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He's Let the Spirit Move Him--to Success

Bassist Charlie Haden says a talented pianist and a feeling for spirituals helped him win two jazz nominations.


True, Charlie Haden has garnered six Grammy Award nominations in the past five years.

At Wednesday night's ceremony, he will contend in two jazz categories, both stemming from his collaboration with pianist Hank Jones on the album "Steal Away." His name also appears on a group nomination for Kenny Barron's "Wanton Spirit."

But Haden is not one to boast. In fact, he points out that he played bass for 30 years before receiving his first Grammy nomination in 1991. The element of time, of paying one's dues, is important to him.

In a career that has spanned five decades, Haden has performed with the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane as well as establishing two noted Los Angeles groups, the Liberation Music Orchestra and Quartet West. Along the way, he founded the jazz studies program at CalArts in Valencia.

"I tell the students that scales and all that are important but jazz is, in big part, improvisation," Haden said. "And improvisation is, in big part, spirituality."

This quality derives from life experience, he insists, the kind of seasoning that plays a crucial role in "Steal Away," a surprising collection of hymns and spirituals delivered by two jazz veterans.

"My parents were on the Grand Ole Opry, so we used to sing hymns on the radio. I grew up with that kind of harmony and great intonation," Haden said. "Hank is very close to the spirituals because he used to play them in church in Detroit."

In the many years between his church days and this album, Jones played with Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. With Haden, he offers more than a dozen songs ranging in sacred context from "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" to "Danny Boy."

The New York Times called the album "a single shaft of late-afternoon sunlight shining through the window of a country church." Time magazine wrote: "It's not only unique in the jazz canon--two instrumental Olympians playing spirituals, hymns and folk tunes with improvisational brio and numinous respect for sources and traditions--it's also uniquely beautiful."

The notion for such a project arose when Haden heard Jones play "It's Me, O Lord (Standin' in the Need of Prayer)" on the Smithsonian collection, "Jazz Piano." He approached the pianist backstage at Carnegie Hall, and the two immediately began listing songs they wanted to record.

Later, in a Montreal studio, there was considerable discussion regarding what material could be embellished and what was better left alone.

"We played 'Steal Away' and 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' exactly as they are," Haden said. "Not that anyone would play it like that in church, but we play them pretty much as they are written."

The result is quietly soulful, a fortuitous pairing that both men could feel the moment they sat down to play.

"It was magical," Haden recalled. "It was truly a religious experience."

The bassist is gratified that this effort was nominated for two Grammys. It is being considered for best jazz instrumental performance, individual or group, and best jazz instrumental solo. But due to a European tour, he won't be attending the ceremonies.

It's all about playing, he said, about continually rediscovering his voice, his soul, his sound.

"Every time I go on tour," he said, "I bring back experiences."

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