The line-up of the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra is: three saxes (two tenor, one alto), two trumpets, a trombone, a french horn, and a tuba. And bass, guitar, drums, and piano. The core of the band, of course, is the bassist Charlie Haden and Carla Bley, who plays piano and arranges. The drummer Matt Wilson and sax player Tony Malaby have been touring with this edition of the band for a few years now. But at last night’s show at London’s Royal Festival Hall, part of Meltdown, it became clear early on (as Haden was reading out their names) that most of the horns were an English ‘pick-up’ band, although John Paricelli, on guitar, is a previous Carla Bley collaborator.
Perhaps for this reason, the first couple of songs were a little stiff, as the band betrayed a few signs of nerves. But Carla Bley’s arrangements are tight, lyrical, and free-wheeling, and the musicians quickly found their feet, a reminder of what fine musicians good jazz players are. Although Haden said at the start that they’d be playing tracks from all four Music Liberation Orchestra records (dating back to the Nixon era) much of the set was from the most recent, Not in Our Name, recorded in opposition to the Iraq war, which is like an oppositional conversation with American music. it has versions of Amazing Grace, Samuel Barber’s Adagio, and part of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, as well as a rich and complex interpretation of America the Beautiful. During this the wraith-like figure of Bley flitted from piano stool into the shadows of the stage and out again, emerging to make sure the band finished the songs cleanly.
Somewhere in the middle of this Robert Wyatt rolled on the stage – to huge audience applause – to sing in Spanish a Cuban song and also his lyrics to Haden’s own Song for Che, from the first Liberation Music Orchestra record. The end of the concert got a little bit chaotic – Haden hoped that Ornette Coleman, the director of this years’s Meltdown festival would join them on stage on the final weekend of the festival.
The pair share a 50-year history but Coleman missed his call at the hotel while Haden chopped the running order around (and extended We Shall Overcome with some improbable solos) to push America The Beautiful – their version incorporates the Coleman composition Skies of America – to the end of the programme in the hope of squeezing in a surprise appearance. In the end we had to make do with an emotional hug on the stage between the two musicians as the house lights went up.
The you tube performance at the top is of the Bill Frisell composition Throughout, from the 2003 tour of Europe. Tony Malaby is the sax soloist.