Liberation Music Orchestra @ Cadogan Hall. EFG London Jazz Festival – November 20
(Review by Peter Jones).
Who are the Liberation Orchestra, and why do they exist? Well, there’s currently 12 of them, and their full name supplies at least a clue to their origins: the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra has been going since 1969. From the outset, the late bassist and composer worked with pianist, composer and arranger Carla Bley, with the idea that jazz could be used to highlight social and political abuses around the world.
Introduced by Haden’s widow Ruth Cameron, this EFG London Jazz Festival gig featured material taken largely from their wonderful new album Time/Life – the last one to which Haden himself contributed. You might have expected some anguished speeches about recent events in the USA. In fact no mention was made, nor did it need to be: as they trooped on stage they looked less like an orchestra than the shell-shocked remnants of a defeated army. After all, every principle they have ever stood for or made albums about – human rights, political freedom, the environment, an end to poverty – is about to be trashed on their own doorstep.
What was left to do but simply play music? They began, as the album begins, with Blue In Green, the frail-looking 80-year-old Bley sketching patterns in the air to cue the band. The Davis/Evans composition is a perfect choice for this ensemble: with its unusual 10-bar structure, it feels somehow infinite because it never resolves musically and your ears can’t tell where one chorus ends and the next begins. Time/Life, the album’s title track, is typical of the Orchestra: Matt Wilson’s bleak military snare drum was followed by a long, mournful tenor solo by Tony Malaby, and then there was a gradual build-up with French horn, tuba, trombone and trumpets joining in one by one to create waves of brass on an ever-ascending chord sequence.
In the circumstances, playing America The Beautiful might seem provocative. However, it was an idea of Haden’s to use patriotic corn like this in conjunction with songs like We Shall Overcome. Context is all. In truth, America The Beautifuldidn’t always sound so beautiful (maybe it should be re-titled America the Post-Factual). It sounded dark and uneasy to begin with, as Wilson rapped out a funeral march, with some nice trumpet from Seneca Black, followed by a traditional waltz-time rendition of the tune. Earl McBride’s tuba then coughed into life and played a somewhat comical solo, which had the effect of making everyone on stage smile and relax for the first time in the evening. The tune continued with a discordant harmonic sequence, out of which emerged a more tuneful final chorus.
This was a potentially tough gig for Oles, having to replace Haden on the bass, but he responded magnificently, with a number of solo spots, particularly the impressionistic intro to Song for the Whales.
The Orchestra has survived the departure of Charlie Haden. One hopes very much that it will survive the eventual departure of Carla Bley. If we never needed it before, we sure do need it now.
Vincent Chancey (French horn), Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone) Earl McBride (tuba), Seneca Black (trumpet), Michael Rodriguez (trumpet), Loren Stillman (alto saxophone), Chris Cheek (tenor saxophone), Marshall Gilkes (trombone), Steve Cardenas (guitar), Matt Wilson (drums), Carla Bley (piano), Darak Oles (double bass)