Monday, September 22, 2008

Charlie Haden Returns To His Bluegrass Roots

From NPR's Weekend Edition:

During radio's Golden Age, live country and bluegrass shows were popular from coast to coast. Back then, listeners to KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, might have tuned in to hear the Haden Family Band. Charles Edward Haden stole the show as the 2-year-old yodeling cowboy.

Charlie Haden's singing career lasted only until his teens, when he was stricken with a strain of polio that affected his vocal cords. But with music coursing through his veins, he went on to become one of the jazz world's most sought-after bassists and composers. He played with Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane and Ringo Starr, and has been a longtime collaborator with guitarist Pat Metheny.

But the bluegrass music of his youth was an irresistible siren song. So now, with his son Josh and his triplet daughters (Petra, Tanya and Rachel), he's made the recording that's been on his mind for years:
Rambling Boy.


It seems to be a little-known fact that Tanya Haden's husband is actor and comedian Jack Black, star of movies such as Tropic Thunder, School of Rock and High Fidelity. He sings "Old Joe Clark" on Rambling Boy. He's mostly known for his rock 'n' roll persona — and recordings with Tenacious D — but here takes on bluegrass music.

"I was nervous about it," Black says. "But once I got into the studio and Charlie taught me the melody line and the lyrics, something took over my body, and I felt like I was transported to another time."

Click here to listen to the interview, complete with cool bluegrass tunes.

To this day, I continue to be stunned by a tiny bit of information I picked up a few years ago watching Ken Burns' PBS miniseries Jazz: when sax player Ornette Coleman was inventing what would later be called free jazz in the late 1950s, he hired a bass player from the Grand Ole Opry to become one of his faithful sidemen, Charlie Haden. I was like, the Grand Ole Opry? The Grand Ole Opry?!? What the fuck? I mean, okay, I totally dig classic country and all, but you just can't get further apart than free jazz and Minnie Pearl. Fucking wow.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not at all a fan of free jazz. Call me old school, but I tend to enjoy musical dissonance only when it is in strong juxtaposition to musical assonance. That is, without some accompanying musical structure, you know, chords, scales, themes and motifs, that kind of thing, dissonance is simply annoying noise. I'm fully aware that thousands of music snobs worldwide disagree with me, but fuck 'em. This is like "The Emperor's New Clothes"; they're full of shit no matter how many five dollar words they use to make their shit taste yummy.

But enough of that. Haden eventually moved on to more musically sounding music, and his collaborations with Pat Metheny are fun. I'm not a fan, but I respect his work and position in jazz history. And, of course, I'm still weirded out, in an entirely good way, by his down home beginnings. That's what makes his return to his roots so interesting. This isn't the greatest bluegrass I've ever heard, but it's good, and weird given its pedigree.

Somehow the addition of talented professional weirdo Jack Black to the mix makes perfect sense.

Go check it out; it's well worth the fifteen minutes the piece runs.