"Imagine Cream with Bill Frisell on guitar and Charlie Haden on bass": Charlie Haden's guide to his best work, from jazz to blues and beyond

Jazz Musician Charlie Haden with His Bass
(Image credit: Photo by © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS/VCG via Getty Images)

Over a period of some six decades, Charlie Haden redefined the language of jazz double bass, playing on hundreds of records as a leader, co-leader, and sideman. It all began with pianist Paul Bley in 1958; a year later, he went into the studio with the Ornette Coleman Quartet for a landmark session that was released on the aptly titled Atlantic LP The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Haden's instinctive understanding of melody, coupled with a distaste for double-bass histrionics, led to studio dates with the likes of Ringo Starr, Ginger Baker, Pat Metheny and Diana Krall. Rather than listing all of those albums, we assembled this representative selection, which is intended to give a sense of the tremendous range of Haden's recorded work. Start here – but rest assured that any record with the name ‘Charlie Haden’ in the credits is well worth listening to.

This article was first published in the August 1996 issue of Bass Player Magazine.

1. Ornette Coleman Quartet: This Is Our Music

"Our first three records – The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, and This Is Our Music – really tell a story," said Haden. The first two records gave startled listeners a sense of how this group was changing the face of jazz forever, but it was This Is Our Music, recorded in 1961, that revealed the full extent of that revolution. "We're not playing in the pattern of the songs anymore," he said. "I was taking my notes from what Ornette and Don Cherry were playing and creating a new chord structure. I developed a way of handling that, harmonically, where it was almost as if I were the pianist."

2. Charlie Haden: Liberation Music Orchestra

The Liberation Music Orchestra is one of Haden's most cherished endeavors. It is a sort of repertory company of free-thinking players, powered by the strength of Charlie's convictions and featuring the innovative arrangements of Carla Bley. "In 1969, when the Vietnam war was happening, I started really thinking about the injustices in the world, and I wanted to express how I felt. I started to put together the first album in New York, and I called Carla, who was an old friend from the Hillcrest days in L.A. She was really enthused about it." 

3. Keith Jarrett: Survivor's Suite

In the late '60s and '70s, Haden was a member of a highly regarded quartet led by pianist Keith Jarrett. "That was a great band and I love the records we made, but the mixing on the early Atlantic and Impulse records could have been better. The bass was mixed really `electric' – mostly with the pickup rather than the microphones. We got a much better mix on Survivor's Suite."

4. Old & New Dreams: Old & New Dreams

Old & New Dreams was, essentially, the Ornette Coleman Quartet with Dewey Redman rather than Coleman on reeds. The group recorded three albums between 1979 and 1987. "I like all three," said Haden. "The one that's just called Old & New Dreams, where we do Lonely Woman – that's a great one."

5. Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny: Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories)

"The first time I heard Pat's music, I really got a feeling of true Americana from his unique, innovative vision. We talked for years about different things we wanted to do. We ended up recording some of my tunes and some of Pat's, as well as other tunes we both like, like Precious Jewel and Jim Webb's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. It's about celebrating the music that comes from this country."

6. Charlie Haden: Silence

This solo album (recorded in 1987 and released in 1989) features a unique international cast with trumpeter Chet Baker, drummer Billy Higgins, and Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, a disciple of the great Bill Evans. "I was real happy we got to do that record with Chet because he died a few months after that. Maybe that's why jazz musicians develop this sense of urgency when they play – they never know when they're going to stop playing, you know?"

7. Charlie Haden: Quartet West 

The five albums by Quartet West are like one long movie, so you may as well start with the first reel. Released in 1987, their debut features saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent, and drummer Billy Higgins; all remained with the group except Higgins, who was replaced by Larance Marable on the subsequent discs. "I think the take we got on Body and Soul on the first one is really special," said Haden. "Alan takes a solo on there that's unbelievably great. And I'm not usually happy with my playing, but once in a while I feel as if I almost played what I was hearing, and my solo on that song was one of those." 

8. Charlie Haden: The Montréal Tapes 

In 1989, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal organized a series of tribute concerts to Charlie Haden that took place on eight successive nights. Each concert featured Charlie playing with one or more of his noted colleagues, in settings that ranged from a duo with Brazilian guitarist Egberto Gismonti to the Liberation Music Orchestra. The concerts were recorded, and two CDs have been issued so far: one with pianist Paul Bley and drummer Paul Motian, the other with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Ed Blackwell. In the liner notes, Haden wrote: "These were some of the most memorable moments of my life, and I will cherish them forever."

9. Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Discovery 

Haden encountered the brilliant young Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba in 1986, while on a concert tour with the Liberation Music Orchestra. "I was so impressed by his playing that I went backstage to meet him. Then I just tried to figure out a way we could play together." Given the political situation with Cuba, that wasn't easy – but Charlie found a way. This live album, with drummer Paul Motian, was recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1990.

10. Charlie Haden & Carlos Paredes: Dialogues

After playing with Portuguese guitarist Carlos Paredes in 1978, Haden began the negotiations to arrange a recording session. The session eventually took place in Paris in 1990, under the auspices of Jean-Philipe Allard of French Polygram. Haden set the scene: "At the rehearsal, there was no written music. I just listened to what he was doing. I didn't feel very secure, but the next day we went to the studio and just started playing. Carlos has his own musical language, and the journey he takes you on is really beautiful."

11. Rickie Lee Jones: Pop Pop

"I like the way Rickie Lee Jones sings. She called me to make a record with her, and I really liked doing it. It was the same with Bruce Hornsby." Haden's formidable ear and sensitive touch make a mighty contribution to Jones's 1991 collection of pop songs from different eras. His sprightly backing on I Won't Grow Up is worth the price of admission alone.

12. Charlie Haden & Hank Jones: Steal Away

"The old hymns I sang when I was a kid came over from Ireland and Scotland and England and France, and went into the Appalachian Mountains and the Ozark Mountains, where I was raised," said Haden. Several of those classic hymns, along with spirituals such as Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, folk songs such as Danny Boy, and Haden's own Spiritual, make up this Grammy-nominated 1994 collection of duets with pianist Hank Jones. If you really want to understand the way Charlie Haden plays, you must hear this.

13. Ginger Baker Trio: Going Back Home

Imagine Cream with Bill Frisell on guitar and Charlie Haden on bass ... and you've got this brilliantly unconventional 1994 album. "Ginger always told me, `I'm not a rock & roll drummer, I'm a jazz drummer,'" said Haden. "That's what he wants to be. And when you approach your instrument and your passion to communicate your music to people in an honest way, then there is no category." 

14. James Cotton: Deep in the Blues

If folk music, spirituals, and hymns are three essential elements of Haden's sound, then the blues is another. His solos are often steeped in the feeling of the blues, and that aspect comes into sharp focus on this recording that teams Charlie with 'Superharp' Cotton and guitarist Joe Louis Walker. "I knew James Cotton's work because he had played harmonica with Muddy Waters for years, so I was honored to get a call from asking me to play with James and Joe Louis Walker. I learned a lot about the blues by playing with these blues masters."

15. Gavin Bryars: Farewell to Philosophy

British composer Bryars wrote the adagio By the Vaar especially for Haden; it was recorded in London with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by James Judd. The bass melody for the first movement was written, but the second section was improvised on the spot. "Gavin had written out all of these chord symbols, but when I got to that part, I just closed my eyes and played."

In September 2014, three months after Haden’s death, the Impulse! label released a duo performance from the 1990 Montreal International Jazz Festival. Charlie Haden & Jim Hall is available to buy and stream.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s

publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How The Fender Bass Changed The World

and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide, both published by Backbeat

Books/Hal Leonard.

With contributions from