Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra: Time / Life - Song for the Whales and Other Beings
Impulse!/ Verve

Time / Life - Song for the Whales and Other Beings is an invaluable document for the simple reason that it includes superb renderings of Miles Davis's “Blue In Green” and Charlie Haden's “Song for the Whales” (the latter earlier heard on Old And New Dreams' self-titled 1979 release) the late bassist gave with his Liberation Music Orchestra at the Jazz Middelheim Festival in Antwerp, Belgium on August 15, 2011. Those live tracks frame studio recordings overseen by LMO co-leader Carla Bley with the Liberation Music Orchestra and Steve Swallow in the bass chair; interestingly, the three pieces were laid down the day after the LMO performed at a memorial service for Haden in January 2015. As indicated by the inclusion of “Song for the Whales” and “Silent Spring,” a Bley composition from the ‘60s titled after Rachel Carson's famous tome, a theme centering on environmental crisis permeates the album, which was co-produced by Bley and Ruth Cameron, Haden's widow.

With “Blue In Green” having been covered so many times, musicians must grapple with the challenge of overcoming such familiarity. Yet by performing the piece with such heartfelt passion and conviction, Haden and company breathe powerful life into Davis's Kind of Blue classic. The bassist contributes a beautiful, characteristically Haden-esque solo to the performance that's equaled by a smokey turn by tenor saxist Chris Cheek and an intensely lyrical one by trumpeter Michael Rodriguez; having those luscious LMO horn textures appear in such plentiful manner doesn't hurt either. In the other live piece, Haden's bass, effectively simulating a whale's vocalizations, groans throughout the opening minutes of “Song For the Whales” until drummer Matt Wilson enters at a rapid clip that contrasts dramatically with the slow, plaintive expressions of the others; one could be forgiven for drawing a strong connection between Ornette's “Lonely Woman” and Haden's tune when the structural and tonal similarities are so strong.

A requiem Bley composed after learning of Haden's passing, “Time / Life” is suitably ruminative and wistful, and manages to retain its tone even when every member, it seems, takes a solo turn, perhaps a generous gesture on Bley's part to grant each LMO member an opportunity to individually memorialize Haden. Joined by guitarist Steve Cardenas, Swallow distinguishes himself with a fine introduction to the sombre “Silent Spring,” which Cheek and Rodriguez again elevate with solo contributions, the trumpeter captured in full flight with the group's harmonies soaring behind him. Still, as compelling as the performances of “Time / Life” and “Silent Spring” are, it's Bley's majestic “Útviklingssang” that's the most satisfying, especially when the LMO, amplified by solos by alto saxist Loren Stillman and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, gives the magnificently mournful setting such a deep reading. Thirty-five years after it graced Social Studies, Bley's wonderful 1981 release, “Útviklingssang” has timeless classic written over it.

Yet as satisfying as the performances are, the album itself isn't wholly satisfying, the simple reason being that only the live tracks feel like 100% authentic LMO recordings: with Swallow subbing for Haden, the studio performances feel less like Liberation Music Orchestra recordings and more like ones by The Carla Bley Band, even if they're indubitably sincere homages. Further to that, the live material exudes a high energy, explosively so during tenor saxist Tony Malaby's spotlight on “Song For the Whales,” that's noticeably more charged than the comparatively reserved studio recordings. As a result, the album doesn't quite come together as a unified, fully cohesive statement, even though there's clearly nothing objectionable about its component parts.

December 2016