Not sure why I’m writing so much about jazz right now, except that I’m listening to a lot of it–though I’m not sure why that’s the case, either.
I suppose this is the sort of piece that would have made sense in 2005, but I’ve been listening to Charlie Haden’s latest Liberation Music Orchestra release, 2005’s Not in Our Name, a beautiful piece in protest against the Bush administration’s activities at home and abroad. The sense, as the title suggests, is that there are plenty of Americans who refuse, who must speak out so as not to be seen as complicit with the government’s uses and abuses of power. Since it has been so long, I won’t feel compelled (not that I ever do) to write a proper review. Rather, I would say this:
The piece, like those I wrote about in the last post, strikes me at times as somehow stretching beyond genre constrictions–Carla Bley’s approach to arranging has a great deal to do with this. The imaginative use of what is basically a big jazz combo or a small big band is an extension of the Ellington/Mingus tradition, and in that tradition, has aspirations to (and achieves at times) a kind of singularity of effect that is notable. But, aside from a version of the Barber “Adagio” (which is achingly beautiful) and refs to Dvorak, this piece is more clearly jazz-oriented than those. The use of drums to play time, if nothing else, places the music.
What seems most intriguing about this album, to me, is just how retro it is–conceptually, that is. I listen to this and think, is it possible that a jazz project (and really, I think this is a jazz project) can be a vehicle for old-school, anti-establishment protest music??? It is, though of a sort. It’s not loud or brash or harsh or rough, the common signifiers of protest in music so often. It is sweet and gentle, soft and low; it is refined and even careful–the first track, “Not in Our Name” is a waltz, for heaven’s sake. It seems like protest by people who have lived, and learned, through a great deal.
It also makes me reconsider something I was asked last winter, when I was giving a talk about Tom Waits. I was making some case about his use of melancholy and how effective it is, and a grad student in the audience asked, “what are the cultural politics of melancholy?” Now, at the time, and in subsequent months I had principally thought of melancholy as basically politically retrogressive–it is such an inwardly directed affect, and one that seems to involve giving up in a sense, turning away from action. I continue to think that it is a basically apolitical (and thus not progressive) gesture in most cases, but I am impressed that much of this album (especially the “Adagio,” placed as it is at the end) is melancholy, or at least sad. I could probably spin out a theory for why melancholy here doesn’t sound like a refusal of responsibility, but it would be too mockable, so I won’t.
Anyway, I heart Charlie Haden and Carla Bley right now.