Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins

[Jonathan Mayhew's post about under-rated jazzmen led me back to this review I wrote in 1996 of a concert by Charlie Haden.]


Komoedie, Theater Basel, March 6, 1996
Charlie Haden -- bass
Ernie Watts -- tenor saxophone
Alan Broadbent -- piano
Lawrence Marable -- drums

I had already seen Charlie Haden's Quartet West twice before, once in San Francisco in the late 1980s and once in Berlin at the Berlin Jazz Festival a few years later. Of these two concerts, only one memory remained in my mind: in San Francisco, Billy Higgins (then the drummer in the quartet) was late to the concert because the airline had lost his drum set. When he arrived before the replacement drum set the Great American Music Hall management had ordered for him, Higgins took out his brushes and played accompaniment and a solo on one of the leather-topped chairs at the GAMH. This delicious event sped up the relaxation process which is so important in listening to jazz: the audience's laughter and Higgin's visible pleasure in his skills brought everyone into the proper frame of mind right at the beginning of the show, one usually only found somewhere in the middle of the second set, if at all.

Since then, Lawrence Marable has replaced Higgins in Haden's band, but Ernie Watts still plays the tenor sax, and Alan Broadbent is still on piano. By now I no longer associate Watts exclusively with his studio recording career: he proves again and again with Quartet West that he is a superb "jazz" saxophonist. While not a completely magnificent superstar like Higgins, Marable is a lively and humorous drummer with great rhythmic feel, which becomes especially clear in his swinging solos. However, until last night, Broadbent always seemed out of place in this band to me. His soloing and comping was always merely lush and sentimental, even schlocky; the nostalgic quality his playing shared with Haden and Watts, especially in tone, did not have Haden's folkiness or Watts' occasional dissonance to spice it up. Well, either he has improved considerably since Berlin, or I began to pay more attention to him, or both: in Basel, Broadbent stole the show from the other players.

As usual for him, Haden listed the songs in the sets before each set began. The compositions were all by Charlie Parker, Haden, or Broadbent; each set opened with a Parker tune, the first with a version of "Passport." This mid-to-up tempo performance was nothing spectacular, but it was a nice opening of the show, and it did contain the first hints of an Allen Broadbent night, as his solo closed with a beautiful chordal development of a simple phrase through several repetitions. This made me sit up; just as a spontaneous "ah" came out of me, the solo came to an end. It was then that I began to pay more attention to Broadbent's playing.

In the course of the rest of the set, my attention was more than satisfied. The band played three Haden tunes, "Hello, My Lovely," "Child's Play," and "First Song," and in each of them Broadbent's playing became denser and more fascinating. In "Hello, My Lovely," his lush introduction slowly introduced fragments of Haden's melody (very reminiscent of some Christmas song whose name escapes me), surrounding the mid-range melodies with flurries of high and low notes. In his solo, Broadbent began to detach his hands from each other, the left hand occasionally taking over the melody while the right played chords in the form of rapid arpeggios. In "Child's Play," which most will remember because of a magnificent solo by Marable, I was most struck by Broadbent's brief solo, in which the independence of left and right hand became even clearer, with the roles of melody and harmony less and less defined. This anticipated his solo in "First Song," where his two hands really played something more like a duet than a solo, passing around the lead, and often interweaving two interdependent melodic lines out of widely separated octaves. Here again, Broadbent stole the show for me from a show-stopping solo by one of his comrades: Ernie Watts closed the piece with a superb soliloquy, featuring a wonderful "spontaneous composition" of a bluesy/beboppy song structure (quite in contrast to the feel of Haden's sweet ballad), culminating in sustained overtone effects -- but Broadbent's solo still was the highlight of the piece.

It was the independence of Broadbent's two hands which struck me in the first set, and he continued to take full advantage of all ten fingers in the second set. However, he did not steal the show in each song as he had in the first set. In the opener, Parker's "Visa" (one I had not heard of before), Haden played a long solo, working, as is his wont, on a small melodic figure, worrying it until it gave out all of its secrets and became one with the voice of his bass. (If this sounds melodramatic -- well, there is often a melodramatic feeling to Haden's playing.) Haden's "Always Say Goodbye" followed; here, Broadbent played a fine solo striking in its simplicity: right-hand melody with quiet chordal accompaniment. Then, Haden played a magnificent solo, very short, introducing a melodic phrase reminiscent of "I Only Have Eyes for You" and varying it ever so slightly over a brief period. This solo had that folky, back-porch feel which makes Haden's playing so special, something which came out so beautifully in his records with Jan Garbarek and Egberto Gismonti.

If the first two songs of the second set belonged to Haden, the third, "The Long Goodbye," was all Broadbent, which is fitting, as he wrote it. Broadbent began unaccompanied, playing an endless and endlessly interesting four-part soliloquy. To me, given how I had been listening to him throughout the concert, it seemed like "variations on handedness": first, the melody was in the right hand and the arpeggios in the left; then the two hands reversed roles. In the third part, the longest passage of the introduction, Broadbent ran arpeggios up and down the keyboard, a swirling thunder which combined the lushness which his playing always features with an edginess I had not heard in his work before. Finally, he slipped through a rapid diminuendo into a slow two-chord figure with pretty right-hand melodies; this evolved into the head when Watts and the band entered after a time. But first, Broadbent seemed to confirm my interest in his "handedness": while playing the two-chord figure in the mid-range with his left hand, he ever so briefly ran the melody with his right hand down lower than the continuing left-hand figure. This otherwise minor technical gesture took on new meaning at the end of a solo in which Broadbent's two hands had each played all the roles a pianist's hands can play, to the point of completely throwing any division of labor between the hands out the window. After the head, Broadbent proceeded to play another, accompanied solo over the head, extending and developing the right-hand melodies which had closed the introduction. As if that were not enough, the piece also featured an unaccompanied coda in which Broadbent returned to the thundering arpeggios of the third part of the introduction. I suspect there is a nice studio recording of this piece somewhere; I hope that Haden puts out a live version soon.

The set closed with Parker's "Segment," with a slightly boogie-woogie feel to it. The highlight here was a superb Haden solo in which he walked through the whole solo, with Marable dropping *very* occasional cymbal effects in. Watts was also striking with a solo full of "sheets of sound." There was then a nice, unannounced ballad for the encore.

If the second set did feature some superb Haden solos, the highlight of the night for me was my discovery of Broadbent, whose playing had never impressed me before. While I was always aware of his technical skill, I had never heard any musical tension in what he played. I am happy to say that I stand corrected: Broadbent has developed into a powerful and varied piano player, still as lush as ever, but now with a bite that was not there before.

Date: Tue, 12 Mar 1996 10:13:07 -0800
From: Lee Brenkman
Subject: Re: Charlie Haden in Basel


Thanks for reviving one of my fondest memories. I was the sound man/stage manager and, at the time of the Quartet West show, the talent booker at the Great American Music Hall.

Actually the airline hadn't lost Billy's drums they had already loaded them on the plane he was to have taken from Burbank when they found something wrong with the plane and bumped all the passengers to the next flight. Billy got on that plane not knowing that his drums were still in the cargo hold of the original plane.

He called me from the airport at about 7:15pm when he found out that he had the cymbals he had carried on the flight, but no drums. I told him to jump in a cab and I would get him some drums.

As it was a weekend evening all of the equipment rental places and drum shops were already closed . All of the jazz drummers I knew with extra sets were already at or on the way to gigs. One of them gave me the number of a student of theirs who agreed to bring his set over for Billy to play.

As you recall in your post, Billy started out playing "chair" with brushes and we added two of his cymbals on a couple of stands I had at the club. When the young man arrived with the loaner set we started setting them up alongside the stage. I began with the basics, the snare and hi hat while the young man took drums out of the cases.

Beggars can't be choosers but it turns out that this was a real rock 'n roll set. Billy was amused when I took a 22" bass drum with a hole in the front head and a pillow inside on stage, but he really cracked up when the young drummer walked out with a rack with THREE big rack toms on it. Billy smiled sweetly and pointed at the largest two drums and said "thanks but I don't need those". Al of this taking place while the Quartet was playing.

Our young friend was amazed at what Billy could do with just a few drums. Billy was a real gent about the whole thing, and Charlie, one of the most "nervous" leaders I know finally calmed down enough to play a couple of beautiful sets.

Quartet West remains my favorite setting for Charlie Haden and easily the best encouragement of Ernie Watts' jazz instincts.

Lee Brenkman


Matthew Thorburn said...

Glad to read your memories of Charlie Haden and especially the story about Billy Higgins. I heard Haden play a set of duets with Kenny Barron a few years back at the Blue Note here in NY. I also heard him a year or two after that, on a double bill at Carnegie Hall with Ornette Coleman -- though I'd much rather have heard them play *together* rather than just on the same night....

Andrew Shields said...

I head Charlie with Kenny Barron, too. I think it was on a double bill with Haden and Pat Metheny. The Haden-Metheny show was quite strange: five years after "Beyond the Missouri Sky," they basically played the album, plus some Ornette tunes.

jazzylover59 said...

Hi Andrew,

Wow! What a review! How do you remember all that after the concert is over? Even though you may takes notes, which I would think would take away from the enjoyment of the music...I have to videotape my daughter playing piano, and she asks me to get her friends singing and playing too, and it takes away from me enjoying her...

sonow my questionis...have you discovered a recording with Alan Broadbent since then that comes close to this experience of his playing? I want to have my daughter read your description and then experience Alan's playing from a recording.

Let me know about a recording you know of.

You should be a contributor to AAJ every once in awhile. Seriously, you write wonderfully!

Kandie Webster / jazzylover59

Andrew Shields said...

At that show, I think I took notes during the songs (I was experimenting with that at the time); these days, I might take notes between songs (as at the Holland) or just compose lines in my head (as at the Carter-Malone-Miller). In the latter case, it is very helpful to compose in blank verse, as that helps me remember things.