Thursday, October 16, 2008

Charlie Haden Rambles, In a Good Way

Charlie Haden's new "Rambling Boy" will probably come as a surprise to those who know him purely from his famous work in the free jazz idiom or from his more recent (somewhat smooth) collaborative work with the likes of Pat Metheny or Gonzalo Rubacalba. Metheny shows up on "Rambling Boy-" the record is actually not credited to Charlie Haden but to Charlie Haden Family and Friends- as does everyone from Elvis Costello (A friend of Haden's) to Jack Black (Haden's son-in-law). Oh yeah, and it's an old-school country blue-grass album in the vein of The Carter Family or, on faster tracks, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys.

In a career full of random shifts and curveballs (Haden's first and most famous recording features a free jazz orchestra playing Spanish folk music), "Rambling Boy" may well be the single most out-of-left-field recording in Haden's entire discography. It is not, however, a departure- quite the opposite. As a child, Haden sang with his family on their syndicated radio show, "Korn's-a-Krackin," and on here he sings the final tune, "Shenandoah," in the poignant, gravelly voice you would expect from an 81-year-old bass player raised on this music. His bass is brilliant, as always, even though he sits in the rhythm section, untrumpeted, for most of the recording.

Oddly, for an album with a cast so huge, each member of Haden's large band gets ample time to show off. The Haden Triplets (Petra, Tanya and Rachel) are featured in a few tracks, and daughter Petra gets a sings beautifully on the slow-building ballad "The Fields of Athenry." Guitarists Pat Metheny and Russ Barenberg duel throughout the record, and Roseanne Cash even pops by for a number ("Wildwood Flower"). The most rousing performance on the album, however, is by Haden's son, Josh, who sings his own "Spiritual." Unlike versions sung by Johnny Cash or played by Charlie and Metheny, either world-weary or melodramatic, this version builds to a rousing climax, with Josh Haden's voice finding just the right spot between gruff seriousness and wide-eyed curiosity.

Is "Rambling Boy" Jazz? No, although Metheny, pianist Buck White and banjo player Bela Fleck all play their fair shair of harmonically complex lines. The real question is: does it matter? Music is music, and Haden's new album showcases an exciting, different direction for him.

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