The Troy Street Observer

The Liberation Music Orchestra Comes to Cambridge

Photo of Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden: Who needs an axe?

There are many ways to describe the bassist and bandleader Charlie Haden, who died in July 2014, among them influential, restless, innovative and musically beyond category. He was a musician of many personas, and one of them, his political persona, was on display on Jan 19, 1990, when he brought his Liberation Music Orchestra to the Charles Hotel Ballroom in Cambridge. I was reminded of this concert when I read the reviews of the Jan 13, 2015 Haden Tribute, at Town Hall in New York, that were written by Ben Ratliff and Charles Gans.

Charlie Haden performed in Boston many times and in many configurations over a span of 50 years, beginning with Ornette Coleman’s Quartet at Storyville in 1960. The engagement at the Charles Hotel was the Liberation Music Orchestra’s first trip to Boston, and we were fortunate to see the band at all.

“The only places we’ve played in the States are Los Angeles, Chicago and New York,” Haden told the Globe’s Fernando Gonzalez. “It’s really difficult to move 12 people around. We are trying to figure out a way to tour. In Europe you’ve got subsidies, but in the States is really difficult.”

Perhaps Blue Note Records subsidized this show to promote Dream Keeper, the LMO’s third recording, soon to be released by that label. (Its first, Liberation Music Orchestra, was released in 1969 and its second, The Ballad of the Fallen, in 1982.)

The Liberation Music Orchestra has been described as an avant-garde marching band, and as big-band world music, but as its name suggests, its musical force derived from Haden’s left-leaning sentiments.

“The music of this group has always been about everyone’s, especially my, feelings about what is going on in the world,” Haden told Gonzalez. “Most of the music we are playing comes from a political feeling.” And indeed, the music on the first two recordings was associated with or inspired by popular fronts across the world—the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, the Chilean resistance to Pinochet, the Portuguese soldiers whose rebellion brought down Salazar, the anti-war activists beaten in the streets of Chicago.

Dream Keeper would continue this pattern. Compositions, many of which were played in Cambridge, included “Spiritual,” an homage to the work of Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcom X; “Sandino,” named for Augusto Cesar Sandino, who gave his name to the Nicaraguan resistance movement; and “Nkosi Sikel’l Afrika,” the anthem of the African National Congress, and a tribute to Nelson Mandela, a prisoner for 27 years. (Mandela was freed from jail in South Africa on February 11, three weeks after the Cambridge concert.)

Although Haden constantly collected music from all over the world to work into the Liberation Music Orchestra’s repertoire, it was not a regular working band. Rather, Haden brought it to life at the end of each decade to relieve his internal pressure valve, to be his musical resistance to the repression and corruption he saw in the world around him. He was never short of subjects. Wrote Gonzalez: “There’s always material available for someone who’s looking to turn anger over racism, injustice and the stupidity of political and military leaders into music.”

Photo of Haden and Bley
Charlie and Carla, undated. Photo by Thomas Horn.

When it did gather, the LMO was never less than an all-star aggregation. It might have 10 members, or 12, or 14, and the players were always changing. The mainstays, though, were arranger, conductor, and sometimes pianist Carla Bley—the band was as much Bley’s work as Haden’s—saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Paul Motian.

Numerous musicians with ties to Boston passed through the LMO’s ranks, including saxophonists Makanda Ken McIntyre and Joe Lovano, trumpeter Stanton Davis, trombonists Jack Jeffers and Gary Valente, pianist James Williams, and guitarist Mick Goodrick.

All of which brings us back to the Cambridge concert. Attendees certainly judged it to be a success (I was one), but the Globe’s Paul Robicheau was a bit more reserved in his review. He found Bley’s arrangements to be “segregated into a somewhat stiff, conservative theme-solo format, though the ethnic diversity of the material and deftness of the musicians finally took the music to majestic peaks.” Robicheau recognized the fine work of McIntyre, Motian, trombonist Ray Anderson, pianist Amina Claudine Myers and the leader himself, noting that throughout the evening, “Haden tilted and rocked his acoustic bass like a passionate dancer, tethered only by his eyes on the sheet music.”

The Cambridge concert opened with “Nkosi Sikel’l Afrika,” from Dream Keeper. Here is the Liberation Music Orchestra performing it in concert in Montreal, with a bit of that avant-garde marching band oomph. The star soloist is Dewey Redman, pushed by the relentless rhythm of Haden and Motian.

The Liberation Music Orchestra returned to Boston only once, in March 1993, for a concert at the Somerville Theatre. And there would be one more recording in 2005, Not in Our Name, Haden’s response to the U.S. conduct in Iraq. Again, Charlie Haden had to speak out. (Nate Chinen, in his Haden obituary, noted that all four recordings were released during Republican administrations.)

At the Town Hall concert, Bley led the Liberation Music Orchestra, with Steve Swallow on bass, in Haden’s “Silence,” from The Ballad of the Fallen, followed by “Amazing Grace” and finally “We Shall Overcome.”

Here first is “Silence” from a 1989 Montreal concert, followed by the brief rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” which closed both first Liberation Music Orchestra LP in 1969 and the tribute concert 45 years later. I doubt the Liberation Music Orchestra will ever take the stage again.

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