Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Charlie Haden Michael Brecker - 2002 "American Dreams"

American Dreams is an album by bassist Charlie Haden featuring saxophonist Michael Brecker recorded in 2002 and released on the Verve label.

Michael Brecker’s tenor saxophone, with its declamatory pronouncements and keening high notes, commands attention throughout American Dreams, but Haden’s bass is at the bottom of the dreamy feeling that pervades all but one track.

Haden’s title composition opens the album with the bassist playing a folk song-like melody over strings arranged in rich layers by Alan Broadbent. As the strings fade, pianist Brad Mehldau introduces a second melody. Haden interacts with Mehldau. Brian Blade skips brushes across drums and cymbals, crystal strokes against time that’s as soft as the mood. Just a degree above silence, the strings slip in under the trio, swelling as Haden works his way back into the first theme and concludes a performance of great simplicity and beauty.

The orchestral writing on six pieces arranged by Broadbent and three by Jeremy Lubbock is ripe with harmonic interest; on the two by Vince Mendoza sounds are more purely functional. Highlights include Broadbent’s scoring for violins and cellos on “America the Beautiful,” his paraphrase of the melody in support of Haden’s solo on “Young and Foolish” and Lubbock’s work with two ballads written by Dave Grusin with Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Lubbock’s mysterious ending on a sixth chord had me going back several times to the conclusion of “It Might Be You.”

Accommodating himself to the strings, Mehldau minimizes the role of his left hand and, for the most part, plays sparely. He turns a couple of finger-bobble lemons into lemonade. Mehldau has satisfying solos on Don Sebesky’s “Bittersweet” (formerly called “You Can’t Go Home Again”) and Ornette Coleman’s “Bird Food.” The Coleman piece, a slice of neobop, is the only uptempo quartet performance on an album of reflective music but, somehow, it fits with the others-a bit of Haden magic.

This quartet-plus-strings session is Charlie Haden's paean to an ideal America, made during a time that was ripe for such reflections. The band, with Haden on bass, Michael Brecker on tenor, Brad Mehldau on piano, and Brian Blade on drums, is unassailably strong. But listeners could have lived without the ear-candy sheen provided by the 34-piece orchestra, arranged primarily by Alan Broadbent, with additional contributions from Jeremy Lubbock and Vince Mendoza. (Broadbent and Mendoza also penned charts for Jane Monheit's In the Sun, released two weeks earlier.) Aside from outright banalities like "America the Beautiful" and "It Might Be You" (yes, the Stephen Bishop lite-radio hit), there are some saving graces, like Keith Jarrett's "Prism" and "No Lonely Nights," Mehldau's "Ron's Place," and Haden's two originals, "American Dreams" and "Nightfall." But Pat Metheny's "Travels" goes soggy without its Midwestern guitar twang, and Ornette Coleman's "Bird Food," one of only three tracks not to feature the orchestra, is so wildly out of place that its impact is somehow diminished -- notwithstanding a vivid pedal-point interlude about six minutes in.

American Dreams is an addition to Verve Records' collection of ..."with Strings" sessions pioneered by legedary producer Norman Granz. Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Harry Carney and others gave this genre a shot for Verve. Something about the grit of the sax sound in front of the orchestral string washes that jazz fans seem to either love or hate.

The strongest impression several listenings of of American Dreams leaves is: What a great quartet. "Charlie Haden with Michael Brecker" the label proclaims, but it could just as well say The New Charlie Haden Quartet. Pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer Brian Blade round out the core quartet, and the unit achieves a rare level of cohesion. Maybe it's the bassman, Charlie Haden; a truly great bassist brings everyone up a notch or two. He did it on bluesman James Cotton's '96 CD, "Deep in the Blues"; he does it with his own Quartet West.

Mehldau benefits the most here. His conversations with Brecker's sax are intimate and precise, his soloing inventive and restrained; and his "Ron's Place," done with just the quartet, is a pensive gem.

Songs by Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, Haden's old running mate Ornette Coleman, an unexpectedly beautiful take on the unlikely "America the Beautiful," deft string arrangements, a few quartet takes to break the pacing up and keep it interesting

An essential CD for fans of the Verve ..with Strings genre.

Track listing:

All compositions by Charlie Haden except as indicated

01 "American Dreams" - 4:52
02 "Travels" (Lyle Mays, Pat Metheny) - 6:46
03 "No Lonely Nights" (Keith Jarrett) - 5:18
04 "It Might Be You" (Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, Dave Grusin) - 4:55
05 "Prism" (Jarrett) - 5:21
06 "America the Beautiful" (Katharine Lee Bates, Samuel A. Ward) - 5:23
07 "Nightfall" - 5:07
08 "Ron's Place" (Brad Mehldau) - 7:30
09 "Bittersweet" (Don Sebesky) - 6:46
10 "Young and Foolish" (Albert Hague, Arnold B. Horwitt) - 5:38
11 "Bird Food" (Ornette Coleman) - 7:31
12 "Sotto Voce" (Vince Mendoza) - 5:12
13 "Love Like Ours" (Bergman, Bergman Grusin) - 4:25

Recorded at Signet Soundelux in Los Angeles, California on May 14–17, 2002


Charlie Haden — bass
Michael Brecker — tenor saxophone
Brad Mehldau — piano
Brian Blade — drums
Unidentified String Orchestra
Alan Broadbent (tracks 1, 3, 6, 9, & 10), Jeremy Lubbock (tracks 4, 7 & 13), Vince Mendoza (tracks 2 & 12) — arranger, conductor.