Once the initial trauma wore off, those left shaken by the 2016 election were left to oscillate between two extremes: sublimation in everyday ignorance versus mobilizing a robust public response. The latter is clearly urgently needed. Whether the Winter Jazzfest organizers’ choice to invite Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra to be a featured artist at this year’s festival was pointedly political or not, the long-running ensemble stood as a testament to how we can fuse beauty with anger.
Charlie Haden, who passed in 2014, formed the Liberation Music Orchestra in 1969 for an eponymous album that stands today as a fiery document of politicized, internationalist jazz. While the peerless bassist worked with a range of collaborators and groups over his half-century-plus of deeply-felt trailblazing, he would revisit the LMO about once a decade to respond to the particular injustice of the day, directing his ire variously towards U.S. intervention in foreign lands or impending environmental ruin. His indispensable partner on this project from the beginning was the composer/arranger/keyboardist Carla Bley, whose inclination towards dense harmony meshed well with Haden’s own. Together, they fostered an aesthetic vision of how to examine the complex inner life of America’s diverse political culture.
Bley has carved out a place for herself in the history of jazz as a musical eccentric and gifted orchestrator. While her music will sometimes call to mind Charles Mingus’s harmonic/rhythmic elasticity or Gil Evans’s moody beds of brass, I believe the real root of Bley’s approach lies with early 20th-century composer Charles Ives. Arguably America’s first musical modernist, Ives’s penchant for patriotic marches marred by chaotic simultaneity and discord was gloriously introduced to the musics of the European proletariat, the Spanish Civil War, Latin America, and elsewhere via Haden’s song selections and Bley’s mordant arrangements.
The Liberation Music Orchestra’s appearance at (le) poisson rouge featured a twelve-piece lineup of the ensemble that, by and large, was first assembled on record with the 2005 album Not in Our Name. One regrets that Andrew Cyrille, the Winter Jazzfest’s artist-in-residence and the drummer on LMO’s debut album, wasn’t on the bandstand. Bley was absent as well, but the role of pianist was well-filled by Geri Allen, who is no stranger to Haden’s music, having previously sat in with the LMO in 1989 on the Montreal Tapes record.
The LMO never shied away from including dirges in its repertoire, and the ten-song set showcased a group refusing to wear a smile with inauguration day quickly approaching. The grim “Silent Spring,” from the 2016 album Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings), exemplified the group’s uncanny capacity to dial in their chosen mood. Beginning in a lugubrious waltz with unnervingly close harmonies from the brass and an understated solo from tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek, the multi-sectional composition briefly raised a fist with a stately horn fanfare, then launched into simmering mid-tempo swing. Trumpet player Michael Rodriguez then ushered the group through an ascending, increasingly discordant rave-up.
While it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the group will never again approach the sheer intensity of its début album, the LMO still manages to pull off a commendable balance between conventional large-ensemble jazz and more adventurous material. This is due in no small part to the presence of diverse performers including Tony Malaby, whose pugilistic, harmolodic tenor playing on “Amazing Grace” served to offset the boppish curlicues of melody peeled off by alto saxophonist Loren Stillman. In the brass section, French hornist and Sun Ra Arkestra member Vincent Chancey offered experience in the outer capabilities of large ensembles alongside the earthy playing of trombonist Curtis Fowlkes. Meanwhile, Earl McIntyre on tuba pulled off some of the highest notes I’ve ever heard emerge from the big horn.
The funereal quality of pieces like “Silent Spring” or “Song for the Whales,” alongside Bley’s frequent allusions to America’s patriotic songbook, rarely allowed the listener’s mind to stray too far outside our current political moment. When a parodic lick of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” made an unlikely appearance towards the end of an already-unlikely reggae take on the David Bowie/Pat Metheny tune “This Is Not America,” its jingoistic absurdity elicited laughs from the crowd. For me, it served to recall a one-time political joke that we all laughed at until it was too late.
Bley has spoken in the past about her tendency to embed “sour notes […] mean notes […] and out-of-tune notes” in the LMO’s folk-derived material. However, she insisted, “it’s not patriotic—it’s anti-patriotic. It’s complaining about the United States—how embarrassed we are, and how we’re trying to change it.” But it’s hard to read the material as strictly indulging in gallows humor or implicit criticism, and I don’t think that’s just because of indoctrinated emotionalism. The legacy of this music is one of deep care and urgent concern, the source of which could only be a love of country, of humanity at large. When the group closed with their classic arrangement of “We Shall Overcome,” the whole history of the Liberation Music Orchestra, its many members and causes, and its wider musical context all collapsed into the present moment, and the feeling wasn’t so much disgrace as the very opposite. And that moment represented an actual and authentic argument for America’s genuine greatness, in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.