Charlie Haden & Liberation Music Orchestra: Not in Our Name

Recreating the iconic look of the group's 1969 debut, the cover photo of Not In Our Name shows Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra assembled below a banner—a clever if none-too-subtle way of affirming that, while the personnel may have changed (only Haden and collaborator Carla Bley remain from the original ensemble), the project remains committed to its originating, politically-fueled principles. Still, while there are similarities between the latest work and its precursors, there are critical differences: in place of Venezuelan and Spanish Civil War traditionals, the new album focuses almost exclusively on the work of American composers; and, whereas past LMO albums exude a spirit of fiery iconoclasm, Not In Our Name is alternately celebratory and elegiac, with Haden paying tribute to America while also lamenting the reigning administration's mode of governance.

The principals contribute a single composition apiece. Haden's title song initiates the album in a Spanish folk style before heading off into a breezy bop universe while Bley's “Blue Anthem” is both a ballad showcase for tenor sax and a funeral march. Haden honours the work of guitarists Bill Frisell with a cover of the ponderous “Throughout” and Pat Metheny whose “This Is Not America” (included on The Falcon and the Snowman soundtrack and featuring a memorable vocal by David Bowie) is given a lilting reggae treatment, the bassist and drummer Matt Wilson funkily navigating the rhythms as if Jamaica-born. The elegant themes in “Goin' Home,” an interpretation of the “Largo” movement from Dvorak's 9th ('New World') Symphony, are realized in dignified manner by Bley's gorgeous horn arrangement. As in the past, a suite (this time the seventeen-minute “America the Beautiful (Medley)”) occupies a substantial portion of the recording. The title classic is presented in two incarnations, the familiar 1882 setting by Samuel Augustus Ward and Gary McFarland's late-‘60s version, with the suite culminating in a raucous version of Ornette Coleman's 1972 “Skies of America.”

There's much to applaud and very little to dislike. A drum solo threatens to kill the momentum midway through the suite but the moment passes quickly. And while detractors might bemoan the selection of warhorses like “Amazing Grace” (given a gospel, New Orleans-styled treatment with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes braying over the changes) and Samuel Barber's “Adagio” (from Adagio For Strings), the awesome crescendo the band reaches in the latter induces enough chills to silence the grumpiest critic. Not surprisingly, the horn players acquit themselves laudably throughout, whether soloing passionately or uniting in polyphonic splendour. By restricting their geographical and political focus on Not In Our Name, Haden and company deliver music that may be stylistically less 'global' in character yet remains compelling nonetheless.

September 2005