Liberation music for the rebel soul

Not in Our Name Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra Verve Records, 2005

Internationally acclaimed jazz bassist Charlie Haden has convened the Liberation Music Orchestra for the fourth time since its inception in 1969. It began as a jazz response to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Although the ensemble has undergone vast personnel changes between recordings, it has been consistently and markedly progressive and has taken its inspiration from sources such as popular Latin American movements, the Black liberation movement and the Spanish Civil War.

The disc’s second track, “This Is Not America” is probably its most strident. Written at an earlier date by jazz guitar phenomenon Pat Metheny, Metheny Group keyboardist Lyle Mays and musician David Bowie, it’s characterized by a reggae-style rhythm guitar in a pensive, minor key. Far from a dilettantish exercise, its horn section, with its solos, pays homage to the reggae tradition and, tacitly, to its historical role in revolutionary politics. The improvisation, though, is very much in a jazz spirit, and the two styles are well melded together.

Veteran jazz pianist, Carla Bley, arranges and conducts on all “Not in Our Name” tracks and contributes her “Blue Anthem” to its offerings. This blues shuffle brings a cantabile guitar and throaty tenor sax to the fore, held together by brushes on cymbals. There is also an interesting and fleeting quote from “The Marine’s Hymn” on this track.

The title of the CD sums up the sentiment on every track: a refusal to accept “the inhumane treatment of this universe” being wreaked by the current presidential administration and its doctrines.

For the first time the LMO has reached into the classical music genre by creating jazz interpretations of Antonin Dvorak’s “Going Home” and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” “Goin’ Home” actually sounds more like Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Edelweiss” (from “The Sound of Music”), but nonetheless has soulfully rich and extensive sax and trumpet soloing against the backdrop of the melody. (And, for all their merits, Rogers and Hammerstein probably never hit grooves like these). The adagio, on the other hand, is unmistakably Barber, with its gentle and melancholic legato crescendos evoking landscapes at dawn.

According to the Verve web site, the material on “Not In Our Name” comes strictly from American composers. As Haden explained, “There was a necessity that I felt to play music from American composers in protest to what’s going on, to make a statement that just because you’re not for everything that this administration is doing, doesn’t mean that you’re not patriotic. So I wanted to do ‘America the Beautiful’ to show everybody that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done here in this country. And inside that song, Carla put the African American anthem ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing’ and Ornette Coleman’s provocative ‘Skies Over America’” (the title track of Coleman’s first recorded orchestral symphonic work from 1972).

The first part of “America the Beautiful” is both lush and dissonant at the same time, kind of like a hung-over marching band. After an abrupt and lively saxophone improvisation, the band returns to the task of playing the verse and delivers a shining, wide-eyed set of bars. It’s not that the LMO has to warm up, but that the arrangement was intended to contrast the present political state of affairs of America with what they can become.

Almost as inspiring as the music is the CD’s accompanying booklet. It includes a recent photo of Charlie Haden and Carla Bley — the two remaining original members of the LMO — standing arm-in-arm. Their presence seems to communicate an unwavering stance, as it were, in opposition to imperialism. The liner notes, written by Haden and co-producer Ruth Cameron, underscore the orchestra’s “commitment to reclaim our country in the name of humanity and decency” in the wake of the 2004 election being won “by hook and crook: the way it won in 2000.”

As always, Charlie Haden has branched out in a spirit of experimentation and has once again found an A-1 group of collaborating musicians to follow his lead into fresh ground.