring the tenor and soprano saxophones of guest star Andy Sheppard. With Sylvain Luc's languid guitar stylings conjuring up a mellow mood for Sheppard's characteristic blend of African scales and English pastoral reflections, the album has a beautifully summer-ish feel, reinforced by David Linx's occasional vocals. The result is a kind of Nick Drake-version of lightly boppish jazz that is very alluring, and Sheppard continues to sound at the top of his form, with a personal voice that is perhaps more distinctive than any other saxophonist's at present.

Corners by the drummer Aldo Romano is more various but equally light in mood, with atmospheric reflections associated with a sense of place, from Haiti to New Orleans (and linked, perhaps, by an obscure anarchist sub-text), forming a kind of suite. The tunes are once again scored for quintet, with Tim Miller's guitar partnered by Mauro Negri's clarinet, and the music floats by in a dreamy haze that is very French and intoxicating. Together with Charlie Haden, the new melodic jazz starts here.

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