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Various Artists

Live: Meltdown Festival, London, Royal Festival Hall 20/06/2009

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by Ian Mann

July 04, 2009


Tim Owen looks at three concerts at the 2009 Meltdown Festival

Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra

/ The Bad Plus / Get The Blessing
Meltdown Festival,

London, Royal Festival Hall


For their opening set on the penultimate night in the Meltdown series, curated this year by Ornette Coleman, The Bad Plus kept things clean and concise with a six-song set of elegant chamber jazz that, for me anyway, came as a pleasant surprise. The group have obviously distanced themselves by some remove not only from the unconvincing jazz-rock that characterised their initial emergence on the international scene, but also from the more recent rash of piano-led contemporary jazz acts. And yet I remain unconvinced by the band. Their version of Ornette’s Song X was anaemic and I can’t remember one of the originals at all. The closing number, bassist Reid Anderson’s Giant, was much more successful, as it attained a fluency that was missing from the rest of the set. Much more intriguing were the recasting of contemporary compositions by Stravinsky (Variation d’Apollo) and Ligeti (the piano étude Fem, which pianist Ethan Iverson examined with élan,showing real feeling and insight). Both titles are included on the recent ?For All I Care’ album, so I will be giving that disc a chance, despite being left on the night with the same feeling as ever: the Bad Plus are an awesomely gifted band who apparently haven’t yet found a direction that they can commit themselves to with a passion that they can communicate. Hopefully one day they will lay something down which bridges the disconnect I always feel from their music.

For the main set, Charlie Haden led an ad-hoc Liberation Music Orchestra from behind perspex sound baffles - presumably meant to prevent bass interference from Matt Wilson’s similarly isolated drums - from a podium toward the rear of the stage. Carla Bley’s piano was positioned down-stage house left, allowing her to keep an eye on proceedings and occasionally rise for a fleeting conduction of her arrangements. The band included a couple of Americans, but was mainly staffed by a choice pick of British talent. The most significant musician on stage was frequently John Parricelli on electric and acoustic guitar, tirelessly identifying the perfect line or colouration to put a bite or twist of interest into the proceedings; his rapport with Bley was evidently very close. In the horn section, Jason Yarde (alto saxophone) perhaps shone brightest overall, most notably coming to the fore when Ornette failed to show for his guest turn on his own composition, Skies of America. Among a generally over-polite and restrained band, Shabaka Hutchings (tenor saxophone) made the most pugnacious contributions. The twin trumpets of Tom Rees-Roberts and Mike Rodriguez contrasted nicely, both excelling at clarity and restraint, while Jim Rattigan (French Horn), Fayez Virjii (trombone), and Andy Grappy (tuba) invested their every note with substance. The evening began promisingly, but ultimately the orchestra’s potential was to be compromised by distracted leadership from Haden and Bley’s somewhat indifferent arrangements.

The highlight undoubtedly came when Robert Wyatt scooted onstage mid-set to join the orchestra for just two numbers, Silvio Rodriguez’ Rabo de Nube (Tail of a Tornado) and Haden’s own Song for Che, in which Wyatt sang Carlos Puebla’s Hasta Siempre. (Song for Che appeared on the first Liberation Music Orchestra album in 1969, and was subsequently covered by Wyatt on his 1975 album ?Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard’.) I was probably not the only one in the room who had been waiting for this moment with some anticipation, so this interlude alone was worth the price of admission. Appropriately enough, although the ?75 Song was an instrumental with Wyatt on piano, at Meltdown he sang both songs, in Spanish. Tail of a Tornado received a rather stately and restrained reading whereas, although nothing on the night came close to the invigorating looseness of the Liberation debut, Song for Che at least summoned a trace of a memory of its former militancy. 

All of the titles that the orchestra played, except the tracks on which Wyatt guested, are featured on the 2005 Liberation Music Orchestra album ?Not in our Name’. The orchestra started with the title track and moved on to Pat Metheny’s This Is not America, Carla Bley’s Blue Anthem, Amazing Grace, and Goin’ Home from Dvoř?k’s New World Symphony. The last half hour or more of the set was given over to We Shall Overcome and, less predictably, Skies of America. Or at least I think it was Skies, since that’s what Haden announced, but I have to confess that I didn’t recognise it. Haden had been dropping heavy hints that Coleman would be joining the band, but he became distracted and apparently irritable toward the latter stages as word came in that Ornette was still back at his hotel. A degree of stress showed in his fussing over the sound mix and losing sheet music. It didn’t affect his bass playing though. After hissing at Parricelli to drop out of a guitar solo already under way, Haden took a long ruminative solo of his own that bought to mind those eternal Jimmy Garrison interludes on live Coltrane recordings. The solo (as I’m sure were Garrison’s, had I been there to hear them) was a vital reminder of how concise, slyly incisive and utterly unique Haden’s style is. 
Over in the open-to-all ballroom, after the Liberation Music Orchestra set, Get the Blessing took the stage for a blast through some of the highlights from their two albums. They were joined for part of the set by a sometime employer, Portishead’s Adrian Utley, on guitar. If they can persuade him to contribute to a subsequent album we might really hear something special. A female vocalist also added a crucial extra dimension to The Unnameable that’s missing from the album version. Not that the band can’t deliver on their own. Their use of pedal effects to distort their sound electronically and thrust their music in the direction of rock fusion makes the set a crowd pleaser. I don’t expect the noisy, rockist trend in British jazz to last long, but for the moment it’s a blast, and Get The Blessing most comfortably bridge the Jazz/rock divide.

The following night Haden joined Ornette and his drummer son Denardo on stage for the encore of Ornette’s headlining gig, the festival’s closing concert, revisiting Coleman’s seminal Lonely Woman, on which, of course, Haden originally played. Haden displaced the three equally remarkable and distinctive bassists - Tony Faranga, Al McDowell, and Flea (of Cali funk-punk outfit Red Hot Chili Peppers) - who had played the bulk of the set, and yet the reunion of the Coleman/Haden partnership no doubt struck the most luminously perfect note on which to wrap things up; a bittersweet reminder of how well suited the two are and also, inevitably, a taste of what the audience had been denied the night before. At the end of the Liberation Music Orchestra gig Haden ruefully told his audience, “someone out there didn’t want (Skies) to happen. But we love him anyway”, and then coaxed Ornette onstage for a lingering hug and a standing ovation.

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