Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Charlie Haden interview by Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus

As I mentioned, I'm doing a lot of thinking about Ornette Coleman, and happened to find this excellent, extended 2007 interview with one of my favorite musicians ever, Charlie Haden, by Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson.

In it Haden talks in depth about working with Ornette, Keith Jarrett, Old & New Dreams, and more. I've excerpted a few bits about the early days with Ornette, and about working with Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell and Paul Motian. Go read the entire thing at Do The Math. After that go to Four On The Floor to watch some great Ed Blackwell clips.

EI: Tell me about playing behind Ornette in 1958.

CH: I learned about the importance of listening playing with Ornette. We first played duo at his house, for days. I had never heard such beautiful melodies. He had his compositions written out with changes on them.

EI: There were changes on his charts?

CH: Yes, and he said to play on the changes until he left them, and then just follow him. At first I thought he meant he would play on the written changes for a little while, but then I realized he would be creating a new set of changes almost right away. So I discarded his changes and followed him.

Sometimes the changes he had for the written parts didn't always fit, so I would look for the right note, even if it wasn't the root of the tonal center.

EI: Dewey Redman told me once that he was looking at a piece of Ornette's music and thought he heard some changes in there. He asked Ornette what the structure was, and Ornette responded by putting a chord symbol on every eighth note! He made sure never to ask Ornette that question again.

CH: Yeah, NEVER ask Ornette about the changes!

EI: So, you were making up the harmony. On some of the early music like "Lonely Woman," "Ramblin'", and "Una Muy Bonita," there is also a strong melody in the bass. I have a strong suspicion that those are yours too.

CH: Sometimes I would play what I was hearing instead of what he had written and he usually accepted it.

EI: Most performances of "Lonely Woman" leave off your first bass melody, which is a shame, since it is so beautiful. In general, I think that Ornette's music is more democratic than most people realize. Just listen to the first two records on Contemporary without you.


EI: Could we talk about "Una Muy Bonita" or some other of that early music?

CH: Ornette wrote such beautiful songs. He also wrote out all the intros, interludes, endings and tempo changes. Don Cherry always made sure that the parts were organized in the right way. Ornette was in charge, but Don was a big help, and we rehearsed at Cherry's house.

But, you know, there was less discussion than you think. Like on "Focus on Sanity," after the bass solo, Billy comes in with the two hits, the horns play the tune, and we hit double-time tempo. It was right on the money! I remember that precisely because we DIDN'T talk about it, and it came out so well.

I started to stop time sometimes, too, especially after Ed Blackwell came into the band.

EI: Blackwell would stop the ride cymbal beat much more than Billy Higgins would.

CH: I added double-stops, drones, and melodies that weren't always "in time." There is a slight evolution between the L.A. records, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century and a big evolution with the New York record, This Is Our Music, where there aren't ANY chord progressions during the improvisations any more: just modulations through keys. I would just grab the most important note I could hear from Ornette's phrases. This would enable him to go to the next thing he wanted to do.

EI: While I hear the evolution of the music you are talking about, I don't really hear chord progressions as such on the L.A. records, either.

CH: Well, we weren't playing on changes like somebody would on "All the Things You Are," of course. But we were still respecting the songs how Ornette wrote them, with bridges and interludes. Billy and I would still signify the new sections, even if we weren't playing the changes. Then, in New York with Blackwell, there were no more changes, just free improvisation.

For "Una Muy Bonita," if I remember right, after we ran down the head, I asked Ornette to let me put something on the front of it. The tune had a Spanish title, but the tune didn't sound Spanish, so I wanted to put in something that did…I started fooling with some double-stops, and Ornette said, "Play that! Play that!"

EI: G-flat, too, not the easiest key for bass!

CH: Oh, man! It's hard. Actually, I remember that Jimmy Garrison came up to me later at Ornette's house and told me, "Charlie, man, I've always wanted to tell you how much I love your playing. Now, can you show me the introduction to 'Una Muy Bonita'"? That made me feel good, that he liked my playing.

EI: I love the double-time coda on "Bonita."

CH: Back then, Ornette was writing more detailed kind of arrangements, with great introductions, interludes, and endings. We would be really tight, and stop on a dime. A lot of people, hearing us for the first time, would say "Why are they playing so crazy?" But also, "How did they stop together so easily?"

EI: I understand that Ornette never counted anything off, either. He would just start.

CH: Yeah, that's true… Reminds me of the time that Dexter Gordon came to see us rehearse at the Hillcrest. After listening quietly for a while in the back, he came up to stage, sat on a bar stool, and asked, "You cats ever play any standards?"

Ornette said, "Sure, man! What would you like to hear?"

"How about 'Embraceable You'?"

Ornette picked his horn and played two phrases. Then he put his horn back down, looked at Dexter and said, "That's it."

Dexter scratched his head, took another puff of his cigarette, and said, "Thank you, man."

I think that moment is one of the reasons we recorded that song on This Is Our Music.

EI: I love Ornette's introduction to "Embraceable You."

CH: Yeah, man! In those days, the harmony in the horns was real harmony. Later, the harmony was all parallel…

EI: Ah, harmolodics.

CH: I would say to Ornette, "That's parallel harmony! It sounds Oriental or something. " But that's what he wanted.

EI: All this music we are talking about involves only three drummers: Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, and Paul Motian. When I hear your sound in my mind, I hear one of them playing with you.

CH: All three of those drummers are absolutely musical drummers: they can hear harmony, have perfect time, and play the drums like they are playing melodies and chord changes.

I met Billy and Don Cherry on the same gig on Central Avenue in the area later known as Watts. Don was playing piano: Monk tunes, mostly. This was before I met Ornette. Billy always told me later, "When you walked in the door, Charlie, I thought they had sent me a science teacher, not a bass player!"

I was 19, and hadn't played with that many drummers yet, although I knew who I liked from records, guys like Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, and Stan Levey (who played with Stan Kenton). Billy was heavily influenced by Kenny Clarke. He had a special cymbal (I guess all of them have their special cymbal) that sounded like a waterfall, just like Kenny Clarke on Swedish Schnapps with Bird. Billy could bring people into his time, a time that enveloped you.

EI: Everybody felt great playing with Billy Higgins. He would go on to be one of the most recorded drummers in history.

CH: That started when he lost his cabaret card when we were at the Five Spot, which made him free to be on all those Blue Note records. He wasn't able to gig, so he recorded instead. Everybody called Billy Higgins: Jackie McLean, Dexter Gordon, Donald Byrd…


EI: When Blackwell came in to the Ornette band, it was quite a change from Higgins. For me it is a little more modernist, with fiercer counterpoint in the left hand.

CH: Ornette sent for Blackwell to come to New York from New Orleans when Billy lost his cabaret card. That's when I met and played with Blackwell for the first time, although he had been out in L.A. before that and played with Ornette then.

EI: That must have been when Higgins studied with Blackwell.

CH: I heard about that, although I wasn't there. Blackwell brought the music of New Orleans, the funerals, parades, and jazz clubs of the French Quarter to Ornette's music. He had played a lot with Alvin Batiste and those guys. I couldn't believe how he played! He played so different. He had the same beautiful time that Higgins had but it didn’t really come from the tradition of modern jazz. Blackwell could play modern jazz but he let his playing be more inflected by all the New Orleans music, and he put his own spin on it all. It was amazing what he did.

Later on he went to Africa with Randy Weston and lived there for a while. When he came back, he had added a lot of things he learned there to his playing, although his basic style didn't change. You can hear that African element on some of the music with Old and New Dreams, like "Mopti."

Ever since my hillbilly days, I try to play music like I don't know what is going to happen. And that brings us to Paul Motian.

EI: When you and Motian play together, it sounds like you are discovering the beat for the first time…almost like you could fail! But of course, there is also this powerful ballsy moxie present too.

CH: Strength and vulnerability together.

EI: Yeah!

CH: I met Paul when I was at the Five Spot with Ornette and he was at the Village Vanguard with Bill Evans. When I was in L.A., Scotty LaFaro and I roomed together. He would practice for hours: he had all these Sonny Rollins solos he had written out in bass clef! I remained close friends with Scotty in New York, and would go over there to see and admire them, and Scotty and Paul would come over to the Five Spot too. When Scotty was killed at age 25 (I was 24), I was devastated -- I couldn't play for months. I never knew how Scotty felt about my playing until Paul told me later that the first time Paul heard me it was because Scotty had dragged him out in a snowstorm, "You've got to hear this great bass player with Ornette!"

EI: Tell me about how Paul's playing changed between playing with Bill and then with Keith.

CH: With Scotty and Bill, Paul had to develop a way of playing to adhere (I mean in the sense of "stick") to those guys, who sort of played "above" everything. The "1,2,3,4" wasn't so important to Scotty and Bill: they floated, and Paul had a way of making it happen that was innovative. I never heard anybody play the drums like that before.

Then when he started playing with me and Keith, sometimes the energy would be very high-level. We'd be playing free improvisation, because Keith would like to go out (which Dewey Redman took to a whole other level when he joined). Paul's playing really developed then. What a phenomenal musical mind Paul Motian has.

You forget sometimes that you are playing music, not just playing jazz. It's good sometimes to remind people of the musicality of the moment by going to just one note and letting them hear it.

1 comment:

Sirgatopardo said...

Charlie Haden is one of may favourites Bass players, thaks