It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.
Bassist Charlie Haden (pictured) is known all over the world, and it was 50 years ago that he played along with Ornette Coleman’s group at the Five Spot in New York City and changed the shape of jazz to come. Since that time, Haden has led many different groups and played in an amazing variety of settings. Naturally, he is a perennial favorite in Montreal, returning to the jazz festival year after year. So, it was no surprise to see “Charlie Haden Family & Friends” up here, pushing his latest album. The thing is, Haden’s new disc is Rambling Boy, a country album exploring his earliest musical roots. Haden got his start singing at the age of two with the Haden Family, who were popular performers back in the ’30s and ’40s. The Hadens were contemporaries of the Carter Family, and Haden’s latest disc revives the sense of familial unity once found in that music. On the record, Haden is fortunate to play with fantastic musicians and has an array of guest vocalists including Vince Gil, Rosanne Cash and Elvis Costello, as well as his daughters Petra, Rachel and Tanya (the Haden Triplets), his son Josh and his son-in-law Jack Black.
For the Montreal concert, Haden imported some of Nashville’s hottest pickers, many of which also play on the album. This formidable front line included mandolinist Sam Bush, Bryan Sutton and Mark Fain on guitar, Rob Ickes on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Dan Tyminski on banjo and vocals (he’s the guy who sang “Man Of Constant Sorrow” for the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?). Keeping the singing-family thing going and lacking the star power-guest singers, Haden leaned hard on the Haden Triplets, individually and collectively, to sing a variety of old country classics including “Single Girl, Married Girl,” “Wildwood Flower” and “A Voice On High.” While the musicianship was flawless and the lovely and talented Haden girls did their best, the show felt lackluster, as Haden dutifully pushed the band through the tunes without tapping into the depth of the players that he had on the stage. Josh sang two songs, and he really showed some stage presence. It was there, during a dramatic reading of his composition “Spiritual” with father Charlie playing passionately behind him, that the musicians truly responded to the emotion of the moment and the show finally approached its full potential.
While the Montreal fans always love Haden, many seemed surprised that he wasn’t playing jazz, and a number of people walked out. The revue basically lacked a charismatic frontman, and the well-played country music often lacked intensity. I imagine they could put together great shows with special-guest vocalists in cities like Nashville, L.A. or New York, but trotting out Tyminski to sing “Man Of Constant Sorrow” one more time felt a little contrived. When you have great pickers like Sam Bush, you could take a risk and stretch these traditional arrangements into something new, as Haden did with Pat Metheny on Beyond The Missouri Sky in 1996. Back in 1979, fiddler Richard Greene did an amazing bluegrass version of Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’.” Nothing like that happened in Montreal, but Haden talked about the original recording of “Ramblin’” and how his bass solo includes a musical reference to country tune “Old Joe Clark” and how Ian Dury used Haden’s countryfied riff as the basis of his hit tune “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.”
Then, as a matter of course, the Haden band played a jumping but perfunctory version of “Old Joe Clark.” If I sound like I’m complaining, I’m sorry; I know these are Haden’s roots and he deserves the chance to gather his family and friends around him and celebrate, but the show was still something of an indulgence and could have been much better than it was. (But could somebody still please tell Tanya to call me? Wow!)
Guitarist Bill Frisell, on the other hand, put on a straightforward jazz concert that was filled with twists, turns, improvisation and musical surprises. Accompanied by Ron Miles on cornet, bassist Tony Sherr and drummer Rudy Royston, Frisell opened with a brooding mid-tempo number, his guitar jutting and probing as the band tried to settle in and find some common ground. Let it be said that Sherr was an absolute standout, and Frisell responded to his powerful playing more than anything else as the show progressed. The band eventually segued into a gentle, stirring version of “Moon River” before launching into a variety of melodies that sounded familiar but that I couldn’t identify. The encores were the best, with Frisell adapting a bluesy African sound highly reminiscent of Ali Farka Toure, then embracing the Burt Bacharach song first recorded by Jackie DeShannon back in 1965, “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” For his last tune of the evening, Frisell revived an old standby that he’d retired after the election of President Obama. Clearly inspired, he and the band played a highly emotive version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to a rapturous audience. Now that’s jazz. And Charlie, I still love you.
A sad addendum: On Wednesday night, noted Montreal radioman and one of Canada’s greatest friends to jazz, Len Dobbin, passed away. Dobbin was attending a Ray Allen show at the Upstairs jazz club (his favorite haunt) and had a stroke. There is sure to be an outpouring of emotion in lieu of this stunning news. Let it be said that Dobbin was doing exactly what he loved at the time of his death. He held music in the highest regard and made it his life’s work. He had just spent quality time with singer Shelia Jordan during her visit to the jazz fest, and nothing made him happier. He was simply a great guy with a amazing knowledge of jazz history that will never be replaced. I’m humbled by the news of his passing. I am sure that the Montreal Jazz Festival will not let his life go unacknowledged.
—photo by Michael Jackson