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“Think more like Charlie Haden”

Very sad to hear the news that the great bassist Charlie Haden passed away today at the age of 76.  He had an enormous impact on me as a musician, but unfortunately I only got to see him live once, at Birdland in NYC with his Quartet West, and this was right at the onset of his post-polio syndrome.  He had to walk off the stage in the middle of the second song, and the band continued without him, though he eventually managed to muster up the strength to return for one more tune, an absolutely gorgeous rendition of “Blue and Green.”  This remains one of my most treasured musical memories; you could see the pain in every note he played, but if you closed your eyes all you heard was the beauty and emotional weight that defined Haden’s music for his entire life.  For those few minutes, he played his heart out, and then, spent, he left the stage for good.

I will hopefully be able to write much more about his music at a later date, but for now I will just say this: I’ve often found that when I’m not too comfortable with the chord changes of a tune, or I don’t have much to say solo-wise, my go-to crutch is to cover this up by playing a lot of notes.  One of my bass teachers caught on to this right away, and for two years whenever I would start doing this during a lesson, he would stop me and say, “Start over, and this time think more like Charlie Haden.”  He never explicitly stated what this meant, but I came to interpret it as slowing things down (not tempo-wise, but idea-wise), removing all the extraneous notes, and simply seeking out my own melody within the music.  I’ve tried to follow this mantra ever since, and the fact that it continues to be such a difficult ideal to achieve speaks volumes about Haden’s genius.