Yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme included a short feature on the 73 year-old American jazz bassist Charlie Haden. In the interview Haden discussed his musical history and how he had started out singing with his family in the Midwest but after contracting polio had taken up double bass and embraced the church of jazz. There was also talk of his political activities and his arrest by police in Portugal in 1971 just before the revolution there. The feature concluded by saying that Charlie would be performing in London this weekend. True enough, but it failed to mention that he would also be performing with his Quartet West at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival that same night.
St Peter Mancroft’s Church next to Norwich millennium-old Market Place is a wonderful place to hear music, even if its pews are unforgivingly Calvinist. Charlie Haden took the stage more or less on time and after introducing his fellow musicians announced that he hoped we would all be able to see them play in London too as there the band would be accompanied by a female singer or two and perhaps even a string section. He held his new Sophisticated Ladies CD aloft to indicate the 1940s and 50s material they would be performing with the fuller line-up – not here, though. Nothing against the Great American Songbook, female jazz singers or violins but I was quite pleased to hear him say, “Tonight, there’ll just be the four of us. We’ll be playing some beautiful music for you; some old and some new.”
The quartet set off on a series of four tunes, each one with plenty of space for solos. On the first composition Haden’s bass seemed a little lost and meandering, as if he could not quite find his way, but I sensed that it was a sort of practice lap for muscle memory as he tried out different progressions and constantly readjusted his tuning. By the fourth song of the sequence, the gorgeous First Song (For Ruth), he was really in his stride, playing a beautifully developed and poignant solo before handing over the creative reins to tenor man Ernie West. West, whom I have since learned was responsible for providing solo saxophone on many of Marvin Gaye’s 1970s recordings, has an impeccable technique, enviable musicality and what appears to be enormous stamina. A genial, gentle-looking man who seems able to breath through his ears, West moulded clusters of quicksilver notes into a procession of aural sculptures, each one rising like bubbles to float up to the hammerbeam roof and make the wooden angels on the mediaeval frieze smile. It was also around this time that the sun must have set outside, lighting up the sandstone pillars and high clerestory windows with a warm golden glow that seemed to give approval to the music rising from the nave. Fifteenth-century English Perpendicular architecture and 21st-century American music go surprisingly well together.
During a break to talk to the audience Haden announced that they would be playing something he had first recorded in 1957. “1957!”, he exclaimed, “Why, that’s way back in the 20th-century!” He was wrong in fact, by my reckoning Lonely Women was actually recorded with Ornette Coleman in 1959 and released on the iconoclastically modal (and prescient) The Shape of Jazz to Come, but why quibble? An angularly dark musical refrain led into more wonderful slow-cooked solos, from Haden, West and pianist Alan Broadbent, while new drummer Rodney Green kept time in the same sensitive and understated way he had been doing all evening.Ten, maybe fifteen, minutes elapsed before some sort of natural conclusion was arrived at. The audience, almost in shock, erupted into thunderous applause.
An encore was maybe too much to hope for but musicians that play in churches have nowhere to hide. “Thank you for listening so carefully. You’re good listeners; you’re an audience with good ears,” said Haden, genuinely moved. A lengthy, heart-aching Blue in Green ended the evening. More beatific tenor saxophone, more bass solos that sounded more like compositions in the making than mere exercises in dexterity, more lush piano that on occasions hinted at Bill Evans and at other times, Keith Jarrett without the self-importance. More rapturous applause. Haden was right: we did have good ears.