The Blue Note in New York is not a regular stop on my music route—the $35 music surcharge on top of the food and drink minimum being generally beyond this music fan’s budget. But when the announcement came through that Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra was in town supporting their new release Not In Our Name, I felt both musically and politically compelled to be there. The roughly hour-long set in album track order was a reminder of what it’s like to spend a warm night in the company of secure musicians, confident in their voices.
The evening got off to a solidly played but unsurprising, wallpapery start. By the end of the second piece, the orchestra was ready to go on to Carla Bley’s Blue Anthem, and its depth began to truly shine through, producing music that felt less like “watch me,” take-a-solo jazz, and more like a dialogue among the musical equals on stage. Wedged as I was behind the piano, I could only catch the occasional glimpse of the rest of the band in the back wall mirror, and so missed actually seeing most of performance. I did have an intimate view of Bley, however, who tapped at the piano bench with her left hand when she wasn’t playing and stood to give the occasional start and stop cue.
America The Beautiful, here a medley of tunes lifted from “America The Beautiful,” “Lift Every Voice And Sing, “and “Skies Of America,” was perhaps the most overt statement of the evening and the most effective piece of music on the program. Off-key notes and limping rhythms offered political commentary as biting as any offered up by Jon Stewart.
A couple of old standards also got a dusting off. “Amazing Grace” was given a bluesy treatment, and Barber’s Adagio For Strings was arranged for the brass in the band under the direction of Bley’s rudimentary conducting. The work was oddly touching in these new timbres, though the climax was not fully exploited dynamically and the ensemble re-entrance was shaky enough to smudge the effect.
Overall, it was an evening light on the stage banter and thick on the music, music that didn’t force the ear so much as content itself to give it a satisfying yogic stretch.