Bassist Charlie Haden died at 76 on July 11, surrounded by his singer wife and singer children — a fitting end, considering his start in life. Haden sang and yodeled on an Iowa radio station from the age of 2, with his parents’ Haden Family Band. Their hillbilly music might seem a far cry from the adult Haden’s jazz, but both prize assertive, vocal string playing, and the Missouri-reared Haden coaxed a peerlessly warm, woody, resonant sound from upright bass. His long tones sounded like singing, his supportive lines like low-string picking on a giant guitar.
Other bass players were faster — sometimes it seemed like all the other bass players were faster — but none had a plusher sound. You could make lunch while a Haden long note bloomed and faded out. On Ornette Coleman’s 1960 Free Jazz for Double Quartet, it’s fascinating to hear Haden alongside bass virtuoso Scott La Faro. Jackrabbit Scotty has the speed, articulation and awesomely busy conception, but tortoise Haden’s huge sound has greater weight.
He was in Coleman’s groundbreaking quartet only three years, starting in 1958, but they had many reunions and their names will be forever linked. Coleman’s freebop was tricky, not least for the bass player. Improvising on one of his compositions, the players would follow the form and harmony of the tune, until Coleman began to spontaneously deviate from it. When that happened, Haden had to deviate with him, aiming at Coleman’s moving target. One way Haden dealt with the challenge: His lines might convey a general sense of the harmony moving toward or away from home. Sometimes he’d ground the music by repeatedly alternating two notes an octave apart: a thundering bedrock figure he might then walk up or down the scale.
On Coleman’s country-bluesy “Ramblin’,” Haden strummed his bull fiddle like it was a Martin flat-top guitar, then played the Kentucky mountain ditty “Old Joe Clark” as his bass solo — an odd and daring move that helped make this 1959 track a classic. (English punk Ian Dury based his 1977 song “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” on Haden’s solo, not knowing Haden was quoting an older tune.)
Charlie Haden debuted as a leader with his Liberation Music Orchestra, which recorded for Impulse in 1969, playing Carla Bley’s inspired arrangements of songs from global revolutionary movements. The leader’s bass often led the charge. On the sardonic “Circus ’68 ’69,” his massive tone is a battering ram; on “Song for Ché,” the first of several memorable ballads Haden wrote, his plucked bass sings the stately tune. Bley got him to sing a few lines cowboy style for her operatic Escalator Over the Hill album, behind a plaintive Linda Ronstadt on “Why.” Haden’s fat bass sound survived the ’70s trend toward wild over-amplification. He even rocked a wah-wah pedal on Coleman’s “Rock the Clock” and Keith Jarrett’s “Mortgage on My Soul.”
For a decade starting in the late ’60s Haden played in Jarrett’s trio and quartet, helping bring out the pianist’s own lyrical strains. Jarrett’s drummer Paul Motian first brought Haden to the young ECM label. The bassist’s poignant long tones were ready-made for ECM, and he’d record for the label in many combinations, including a worldly trio with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and Brazilian guitarist/pianist Egberto Gismonti, and the Coleman sideman/repertory band Old and New Dreams.
Guitarist Pat Metheny used Haden on his ECM masterwork 80/81, the beginning of a warm and ongoing relationship. Metheny dug Coleman too, and they all played together on 1985′s raucous Song X. Haden began making more records of his own, including the genial and overlooked Silence from 1987, with Chet Baker and Billy Higgins. That was the year after Haden founded his long-running, mainstream Quartet West with Ernie Watts on tenor, a band with a weakness for old ballads.
His music became more romantic overall. Haden suffered from tinnitus, and by the early ’90s would perform on stage behind a plexiglass enclosure. Perhaps in response, his music often became quieter as well. In the ’70s he’d recorded two albums of duets with various guests, Closeness and The Golden Number. Now he really began racking up the duo discs, with Metheny and other guitarists, and pianists including Jarrett, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Hank Jones and Kenny Barron. The bassist also began working more with singers such as Abbey Lincoln and his wife Ruth Cameron.
His work folded in on itself. Haden took to playing his “Old Joe Clark” solo in all sorts of settings, a stand-alone classic. (It had already turned up on 80/81, radically slowed.) His health had been deteriorating for years before he died, and later recordings — like the duets with Jarrett on the chart-topping Last Dance, released weeks before Haden’s passing — bear the stamp of a musician winding down. Of those final statements, Rambling Boy, recorded in 2008, draws the great circle closed. A set of country songs sung and played by family and friends, it includes a snippet of baby Charlie (shakily) singing and yodeling on radio, and one last “Old Joe Clark” played Ozark style. But even now his music echoes on. Earlier in 2014 singing daughters Petra, Rachel and Tanya released an album as the Haden Triplets: a third-generation family band.