Charlie Haden, onstage at the Theatre Maisonneuve in Montreal two months ago, caressed the strings of his bass, gently swaying from left to right as he nurtured the genteel rhythms of the Cuban and Mexican boleros heard on his new album, Nocturne. It was a performance of elegance and sophisticated subtleties. The master musician was joined by pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, brushes-wielding drummer Ignacio Berroa, violinist Federico Britos Ruiz, and saxophonist Joe Lovano for a set defined by the romance and melancholy of the melodies at hand.
That concert at the Montreal Jazz Fest may have been a little too laid-back and whisper-soft for some of the 1450 or so listeners relaxing in the plush seats of the spacious hall. Martin Rojas's "En la Orilla del Mundo," the first piece, was a lovingly realized gem played at an extremely relaxed pace, as was nearly everything else that followed during the two-hour show. Contrast, anyone?
"It's not really about tempo. It's not that much about the rhythm," said the 64-year-old Haden, who made his name in the late Fifties and early Sixties as a member of Ornette Coleman's revolutionary pianoless free-jazz quartet. The bassist, slated to bring the Nocturne band (with David Sanchez replacing Lovano) to the Music Fest Miami, spoke recently from his home in Malibu, California. "It's about the melodies," he explained. "This music is so beautiful that people are kind of mesmerized. That's what we want them to be. You have to listen very intensely, with a lot of concentration, almost as much concentration as the musicians. This music is very delicate music. It's also very difficult, some of the most difficult music I've ever played, as far as taking concentration."
The moody, deeply nuanced Nocturne, featuring performances by the aforementioned musicians plus guitarist Pat Metheny, offers four Cuban standards and as many Mexican songs, and includes compositions in a similar vein by coproducers Haden ("Moonlight" and "Nightfall") and Rubalcaba ("Transparence"). The project, recorded in August 2000 at Criteria Studios in Miami, represents the first full collaboration between the bassist and the Cuban-born pianist, a onetime teenage prodigy who lived for six years in the Dominican Republic before moving to Coral Springs, where he now resides with his family. "It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life," Haden said, holding a copy of the CD, from the stage of the Maisonneuve.
The two met in 1986, when the Iowa-born Haden brought his Liberation Music Orchestra to Havana. "I heard him play with his group Proyecto, after our performance," Haden said in Montreal. "When the piano solo happened, I fell off my chair -- it was so beautiful." One backstage visit later, and the pair had formed a fast friendship. They played together in 1989 at the Montreux and Montreal festivals; those performances are documented on 1990's Discovery (with Paul Motian on drums) and 1991's The Blessing (with drummer Jack DeJohnette), respectively.
Haden's relationship with Latin music began long ago: As a child, singing and playing in the family's country music group, he was attracted to the flamenco he heard on the radio. During the Sixties he became enamored of the folk songs of the Spanish Civil War, a romance that led to the creation of his politically minded Liberation Music Orchestra. Over the course of his career, he has recorded with musicians from Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba.
Along the way he discovered a passion for the bolero, a Cuban song variant that migrated to Mexico and Puerto Rico a century ago and later traveled to the rest of South America, according to author Leonardo Acosta. Martin Rojas was among the leading Cuban composers in the genre, along with Marta Valdes ("No Te Empeñes Mas"), Osvaldo Farres ("Tres Palabras"), and Cesar Portillo de la Luz ("Contigo en la Distancia"). Mexican bolero composers represented on Nocturne are Sabre Marroquin and Jose Mojica ("Nocturnal"), Arturo Casto ("Yo Sin Ti"), Armando Manzanero ("El Ciego"), and Maria Teresa Lara ("Noche de Ronda").
Haden became fascinated with bolero music and the history of the period -- the Forties and Fifties -- particularly after exploring an Acosta book on the subject that's packed with photos of singers, small groups, big bands, orchestras, and dancers performing in Cuban nightclubs, theaters, and hotels. American musicians participated in the scene, too, including saxophonist Zoot Sims, drummer Roy Haynes, and Nat King Cole, who recorded an album of boleros, Cole Español and More, Vol. 1, in Spanish in the late Fifties.
"The melodies and the chord structures are very deep and beautiful," Haden said. "It's a similar kind of feeling to the ballads of this country, like All the Things You Are,' Body and Soul,' Haunted Heart.' These are the standard songs that came from Cuba. Not many people in this country have heard them, because they mostly hear up-tempo [Latin pop] things."
Haden's latest disc might be thought of as a kind of Spanish noir variation on the recordings of his Quartet West group, an ensemble dedicated to evoking a film noir view of urban American settings -- Los Angeles, New York -- of the Forties. "The feeling I always have when I make a recording like this is I wish that I could have been there," Haden offered in Montreal. "I wanted to be there. I guess that's why I do everything. I just want to be places where I wasn't, so I wanted to experience playing this music, especially with Gonzalo, who comes from this music."
Rubalcaba -- whose own latest CD, Supernova, also featuring fellow South Floridian Ignacio Berroa, was released in July -- had long wanted to take on a full collaboration with Haden. The two initially considered tackling a duet project, and that evolved into a collection of boleros. They exchanged ideas regarding song selection, discovering that they were on the same page, and assembled a pan-American band: Haden, Joe Lovano, and Pat Metheny have roots in the Midwest; Berroa and Rubalcaba were born in Havana; Federico Britos Ruiz, another Miamian, is from Uruguay; and New York saxophonist David Sanchez is a native of Puerto Rico.
The material's appeal, according to several of the musicians on the project, was its flexibility; the pieces, like many of the great standards, lend themselves to interpretation, allowing each artist to make something new from the familiar. Haden's group is positioned particularly well to take advantage of that kind of freedom.
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"I was trying to demonstrate that that music is very open, is there to do anything that you want to do with it," Rubalcaba said. "It's that kind of music that's open all the time to speculate, to move, to create something new every time that you approach it. I think all the members of the group feel the same way -- we get a different result every night."
"The way Charlie plays is so open," noted Sanchez.
Added Haden: "The energy that I enjoy with Gonzalo is that he approaches music with the same urgency to improvise something new that I do. It's the feeling of discovery."