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Charlie Haden – Helium Tears [TrackList follows] – West Wind

Charlie Haden – Helium Tears [TrackList follows] – West Wind [Distr. By Naxos] WW 2058, 52:05 [10/27/14] ***:

(Charlie Haden – bass; Ralph Towner – synthesizer (track 2); Jerry Granelli – drums; Robben Ford – guitar (tracks 1, 3-7); Julian Priester – trombone (tracks 3-6); Denny Goodhew – alto saxophone, bass clarinet (tracks 1, 3, 5-6); Jay Clayton – vocals (tracks 1-3))

With the unfortunate passing of bassist/composer Charlie Haden in July, 2014 a spate of releases have begun to trickle out, with his name significantly emblazoned on CD covers. Some of the reissues will be or are worth buying. Others have a tentative Haden connection. That brings us to the seven-track, 52-minute compilation, Helium Tears, which is not a Haden solo record, despite his name being prominent on the front. This material was recorded over the course of five days in late 1988 in a Seattle studio. Helium Tears initially came out in 2006 and again in 2008. But all of the music was also previously on albums credited to drummer Jerry Granelli (who was once part of Vince Guaraldi’s trio). Three cuts were on Granelli’s One Day at a Time, 1990; the other four were on Granelli’s 1988 LP Koputai. However, you won’t find this information in Helium Tears’ terse liner notes. So, caveat emptor. This is not a Haden solo CD, nor is this new material.

So, what is on Helium Tears? And who performs the music? Alongside Haden and Granelli is an interesting roster. Ralph Towner plays synth (and no guitar!) on one number; electric guitarist Robben Ford adds his fusion-rimmed, six-string skills to six tunes; trombonist Julian Priester contributes to three pieces; Denny Goodhew (alto sax and bass clarinet) is heard on four cuts; and singer Jay Clayton appends her vocals to three tracks. The music is an unusual assortment. There is a sort of jazz fusion/world music combination on one composition; elsewhere, the group picks up steam when they do blues/jazz-rock blends; the ensemble dips into a bit of free-jazz terrain; and then, the band does some stuff which has a folk-jazz amalgam. The music is disparate, but there is continuity to the whole and the record holds up better than might be expected.

Helium Tears commences with three tunes which feature Clayton (who has worked with many artists, including Priester, Steve Reich and Fred Hersch). She does wordless vocalizations on Haden’s lengthy “In the Moment,” a fusion/exploratory jazz construction highlighted by Ford’s barbed guitar slashes and Goodhew’s soaring alto sax. After a hard-hitting, fusion-like intro, this intricate conception heads into avant-garde territory, especially when Clayton crafts scatting, multipart voicing beside Ford and Goodhew’s bumpy sounds and Haden and Granelli’s free jazz-inclined rhythmic underflow. Clayton does more nonverbal discourses during “Koputai,” which is an eccentric mélange of world music and jazz fusion. Regrettably, this nearly-seven-minute undertaking goes nowhere. Towner’s monotonous keyboard lines are juxtaposed against lightly polyrhythmic beats which also don’t do much to convey excitement. It’s basically a lite-jazz version of Weather Report. Luckily, Clayton showcases her lyrical stance on Goodhew’s straightforward ballad, “I Could See Forever.” While the verse isn’t distinctive, Clayton generates an emotional arc which transcends the textual shortcomings; and there are sympathetic, enjoyable solos from Goodhew and Priester. More of this kind of music would have been an improvement.

The other four tunes are strictly instrumental and have merits of their own. Priester’s “Julia’s Child” has a bluesy feel, where Ford employs biting lead lines; Priester is in the forefront with his typically fluid trombone lines which at times take on a singer’s tonality; and Haden and Granelli provide a relaxed, rolling rhythmic foundation. Haden and Granelli co-penned “One Day at a Time,” which has a late-night vibe accentuated by Goodhew’s low bass clarinet, Haden’s reverberating and warm bass and Granelli’s nimble cymbals. Later in the eight-and-a-half minute offering, Ford slips in his characteristic blues style. However, the slow groove doesn’t seem to attain a gel point and gets a tad too tiresome by the conclusion. The moving title track—the longest at ten minutes—has the nature of a commemoration or memorial. It’s unclear if the title denotes a specific sorrowful event or loss, but the sensitivity and melancholy is present throughout, which includes fine solos from Ford, Priester, Goodhew (back on sax) and refined support via Haden and Granelli.

The program ends with more fusion-oriented music on Granelli’s trio venture, “23rd and Cherry,” which refers to Seattle’s Cherry Hill area. Haden’s bass is upfront and has his singular, every-note-counts mannerism (nothing extraneous and each note precise as a raindrop); Ford is all over the six-minute piece with piercing, rock-adapted notes which furnish a hard, electric edge; and Granelli supplies plenty of cymbal action and layered percussive effects. Evidently, this was a jam, of sorts, because it fades out at the finish. Generally, the engineering and mixing is good if not stellar. The bass clarinet and trombone are sometimes a smidgeon muted beneath other instruments. But Haden’s bass is always projected openly and that’s beneficial, since Helium Tears is aimed at his fans. Is this CD worth listening to or purchasing? certainly, if you know what you’re obtaining. Some clarity on the music’s background and aforementioned history on the label’s part would have been decent.

TrackList: In the Moment; Koputai; I Could See Forever; Julia’s Child; One Day at a Time; Helium Tears; 23rd & Cherry.

—Doug Simpson

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