Live Review

Charlie Haden Family & Friends

Charlie Haden Family & Friends on December 31, 1969

I've been hearing voices this year, not inside my head, but great voices backed by great musicians making great music the Mother's Best Flour Show radio transcripts of Hank Williams, and the expanded reissue of Otis Redding's Live In Europe, in particular. The Mother's Best shows underscore Hank's greatness, showcasing a distinctive, evocative, sometimes wounded voice for the ages. The raw emotion of Redding's voice, supported by stone grooves laid down by Booker T & the MGs, affirm why I used to think the original 1967 edition of a Paris performance was rivaled only by James Brown's Live At The Apollo as the greatest live album ever.

But the voice that slayed me belonged to Charlie Haden, the jazz bassist, whom I'd heard playing with Old And New Dreams, Ornette Coleman's band when he destroyed jazz convention in the 1950s with the album The Shape Of Jazz To Come, and with his own orchestra opening for Ornette at Carnegie Hall a few summers ago.

I had no clue Haden could sing, or that he'd grown up in a family of entertainers who performed on the radio throughout the south and midwest. His musical journey from mountain music to free jazz is remarkable. His ability to bring it all back home and reconnect with the sounds he grew up with on Rambling Boy is nothing short of incredible.

To me, it all boils down to his sole lead vocal on the album's last song, "Shenandoah". The voice is whispery and fragile (Haden quit singing at 15 when he was stricken with polio), but he sings the old chestnut like he wrote it. He didn't. But it sounds personal because it is. Haden was born in Shenandoah (Iowa, not Virginia), where his parents, Uncle Carl and Mary Jane, were performing on the radio with his older brothers and sisters. Singing the song takes him home, and you can hear it so well, you feel like you're eavesdropping on a family gathering, which you are. The rest of the album features delicious three-part harmonies by Charlie's daughters Tanya, Petra, and Rachel, and an assertive vocal turn by Charlie's son-in-law, Jack Black, on "Old Joe Clark" (shades of Tenacious D). Other solid guest turns by Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Elvis Costello, Sam Bush, Rosanne Cash, Jerry Douglas, Bruce Hornsby, and Pat Metheny prove jazz, rock, country, and pop come from the same tree whose roots are revealed on Rambling Boy. But hearing Charlie singing "Shenandoah" separates it all from every other piece of music in 2008.