Charlie Haden, Master of Duets, With A Beloved Musical Partner, Gonzalo Rubalcaba

Bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba performing in duet at the Blue Note Tokyo, in 2005. Photo courtesy of Universal Music.
Bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba performing in duet at the Blue Note Tokyo, in 2005. Photo courtesy of Universal Music.

Bassist Charlie Haden, who died a little more than a year ago, was a towering American musician and a powerful force in jazz history.
His best qualities—compassion, nuance, a love of melody, an unfailing sense of rhythm, a searching mind and a caring heart—were most clearly evident in his work in duets.
There was the last release before his death, the glorious “Last Dance,” with Keith Jarrett, drawn from the same 2007 sessions as the previous “Jasmine,” likely Haden’s last studio session. There were other duet classics, among them: “Soapsuds, Soapsuds,” with Ornette Coleman; “Steal Away,” with Hank Jones; “Night & the City,” with Kenny Barron; and “As Long As There’s Music,” with Hampton Hawes, who was among the first jazz musicians Haden connected with upon relocating to Los Angeles in the 1950s.
Now comes “Tokyo Adagio” (Impulse!/Universal Music Classics), a stunning recording that captures the magic between Haden and Rubalcaba, as recorded over several evenings in the spring of 2005 at the Blue Note Tokyo.

I’ll never forget a two-week run at Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club to celebrate Haden’s 65th birthday, in 2002—a series of duets with pianists he favored. At the time, he told me that he saw the duet setting as a chance “to break through the clutter of modern life with something simple and direct.” It was also a way to span his stylistic reach and explore the depths of personal connections that gave rise to some of his best music.

With Kenny Barron, the usual distractions at the Blue Note were overtaken by a reverential hush. The warmth and softness of Haden’s tone on bass stood out, as did his cunning sense of restraint—most obviously on ballads, but all also Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”: Haden bit into the classic bebop line with forceful energy, but his rendering was most effective for the notes he left out. With pianist Geri Allen, Haden displayed the intuitive connection that elevated Allen’s formative Blue Note recordings. And since Allen was among the few pianists hired by Ornette Coleman, it was only natural for the two to delve in Coleman’s catalog. When they finished playing two Coleman classics, “Lonely Woman” and “Ramblin’,” after the crowd roared, Haden took a moment to recall the winter of 1959, when, in his early 20s, he came to New York to play the Five Spot in Coleman’s quartet. And he cited the tunes he’d snuck into his solos, learned much earlier, as a very young boy: “Barbara Allen,” “Old Joe Clark,” and “Fort Worth Jail.” With Brad Melhdau, Haden highlighted the ambience of romance and intrigue that he conjured with his Quartet West. And with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Haden reveled in his love for the bolero form, and in a relationship that began at a 1986 festival in Havana.
“Gonzalo’s band came on, he took a piano solo, and I nearly fell of my chair,” Haden told me once, during an interview. “I told the organizers, ‘Take me back to meet him.’ He spoke very little English at the time. But we arranged to meet the next day. We played for hours.”) Haden played on Rubalcaba’s 1990 Blue Note Records debut; Rubalcaba played on and produced two Haden albums, “Nocturne” and “Land of the Sun,” both Grammy winners.
According to the label, Haden had ardently pressed for the release of “Tokyo Adagio” shortly before his death. As you hear Haden’s interplay with Rubalcaba on the bassist’s composition “Sandino,” Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave”, Hollywood composer David Raskin’s “My Love and I,” and others, all taken with deliberate care, as the CD’s title would imply, you can understand why.
Here’s what Rubalcaba had to say:

“Despite the 26-year gap in our ages, he never treated me as an inferior in any sense. We had each other’s confidence. We could talk about politics, life, family, business. Spending so much time with him, I learned not only about music, but also about being. Our connection was about love, for the music and for our families, and for each other.”

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