Liberation Music Orchestra

Review by John L. Walters

EFG London Jazz Festival
Cadogan Hall, London

Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra was a product of the cultural moment outlined in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s current exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. The Liberation Music Orchestra forged a musical and cultural link between the unrest of that time – including anti-Vietnam war protests and the 1968 événements of Paris – and songs of resistance from the Spanish Civil war of 1936. For the original Liberation Music Orchestra album on the Impulse! label, Haden recruited Carla Bley – the most adventurous and far-seeing young composer on the New York jazz scene. The fruits of their collaboration, which lasted until Haden’s death in 2014, can be heard across five studio albums: Liberation Music Orchestra (1969), Ballad of the Fallen (1983), Dream Keeper (1990), Not In Our Name (2004) and Time/Life (2016).

Bley, now 80, led from the piano, in charge of a line-up* similar to the one on Not In My Name and Time/Life, with empathetic drummer Matt Wilson and guitarist Steve Cardenas. Bassist Darek Oles had the challenge of stepping into Haden’s sensible shoes. Bley is now the last link with the line-up of the original album. Many of the key musicians involved in the original project no longer with us, such as Gato Barbieri, who died earlier this year, Don Cherry (1936-95), Paul Motian (1931-2011) and remarkable guitarist Sam Brown (1939–77).

What made the Liberation Music Orchestra different from a Carla Bley band was Haden’s commitment to presenting songs of resistance, national pride, independence and protest, and marrying them to a downtown ‘new thing’ jazz sensibility. When they play a medley bookended by America the Beautiful, they make a new kind of ‘American beauty’, implying that that the United States could be beautiful if only good people prevailed. Samuel A. Ward’s august tune, rearranged and transformed through vinegary voicings and dissonances, moved smoothly into Gary McFarland’s work of the same name, followed by Lift Every Voice and Sing (often called the ‘Black National Anthem’) and Ornette Coleman’s weirdly magisterial Skies of America before returning to Ward’s patriotic anthem. In the slipstream of the US election, it was a heartbreaking reminder of that nation’s potential for good.

The Liberation Music Orchestra at their Cadogan Hall soundcheck (Photo © Paul Wood/Jazz Images)

The Liberation Music Orchestra at their Cadogan Hall soundcheck (Photo © Paul Wood/Jazz Images)

Though this is an orchestra that is emphatically greater than the sum of its parts, there were many strong solos. Trumpeters Michael Rodriguez and Seneca Black, were terrific, as were Vincent Chancey (French Horn) and Earl McIntyre (tuba). And Marshall Gilkes could convincingly add a Woody Guthrie-style ‘this machine kills fascists’ sticker to his trombone. All the songs came from the LMO’s last two albums: Not In Our Name, their response to the ill-advised allied intervention in Iraq, and Time/Life, completed this year after Haden’s death. The set list included Silent Spring, a deeply groovy version of Amazing Grace (with Gilkes on explosive form), Song For The Whales and Bill Frisell’s Throughout as an encore.

Haden and Bley’s achievement over the years is to have made beautiful music out of a howl of protest. Few things that I’ve heard recently have been more glorious than their sublime rendition of Blue In Green, which sounded both contemporary and like a long-lost track from Miles Ahead by Gil Evans and Miles Davis. In the sleeve notes to the original Liberation Music Orchestra, Charlie Haden wrote: ‘The music in this album is dedicated to creating a better world; a world without war and killing, without poverty and exploitation; a world where men of all governments realise the vital importance of life and strive to protect rather than to destroy it. We hope to see a new society of enlightenment and wisdom where creative thought becomes the most dominant force in all people’s lives.’ In these strange days, we need more people like Charlie Haden.

© 2016 John L. Walters

* Line-up

Carla Bley (piano, conductor)
Tony Malaby (saxophone)
Chris Cheek (saxophone)
Loren Stillman (saxophone)
Michael Rodriguez (trumpet)
Seneca Black (trumpet)
Vincent Chancey (French horn)
Marshall Gilkes (trombone)
Earl McIntyre (tuba)
Steve Cardenas (guitar)
Darek Oles (bass)
Matt Wilson (drums)

  • Live broadcast on Jazz Now is HERE.
  • Charlie Haden’s website is HERE.
  • Liberation Music Orchestra is HERE.
  • Vincent Chancey is HERE.
  • You Say You Want A Revolution is HERE.

Set list
Blue in Green (from Time/Life)
Not In Our Name (from Not In Our Name)
Time/Life (from Time/Life)
Silent Spring (from Time/Life)
America The Beautiful (from Not In Our Name)
Amazing Grace (from Not In Our Name)
Song for the Whale (from Time/Life)
Throughout (from Not In Our Name)

Categories: Live review

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1 reply

  1. A fine and thoughtful review, John, of a historically vital band at a historically crucial moment. Thanks. Maybe Charlie Haden saw all this coming in 1969, but (dishearteningly maybe) the LMO’s importance and relevance only seem to be increasing.

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