Bassist Charlie Haden devoted the bulk of a rare L.A. appearance by the Quartet West to cinematic themes in search of a 1940s film noir classic. Haunting and painterly, Haden’s band made mood and atmosphere a top priority in a program of 10 originals and two Charlie Parker pieces. The lasting impression is one of superficiality — like a soundtrack that needs its images to work — and only on Haden’s closing numbers, “First Song” and “Bay City,” did any fire lift the players into a gripping realm.
Relying largely on material from “Always Say Goodbye,” the quartet’s next Verve disc skedded for March 22 release, the compositions evoked standard cinema settings such as dark alleys, rainy nights and lovers embracing. The soloists, except Haden, seemed to feel little allegiance to the ambience of the theme, choosing instead to go for flashy and fluid improvisations. Ernie Watt’s tenor sax solos, for example, were spry jaunts through standard be-bop territory. He plays in upper registers for a nearly alto effect that worked best on the Parker numbers, “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” and “Passport.”
Haden’s solos, on the other hand, were deliberate and tonally correct affairs. Of the preeminent bassists in jazz, Haden is probably the slowest; he dramatically emphasizes the fullness of the instrument’s sound, providing a much-needed heaviness.
Watts, who was the featured soloist on each piece, often seemed to be the leader of the ensemble. Haden, a free-thinking jazz fixture since his work with the early Ornette Coleman Quartet, stayed in the back, shielded by large sheets of Plexiglas to protect his hearing. Alan Broadbent is a remarkable pianist who seems to get stuck in the sameness of the quartet’s material; Larance Marable is fine at accompaniment, but his solos seemed directionless.
On the new disc, Haden uses snippets of recordings from the ’30s and ’40s to connect with the Raymond Chandler-inspired scenes he composes. In concert, the band used a single backdrop of a few office buildings. A change of scenes would have enhanced the concert greatly.