Bassist Charlie Haden cut his teeth on some of the most sinewy elements of free jazz — and from that he gleaned a strong sense of the liberating powers of sound. He has applied the knowledge in numerous settings, from far-out to comparatively conventional, but seldom has it yielded a bigger emotional payoff than on his most recent project, Nocturne.
Conceptualized by Haden and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Nocturne is tethered, albeit lightly, to the Cuban bolero tradition. Like, say, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the group (whose self-titled album was released this past May on Verve) leans toward cerebral subtlety more than improvisational fire — but that didn’t keep them from generating quite a bit of warmth Wednesday evening.
More elegant and subdued than its Iberian cousin, Cuban bolero meanders slowly and pensively, as if moving along at ocean’s edge. That was evident in the lovely opener “En la Orilla del Mundo,” which soared thanks to the lovely interplay between saxophonist Joe Lovano and violinist Frederico Britos Ruiz.
Such interplay was the exception, however. While Lovano wailed memorably on more upbeat numbers, notably “Tres Palabras,” and Ruiz on the more ethereal pieces — including “Noche de Ronda,” in which he punctuated his solo with some artful plucking — there was little outright ensemble playing.
That’s not to say that the individual performers didn’t shine. Rubalcaba — who was the go-to guy for most of the evening — demonstrated both romanticism and eloquence on breathy versions of “Transparence” and “Don’t Try Anymore.”
In contrast to his usual flash, Rubalcaba’s playing verged on the minimalist, a stealthy left hand teased by a right that hopped octaves, pulling but a handful of notes from across the keyboard.
Like the best rhythm section-based leaders — Elvin Jones and Dave Holland spring to mind — Haden made his presence felt effortlessly, seldom soloing and seldom making his playing the focus of a song.
Instead, he allowed his languid, dusky basslines to spread quietly across the measures of pieces like “Nightfall,” creating an air of peace, quiet and, ultimately, unbridled hope.