Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Charlie Haden's Quartet West has been championed as one of jazz's most consistently compelling bands dedicated not only to creatively revealing the secrets of the standards but as a band that is known the world over for its own sophisticated music. The quartet originally started as a side project for Haden who lives in Southern California to play with some of the great players in Los Angeles however it received such immediate acclaim that it has continued to perform and record continuously since 1986. This latest recording, Sophisticated Ladies, released in Europe in October 2010 to rave reviews (including a lengthy run in France as the No. 1 jazz album), opens the latest chapter in Quartet West's historic story with the legendary bassist at the helm.
It should be noted that Charlie Haden is an omnivorous listener and collector who has gathered what he calls "a vault" of songs that he loves and that have often slipped under the radar in appreciation. Thus instead of relying on the well-treaded Great American Song library, the bassist and bandleader brings to light lesser-known tunes delivered with refined improvisations that are equal parts romantic, classy, elegant and alluring.
For the wonderfully sublime Sophisticated Ladies, Quartet West's new CD and seventh overall, the core group of piano, sax, bass and drums embarks into familiar territory however with a new cast of collaborators: six of contemporary music's top-tier singers, including, in order of appearance, Melody Gardot, Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Ruth Cameron, Renée Fleming and Diana Krall. With his warm-toned bass lines anchoring the proceedings, Haden leads his band comprising tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist and orchestral strings arranger Alan Broadbent, and drummer Rodney Green who makes his Quartet West recording debut after replacing the legendary LA based drummer, Laurence Marable five years ago as Marable is in failing health. The 12-track album includes six salient instrumentals that complement the six moving vocal performances. With two exceptions, the sessions were recorded live with strings in New York and Los Angeles.
"I was close friends with all the great singers, most of whom have passed on, including most recently Shirley Horn and Abbey Lincoln," says Haden, who co-produced the album with Cameron, his wife. "Ruth suggested that it would be fun to do a Quartet West project with modern-day singers whom we know and admire. So I started calling them up and asking them if they'd like to sing on this project."
All the singers signed on immediately. Diana Krall, for example, told Haden that it had been her dream to perform with him. She requested Gordon Jenkins' song "Goodbye," which she movingly sings accompanied by strings. (Haden had just recorded the tune with Keith Jarrett on their 2010 duo album, Jasmine.) Also Renée Fleming and Haden had discussed working on a project together years ago, but because of their schedules, it never took place. So she too was eager to participate, as were Jones, Gardot and Wilson. Haden didn't give any advice as to how to sing the songs. "I didn't say anything to the singers," he says. "I just wanted them to be inspired and to sing better than they ever had before."
"I've been listening to songs since I first started listening to the radio as a kid," says Haden. "I write the titles down and then I search to get the music for them. I have a secret weapon in Los Angeles: Rick Starr, from Hollywood Sheet Music fame, who can find any song you want." One of the tunes Haden asked Starr to find was "My Love and I," a love song instrumental played by Coleman Hawkins from the 1962 movie Apache. "I asked Rick if we could get the rights and then maybe find someone to write the lyrics to it," Haden says. "I assumed it was just an instrumental. But Rick discovered that Johnny Mercer had been asked to write lyrics. But they were never used in the movie and it was never recorded. So that was a real find. This is the first time it's ever been recorded with the lyrics--and to the best of my knowledge, only the second time the song itself has been recorded."
Haden contacted Cassandra Wilson, who was thrilled with the idea of singing it. She delivers the tune with rich vocals, "I thought she'd do a wonderful job as she has great range and that she would really love the song," he says. "And I was right! As soon as we finished discussing the song she got a copy of Coleman Hawkins' version, and she was ready to sing."
Fleming was also not able to perform live with the band and strings due to her touring schedule. She gives a deep, lyrical read of the Ned Washington/Victor Young song "A Love Like This" from the film For Whom the Bell Tolls. "It's a classical-sounding song, which I thought her voice would be perfect for and that she would love it," says Haden. "And she did, and she sounds gorgeous."
Norah Jones suggested the track she sings: "Ill Wind" by Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler. "Norah told me she had always wanted to sing this song," Haden says. "I said, wow, that's fantastic." "Hey, man, if somebody really wants to sing a particular song then, let `em sing it! I had heard this many times, but I had never played it. Norah wanted to sing an intimate version so we all decided to do it in trio. We did an intro, Norah sang it and then we took it out," Haden says. Cameron adds, "Norah had a musical vision for how she wanted the song to sound."
Melody Gardot sings into the deep soul of the Edgar De Lange/Josef Myrow gem, "If I'm Lucky," that opens the album in a lush string setting. The song epitomizes the classic/romantic feel that Quartet West is renowned for. Haden has performed it before, including with pianist Paul Bley, but had never found the right situation for the lyrics to come alive. Gardot fit the bill perfectly. During the recording, her eyes welled up with tears, Haden recalls. "Melody told us that when she researched the song on the Internet in preparation for the recording, she discovered that Perry Como had recorded it," he says. "And her grandfather loved Perry Como, so singing it made her remember him."
Ruth Cameron gives a gorgeous, dramatic rendering of "Let's Call It a Day". Haden first heard the song on a Peggy Lee record ("It was the next to last track," he recalls). "Ruth is in the process of recording a new album, and this was going to be on that album, but she gave it to me for Quartet West," he says. Cameron says, "It was a lot of fun to be in the vocal booth and a welcomed change of pace from producing. There I am at the sessions, in front of the computer," she says, then laughs. "So at that point, I took off my producer hat, went into the studio, sang, then came out and switched back."
Cameron hastens to add that while the Sophisticated Ladies spotlight is trained on "the ladies" present, her husband balances the album with Quartet West's instrumental brilliance on half the album. Duke Ellington's composition, "Sophisticated Lady" is a string arrangement featuring the quartet that opens gracefully then develops into an upbeat, swinging celebration. The rest of the instrumentals are quartet-only. Haden and co. launch into another upbeat swing on one of Haden's favorites, "Today I Am a Man," composed by Steve Kuhn and which is based on the changes to Charlie Parker's "Confirmation."
Broadbent brought to the session Stanley Wilson's "Theme From Markham," from the 1959-60 TV series starring Ray Milland, which on this version features Ernie Watts' lyrical tenor lead voice.
While recording the album, the band members paid homage to pianist Hank Jones with whom Haden had frequently collaborated (including a yet-to-be released duo album, Come Sunday, recorded shortly before the legendary artist passed). Rodney Green brought Jones' song "Angel Face" to the studio. Haden quickly agreed that the quartet should record it. "Alan played the song and I thought it sounded like it came from an old Humphrey Bogart film," Haden says.
The Sam Coslow/Arthur Johnston song "My Old Flame," one of Haden's all-time favorite ballads, opens with the bassist improvising without stating the melody. Broadbent then joins in after which the entire quartet comes in. "That's how I wanted this piece to go," Haden says. "First with me improvising solo, then everyone comes in, and we all take it out." The last song on the album is Bennie Harris' "Wahoo" that Haden had heard on a 1948 recording of Bird playing with Fats Navarro live at the Royal Roost.
Quartet West cooks it upbeat with Haden captured on tape at the end saying, "Wahoo...you bet!" He says, "I keep wanting to do songs that Charlie Parker did, hoping that maybe I can feel as if I'm playing with him right at that very moment in time!"
In the course of its 25-year history, Quartet West has been a case study of a long-standing band committed to playing beautiful music. That's what it's all about, Haden says. While it was first pegged as a West Coast jazz group because of its early association with the noir film world of Hollywood, Haden insists that Quartet West "...speaks a language that's universal, without category,"--and even goes further to say that "to us, it's all about beautiful music!"