Still heading west

Boston Globe, August 11, 2006

Versatile, inquisitive, indispensable: The adjectives only begin to describe the career and contribution to jazz of the bassist Charlie Haden. From free jazz with Ornette Coleman, through decades playing with virtually every major figure, to recent work on Americana, Cuban, and Mexican sounds, Haden’s discography is one of the most opulent in jazz as well as one of its most adventurous.

Haden’s main working group is the deeply melodic Quartet West, which celebrates its 20th anniversary with four shows tonight and tomorrow at Regattabar. Few jazz units of the 1980s have survived, but Quartet West has thrived, elaborating a rich, lyrical sensibility that doubles as a loving inquiry into aspects of the American psyche through the medium of song.

“The Art of the Song” is the title of one of the group’s five albums as well as a statement of purpose. Whether standards, Haden’s compositions, or those of the 1940s and 1950s film composers he admires, Quartet West plays unhurried music that infuses texture and feeling into relatively classic structures. What makes the results superior is the emotional maturity and the obvious connection the musicians share.

“You play together for that long, and it’s intuitive,” Haden says, on the phone from his LA home, of saxophonist Ernie Watts and pianist Alan Broadbent. He then awards them a classic Haden accolade: “They’re beautiful human beings.”

The first album featured the late Billy Higgins on drums. But he grew too busy, and Larance Marable, a California veteran who once played with Charlie Parker, took over. His successor is Rodney Green, recently of Diana Krall’s band. The group’s youngest member, he has faced and relished a considerable learning curve.

“To be so young in the middle of this relationship they have is pretty incredible,” Green says. “They just know something. Charlie has always represented that generation. They represented the truth, doing something not to be famous, but because it had to be done.”

“Sunday at the Hillcrest,” a song on the group’s second album, “In Angel City,” ties the connection with “that generation.” More jagged, jaunty, and be-bopish than most Quartet West fare, it pays tribute to the Los Angeles jazz scene that a teenage Haden entered in 1956, when he arrived on a Greyhound bus from his native Missouri.

He set out into the jazz clubs of Watts to find his then-idol, pianist Hampton Hawes. He found not only Hawes but also Coleman, Art Pepper, Sonny Clark, and soon became a fixture playing bass in this fertile scene. The Hillcrest, on Washington Boulevard, was one of the principal venues.

“It was similar to the Five Spot or the Vanguard [in New York],” Haden recalls. “It was very exciting to play there. I was 19 years old, attending the Westlake School of Music, and dropped out as I was cutting classes all the time to play. It didn’t really have a bandstand: the musicians played in the middle, on the carpet. It was packed every night.”

With Coleman’s group, Haden took part in the 1959 “Shape of Jazz to Come” album that many consider the birth of free jazz. Yet he kept the harmonic and melodic priorities that he acquired growing up in a musical family that had its own rural radio show. He was a singer, in fact, until polio partly affected his vocal cords and led him to switch to the bass.

The freedom of improvised music and the emotional impact of the song have been equal priorities throughout Haden’s career, melding in his writing and in his solos, which are warm and soulful no matter how difficult the material. The result, says saxophonist Watts, is a musician of rare versatility.

“A lot of times people are surprised when they remember the period when he was playing very free jazz with Ornette,” Watts says. “A lot of it was quite angular. Then when they hear Quartet West, it’s so melodic and so beautiful. But Charlie is a guy who has a lot of facets, a lot of complexity to his work.”

The members of Quartet West refute the idea that they play “West Coast jazz,” a concept that they argue is more journalistic creation than useful musical category. What they do play is jazz about the West Coast. Their music brims with references to Los Angeles, and through it, to the role the city has played in narrating the American experience.

Song titles like “Bay City,” “The Long Goodbye,” and “Lady in the Lake” evoke both the novels of Raymond Chandler and their classic Hollywood adaptations. Some recordings mix in snippets of period songs by artists like Billie Holiday with remarkable success.

Haden and his wife, coproducer and business manager Ruth Cameron, whom he credits with naming Quartet West, share a love of the sound and film of that time, and one of his great compositions, “First Song,” dedicated to Cameron, is frequently part of a Quartet West set.

“We both loved film noir,” Haden says. “She had the [Chandler] books; I had some of the books but my main thing was the movies. The late ’40s and early ’50s are just fascinating to me. And there were these great composers, great orchestral arrangements that just don’t happen anymore.”

The chance to celebrate this semi-forgotten body of American music ties Quartet West with other Haden projects that explore the national experience Negro spirituals with Hank Jones, Latin sounds with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the Midwest with Pat Metheny. His newest project is a country venture to be recorded in Nashville, involving his children and closing the circle with his own musical childhood.

Haden’s obvious joy in the rediscovery and renewal of American music goes a long way, too, to explain why this artist, who has always worn his progressive politics on his sleeve, retains an intact optimism as he approaches a youthful 70.

“You have to do something to make things better,” he says, “not just politically, but to make the world and this country a more beautiful place. You can’t stop your optimism, man. I don’t even know how to spell pessimism!”