May 7, 2018

Hayden and Bley’s Last Protest, Time/Life


JAZZ IS NOT NORMALLY considered to be protest music. By their nature, songs of protest or political struggle require lyrics. Being a predominantly instrumental form, jazz cannot express musically what can be expressed verbally. There have been some notable exceptions to this during the late 1950s and early 1960s including drummer Max Roach’s “We Insist” and saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite.” Charles Mingus’ composition “Fables of Faubus” protested school segregation by featuring shouted protests during what was otherwise a dissonant instrumental piece.

The most famous jazz protest, precisely because of the lyrical statement, was Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a song that still speaks strongly today decades after the practice of lynching
was abolished.

Protest songs generally address specific issues. The compositions listed above were cries for civil rights during that era and did not address political injustices beyond that specific cause. At the time, songs relating to political or labor struggles were more often sung in the folk idiom and not even rock & roll would take up political protest until the Vietnam era of the
late 1960s.

Unfortunately, the need for such political protest continues. To this end, bassist Charlie Haden and composer/arranger Carla Bley have recorded the latest, and likely the last, incarnation of their Liberation Music Orchestra (LMO) to protest climate change and the damage mankind is doing to the environment.

Deeply committed to fighting political injustice and war since its beginnings, the first incarnation of the LMO came about in 1968 as a musical statement against the Vietnam war. Later albums took inspiration from the Spanish Civil War and conflicts in El Salvador (1983’s “Ballad of the Fallen”), the racial and political struggles in South Africa and El Salvador (1993’s “Dream Keeper”) and America’s misguided war in Iraq (2005’s “Not In Our Name”).

The latest album, Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings) (Impulse 479 848-0), was initially conceived by Haden and Bley in 2007, when Haden became aware that the abuse of the environment had reached such a dangerous level that he felt he had to speak out about it. Sadly, his musical statement would not be not fully realized until after Haden’s death in 2014 from post-polio syndrome.

Haden himself does appear on two of the main tracks of the CD: Bley’s evocative arrangement of Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” and Haden’s own “Song for the Whales.” Both were initially recorded in concert in 2011 for Belgian Public Radio and appear in their full length — including spoken passages by Haden himself. For the remaining material, bassist Steve Swallow ably fills in.

Both Charlie Haden and Carla Bley are veterans of the avant-garde movement in jazz during the 1960s. Haden first made a name for himself with Ornette Coleman’s original quartet and Carla Bley came to prominence a bit later with her big band The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. While not as exploratory as avant-garde music was in the 1960s, the Liberation Music Orchestra still retains elements of the experimental spirit of that movement.

The Miles Davis composition “Blue in Green,” which originally appeared on the classic “Kind of Blue” album, gets a lush orchestral rendition reminiscent of Miles Davis’ arranger Gil Evans, with trumpeter Michael Rodriguez in Davis’ part. Likewise, Bley’s composition “Útviklingssang” has a very “Gil Evans” feeling to it, while retaining Bley’s own style. “Song for the Whales” is equally evocative, while giving ample room for excellent solos all around.

While no instrumental music can ever adequately protest political/military actions or social injustice, it’s important to use every method possible to fight injustice and corruption. The Liberation Music Orchestra’s message remains one that must be heard.

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at


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