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A Dreamy Exploration of Latin Ballad Traditions

Charlie Haden's latest is the lyrical 'Nocturne.'


"It's a little bit nostalgic," he said, "because it reminds me of when I was a kid. I was listening to that music on the radio and in my house and in live performances. I remember all the great singers in Cuba, and my father playing that music. To me, [recording the album] was like making a tribute to those people."

One of Cuba's most prized jazz exports, and one with a proud, abiding interest in his musical heritage, Rubalcaba has mixed feelings about the new popularity of Cuban music after the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. He laments that the current public obsession with vintage Cuban music is imbalanced.

"The people [should] learn what happened with the innovations in the '70s and the '80s, but everybody's focused on that music from the '40s and the '50s. I hope that these other generations, including me, don't have to wait for 40 more years to be part of the knowledge of the world. But at the same time," he adds, "it's great for those musicians to at least have the opportunity at the end of their life to demonstrate their talent and creativity. I hope also that this is not only a fashion."

Part of what makes "Nocturne" such a successful collaboration is its alignment of musical sensibilities. Rubalcaba, now 38 and with a varied and thriving career of his own, is a virtuoso capable of filling solos with restless, technically gymnastic energy. Haden, conversely, is a musician who says a lot with a little, who makes spaces and subdued emotionality count.

On "Nocturne," they meet halfway, with Rubalcaba in an especially languid and melodic mood. In the so-far few live experiences with the "Nocturne" band, a similar effect of collective sensitivity takes over. At a stint at Yoshi's in Oakland in June, Haden says, Rubalcaba's restraint had the effect of a "contagious inspiration. Everyone was inspired to play with the same serene intensity.

"That's usually where I always try to take it, no matter who I'm playing with. My philosophy in musical sound has always been to play as quietly as you can feel, because if you feel quiet, you will play in a way where you're going to get everybody's attention and they're going to see the importance of [the music]."

Over the decades, Haden, 64, has been widely lauded, considered a poetic minimalist as a player, and a broad-minded conceptualist as a leader. But his own relationship with the world of jazz--even with the word itself--is changing.

"I don't even really think I'm a jazz musician anymore," Haden offers. "I've been feeling that way for the last 10 years. Jazz, to me, is being stifled in its vision and approach to future audiences by the very people who surround it--in jazz radio and journalism [for instance]. They're making it a narrow, encapsulated art form that just a few people have to do with. They don't really care if it gets out to anybody else. But I do."

To Haden, the jazz scene tends to marginalize its own culture, whereas he's seeking to venture beyond genre constraints.

"If you go back and listen to all the records I've made," Haden says, "they're not really about jazz. They're about beautiful music. Everybody asks me, 'How can you play with Ornette Coleman and then play with Quartet West?' I say, 'Tell me what the difference is.' If you listen to Ornette's melodies, they are so beautiful. They were like that when we were playing when we were 19 years old. People just weren't getting it, because we weren't coming from bebop."

It could be said that jazz has been just one of the ingredients in many of his varied projects. This same message has been disseminated in the classrooms at Cal Arts, where Haden has taught for almost 20 years.

"I tell my students, 'Once you walk into this room, you're no longer a jazz musician. You're a musician. Because if you see yourself as a jazz musician, you're going to find the way you play by listening to Coltrane and Miles and whoever else influences you, and it's going to prevent you from really finding your own music. And maybe your music doesn't have a category."'


Charlie Haden and "The Nocturne Project," Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, tonight through Wednesday, 8 and 10 p.m. $25; $50 for special reserved table. (323) 463-0204.

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