Home Masthead From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

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Skies-Ornette-JDGHe had spent a night in the open, he said, beneath the starry sky in Montana and had participated in (ironically) sacred Crow Indian rites. Speaking with Richard Williams in 1971, Coleman said these rites inspired Skies. “I feel that everything that has happened in America, from way before the Europeans arrived is still intact as far as the sky is concerned.” This sounds like an ominous reminder that the all-seeing eye of God was casting a look upon his creation. As the music suggests, things were still not looking good.

In this concerto grosso Coleman used polytonal harmolodic colour and percussion to depict the vision of turmoil down below. Expressed in slow lines and flatted chords by the orchestra, the sky remains eternal and unmoved, but not untroubled. It opens and closes and returns to the forefront several times during the course of the piece. Down below, musical vignettes describe the lives of the civilization: appearing happy, angry, sorrowing, loving – and above all – active. Coleman’s saxophone enters at dawn, a shrill, tortured soulful expression of the plight of “The Artist in America”.

Skies-of-America-JDGIn a driving, polytonal streaking passage, Coleman the eventfulness of the murderous life under a now blood-red sky. The vision is Whitmanesque in scope, embracing the ambiguities and tensions of modern life. It covers the tragic violence of the Vietnam War, but more importantly suggests the unfinished revolution in Civil Rights – something Mingus and many artists before him were tortured by as well.

It is unfortunate that Civil Rights are still an unfinished business, even today. But now we are grappling also with the impending loss of something even more basic and frightening. The loss of Human Rights… The two wars that are being fought thousands of miles away are promoting more hatred under the skies of America than we can ever imagine. In Charlie Haden’s Not in Our Name (Verve, 2005) wasting resources, killing thousands and destroying whatever little beauty is left of our global civilization.

Haden declared his purpose, as he so often does, in the manifesto in his notes: “We were hoping sanity and justice would prevail. They lost out to greed, cruelty and injustice. The machine won the election again by hook and by crook: The way it won in 2000.
“We want the world to know, however, that the devastation that this administration is wreaking is not in our name. It’s not in the name of many people in this country.

“… So now, although we lost the election, we have not lost the commitment to reclaim our country in the name of Humanity and Decency.

“Don’t give up… the struggle continues!”

Skies-We-Shall-Overcome-JDGLike Cavafy and Mahler, Mingus and Coleman, Charlie Haden and a growing group of musicians, committed to improving the human condition, have never given up the struggle to hold up a mirror to society by giving us art in the name of Humanity and Decency. Haden had done so publicly in the past (notably in 1971, when he dedicated his performance of “Song for Che” in Portugal to the anti-colonialist revolutionaries in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau, leading to his subsequent arrest by the then-repressive Portuguese regime) and in the political statements on Ballad of the Fallen (ECM, 1983) and with Dream Keeper (Polydor, 1990), once again, Charlie Haden and Liberation Music Orchestra have created a stark image of the America that the world sees – hypocritical and warmongering. Once again, holding up his mirror to society the artist – in this case the deeply committed bassist — has created bass lines so lyrical that you hear in their every note a growling of the heartbeat that breaks through to become strong and free…

And suddenly we can hear the sound of hope… A hope that belies love and faith in humanity and fills us all with a sense of the ultimate triumph of the human soul… Now all we need to do is listen, take heed and move forward.

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