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Watch the Liberation Music Orchestra Perform a Timely New Medley, Arranged by Carla Bley

Courtesy of the artist

Charlie Haden formed the Liberation Music Orchestra just over half a century ago, compelled by what he once called “a commitment to equality and to humanism and compassion in the world.”

Haden, the eminent bassist and bandleader, enlisted Carla Bley as the orchestra’s arranger, devoting much of its first, self-titled album to music from the Spanish Civil War. In his liner notes, Haden drew the obvious parallel to Vietnam, recalling a moment during the 1968 Democratic National Convention when some delegates voiced their opposition by singing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

He chose the song as that album's closer, and always kept it in the Liberation Music Orchestra’s active repertory. Each of its subsequent albums aligned with progressive causes, often as a matter of minority opposition. 

Credit Roger Ressmeyer / Corbis via Getty Images
Corbis via Getty Images
Charlie Haden in 1978.

The LMO remained an outlet for Haden’s activism until his death in 2014, and since: two years later, Bley shepherded the release of an album called Time/Life, with a conservationist theme. (Its subtitle: “Song for the Whales and Other Beings.”)

Earlier this year the LMO filmed a new arrangement of “Time/Life,” with a 12-bar blues postlude that leads into “We Shall Overcome.” A true reflection of our current moment — with each musician recording in isolation, edited later into seamless cohesion — the video was a brainchild of Haden’s widow, Ruth Cameron.

“I had wanted to do it for Charlie’s birthday, in August,” she tells WBGO. When that date proved too ambitious for logistical reasons, she moved her target to the 2020 presidential election, which has also now come and gone. “So I just said, ‘OK, it’s gonna happen when it happens. And I’m so happy, because it’s still so timely, you know?” The video, which premieres here, bears a prefatory dedication to Haden’s memory, “and to those struggling for social justice everywhere.”

“Time/Life” is a Bley composition, inspired by Haden’s memory and offered as a gift to Cameron. “Ruth called me when Charlie left this earth,” Bley recalls, speaking from her home in the Catskills. “I was in the garden at the time, and I went into the house and sat down at the piano and didn’t get up for, like, three months. It was like the piece just came out of me — I wouldn’t say easily, but it definitely continued out of the inspiration of the moment.”

As on the original studio recording, made the day after Haden’s memorial service in 2015, this version of “Time/Life” unfolds as a concerto for tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby. Bley sets the groundwork at the piano, joined by her longtime partner Steve Swallow on bass guitar and Matt Wilson on drums.

Gradually the other members of the LMO — a core of versatile improvisers who have worked steadily with the band since 2004 — join the requiem, in slow march time. Just after the four-minute mark, the rhythm section shifts into a swinging mid-tempo blues, with a succession of solos: tubaist Joseph Daly, alto saxophonist Loren Stillman, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, French hornist Vincent Chancey, tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek, trumpeter Seneca Black, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, and finally guitarist Steve Cardenas.

Credit courtesy of the artist
courtesy of the artist
The Liberation Music Orchestra in a promotional photo taken after Haden's death, with Steve Swallow on bass guitar.

Haden had a custom of leading the LMO from “We Shall Overcome” into a blues — “which always struck me as a little strange,” Bley muses. “Like, why not play the changes, the real changes, of the tune?” But playing a blues as a bridge in this version felt like a nod to his intentions. “They just went naturally together, but they don't go together at all,” she says. “So I like that, because we sound like ourselves.”

Bley and Swallow laid the baseline track together in their basement — consulting Wilson on the ideal tempo. “We called him up and said, ‘Matt, what tempo would Charlie play the blues?’” Swallow recalls. “He thought about it for some time and then sent us an email saying a quarter note equals 138 [bpm]. And he made a comment about how Charlie always picked a tempo that was a little bit between the cracks. It was never a slow blues or a medium blues; it was in the crack. And that is how it felt. It was like my recollection of playing with Thelonious Monk: every tempo was just slightly faster or slower than what you were comfortable with.”

Credit courtesy of the artist
courtesy of the artist

The finished video credibly conveys the sensation of a piece of music played altogether in real time — a testament first of all to the precision of the performances, and also to the work of recording engineer Gus Seyffert, mastering engineer Dave Cooley, and video editor Andy Jennison. When Bley saw a complete cut for the first time, it struck her as confounding — “like a magic trick.”

“I’m still perplexed,” she adds. “And I made it more confusing by going through the motions of conducting, even though no one was following me. That was purely fake. But I pulled it off, just faked the whole thing. It’s a nice touch.”

For more information about Charlie Haden, visit his website.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.