by Dan Lehner
On Tuesday night at (le) Poisson Rouge, while Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra was playing Carla Bley's deconstructed and deranged take on "America The Beautiful", Barack Obama was making his farewell speech as president. Between those of us at LPR and those watching the speech at home, there was a shared sense of approaching dread, that we were watching a flawed yet reasonable emblem of American democracy devolving into something much darker.
The 13th annual Winter Jazzfest deliberately cast itself in the spirit of social justice through panels and musical protest, both blunt and oblique. Therefore, it was only fitting that the Liberation Music Orchestra perform the closing concert of this year's festival, in an attempt to recreate and honor the spirit of Haden's overt but poetic oeuvre in the realm of musical activism.
For the most part, the music was mostly subdued. LMO's music has always toggled between spirited Spanish fanfares and quiet tone poetry and - perhaps due to the somewhat somber overcast of approaching inauguration - this concert was definitely more the latter. The selections by composers other than Haden - like Bill Evans' "Blue in Green" and Dvořák's "Going Home" theme from the New World Symphony - were mostly cast in gentle, romantic colors. Other selections like last year's "Silent Spring" (named after Rachel Carson's seminal novel) were likely chosen for the mournful nature of their subject matter.
It was not all gloom and doom, though. The most noteworthy feature of Tuesday's concert was the incredible cadre of improvising musicians assembled on stage, who were given plenty of room to stretch out and control the energy of the concert. Haden's love of spirituals, as evidenced by both the LMO and his work with pianist Hank Jones, was generously nodded to in the group's version of "Amazing Grace," which featured a boisterous solo by trombonist Curtis Fowlkes that was reminiscent of trombone gospel shout bands. It's always a fun experience seeing musicians play in contexts outside of their wheelhouse, and Tony Malaby's famously burnished tenor saxophone sound and keening sense of melody managed to make a home for itself in the reggae grooves of "This Is Not America."
The concert ended on a hopeful note with a version of "We Shall Overcome", which featured a simple blues solo section that gave trumpeter Seneca Black room to swing hard and punch high. It was an uncomplicated coda to end the night on: the notion that no matter what kind of obstacles, political or otherwise, might lie before us, this swinging, impassioned music will always be there to lift us up.