Thursday, January 20, 2011

Liberation Music Orchestra: The Rennie Davis Treatment

This is a makeshift incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band looking almost as if they're aware of what's going on. It's a fascinating photograph but probably not for reasons that may be initially assumed: I love the fact that I can name all of about six people in it. That's a double-chinned Eric Clapton about to whisper something slurred and incomprehensible into Lennon's ear and George Harrison standing above him, looking as cheerful as ever. Keith Moon is unaware of just what's going on and, finally, there's Billy Preston who mostly stands out due to his skin colour (it isn't just Yoko Ono's ethnicity and gender that distinguish her from the rest of these rogues, it's the fact that she appears refreshingly unconcerned with the proceedings). I suspect that's Pete Ham or another minor member of Badfinger in front of him at the far right but I can't be certain. I should acknowledge that possibly at this very moment there's a girl called Laurie or a boy called Christopher who's looking at their Grade 1 class picture and wondering just who the hell the buck-toothed bean pole is and in that respect I can fully empathize with the individuals in the back row.

Drugs and self-absorption had already curbed Lennon's remarkable talent but his politicization was probably the last nail in his creative coffin. (Upon hearing of the death of Elvis, Lennon famously remarked that the King had actually died when he began serving in the army; perhaps Lennon met his true premature passing when he began dissing the military...what, is it still too soon? Okay, fine, Lennon work tirelessly for world peace and it's only a pity he he then hit the bottle and completely lost interest. Is that better?) I'll never be so arrogant to suggest that politics has no place in popular music but it seems to inevitably affect artistic quality control. (How else did Lennon manage to convince himself to pen such uncharacteristically innocuous songs like 'All You Need is Love', 'Give Peace a Chance' and 'Power to the People'?)

Perhaps sensing this, Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra makes a game attempt to tackle issues while maintaining an admirably high standard of musical creativity - at least some of the time. The second side lags largely due to dullness on tracks 'Song for Ché' and - a particular disappointment - the otherwise outstanding Ornette Coleman composition 'War Orphans': in the case of the former, Haden's obvious admiration for Guavara probably puts him too close to its subject as the performance commences with him trudging through an over-long bass solo before finally moving on to some free-form nonsense courtesy of Don Cherry and Dewey Redman; the latter just drifts along, as if waiting for someone in this thirteen-piece orchestra to do something - a curiousity considering the foundation of this outfit was formed around Coleman offshoots. Once again, Haden's heart is probably at too close of a proximity to the subject matter to make objective creative decisions.

Haden's vision for the album is stirring but muddied and this is probably why Carla Bley was such a boon to these sessions. The Spanish Civil War medley 'El Quinto Regimento/Los Cuatro Generales/Viva la Quince Brigada' is the highlight and, as twenty-minute tracks go, is surprisingly concise. The whole thing is held together by Sam Brown's guitar and Bley on piano and they manage to keep the free-form madness from getting too out of hand. Gato Barbieri's section is especially memorable and it reminds me of some of his equally wonderful work on Cherry's minor masterpieces Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers. (It's possible that he knew how to best combine Haden's passion with Bley's professionalism, which seemed to have escaped the rest of the orchestra.) The shorter numbers - Bley originals 'The Introduction', 'The Ending to the First Side' and 'The Interlude (Drinking Music)', as well as shots at 'Song of the United Front' and 'We Shall Overcome' - are all great call-to-arms hum alongs with some stellar group playing: nothing gets especially out of hand but the rebel rousing isn't compromised one bit. If anything, the best case for the revolutionary spirit of Liberation Music Orchestra is in these numbers.

Similar to the way an actor or singer will coyly smile into a camera that strays into the audience at an awards ceremony, the figures in the Plastic Ono Band picture seem convinced that you know who they are - which obviously makes my ignorance as to their identities all the funnier; the Liberation Music Orchestra personnel don't appear to care whether you're able to recognize them or not. They cared about making a statement and creating some lovely music. At least they tried.

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