Artists-On-Albums: AOA#8 (David Sheppard on Liberation Music Orchestra)

David Sheppard (Ellis Island Sound, State River Widening, Phelan Sheppard) on…

Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!, 1969)

Charlie Music Orchestra

Charlie Haden - Music Liberation Orchestra

I first heard this album in a front room in Vauxhall, a little over a decade ago (thank you, Patrick).  I can still remember the warm, exciting and instantly familiar feeling it gave me. It has provoked similar frissons whenever I’ve played it since; which is often.

Although I’d not knowingly heard the album before this SW9 epiphany, I was already aware of the group The Liberation Music Orchestra and the esteem in which their eponymous debut was held in some quarters.  I also knew that bass player Charlie Haden was an erstwhile accompanist of Ornette Coleman and that one of his collaborators on the LMO record was ace arranger and pianist Carl Bley, whose records I owned.  I also remember hearing that the album was one of Robert Wyatt’s favourites; that ought to have been recommendation enough.

At this point, a warning: Liberation Music Orchestra is a jazz record.  Please don’t be put off by that, even if you’re one of those people whose Pavlovian response to the word ‘jazz’ involves running as fast as possible in the direction of Abba’s Greatest Hits.  For the record, as it were, I equate jazz with the work of Moondog, Basil Kirchin, Roy Budd, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman as much as I do Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong. In other words, I like my jazz emotional, expressive and inventive but also accessible, even playful, and laced with generous measures of melody and harmony.  I’m a lightweight.

For all that, Liberation Music Orchestra is not a completely easy ride; it makes you do a little ‘work’ as a listener and it certainly contains its moments of noisy dissonance and freeform opacity.  Yet, for every vertiginous cliff face there is a wonderfully lush valley and, taken as a whole, the journey makes complete topological sense; there’s not a gratuitous note or drumbeat on the record and grandstanding virtuosity is notable by its complete absence.  All of which is telling, given that there are 13 gifted musicians variously permutated on this album (including Don Cherry on cornet and Indian bamboo flutes, Carla Bley on piano, Gato Barbieri on tenor sax and clarinet and Andrew Cyrille and Paul Motian on drums and percussion) – testament, if nothing else, to the arrangement élan of Carla Bley and respectful marshalling of Charlie Haden.

Recorded in the spring of 1969, with the Vietnam War raging, the album was inspired by the politically bowdlerized folk songs of an earlier geopolitical conflict between right and left, the Spanish Civil War. By conflating the two confrontations, and without resorting to hectoring or sloganeering, Haden set out to make something almost oxymoronic, a subtly emotional protest record.  To do so he assembled his Liberation Music Orchestra musicians in New York City, along with soundtrack song recordings from the film Mourir A Madrid (To Die In Madrid), French director Frédéric Rossif’s 1963 study of the Civil War, which would be interposed on several of the album’s tracks (a very rare, and early, example of ‘plunderphonics’ in orchestral jazz).  They recorded over three days at the end of April, at Jusdon Hall, on the campus of New York University. Haden later described these sessions as: “some of the most meaningful moments of my life.”

I don’t actually want to describe the music they made on those distant spring days in too much detail here, for fear of diffusing the initial wave of startling pleasure that awaits the still uninitiated.  Suffice to say that over the album’s 50-odd minutes of stirring, thought-provoking music, there are passages of gorgeous, brass-led lyricism, dusty, Spanish guitar interludes, hymnal songs, a paean to Dr. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, an Ornette Coleman cover, compositions by Carla Bley (including the one-minute-15-second “Introduction” whose emotion-soaked brass tune is worth the cover price alone, and one amusing, self-explanatory number called “The Ending To The First Side”) and two politically-inspired gems by Haden himself.

In the sleeve notes, Haden says: “The music in this album is dedicated to creating a better world; a world without war and killing, without poverty and exploitation; a world where men of all governments realize the vital importance of life and strive to protect rather than destroy it.  We hope to see a new society of enlightenment and wisdom where creative thought becomes the most dominant force in all people’s lives.” They are honourable sentiments which, sadly, need expressing today as much as they did four decades ago.  That’s just one more reason why no right-thinking, left-leaning (or even ostensibly apolitical) home is complete without a copy of Liberation Music Orchestra.

Notes On The Artist:

David Sheppard

David Sheppard

David Sheppard is quite possibly the combined South London answer to art-rock polymath Jim O’Rourke, veteran US music scribe Byron Coley and erstwhile Bad Seeds backbone Mick Harvey.

Spreading himself widely – but never thinly – across multiple realms of the artistic landscape in numerous guises, vocations and locations, David is one of the most undersung culture-enriching journeymen of our recent times.

Since the mid-‘90s, David has sated his main melodic and wordless urges through the sublime electro-acoustic tributaries of State River Widening, the shape-shifting exotica of Ellis Island Sound, the filmic globalism of Phelan Sheppard and the Far-Eastern explorations of Smile Down Upon Us.

Besides his own sonic projects, David has been Pete Astor’s right-hand man in The Wisdom Of Harry, a sometime side-venture accomplice to Piano Magic’s Glen Johnson and Angèle David-Guillou, a drumming/studio aide to ex-Hefner leader Darren Hayman and an occasional producer-for-hire.

When he’s not making music himself, David can also be found critiquing and documenting the work of others as a regular contributor/columnist for MOJO magazine, editing The Saatchi Gallery Magazine: Art & Music and sweating hard over other freelance book/magazine duties.  2008 also saw the publication of David’s exceptionally enjoyable Brian Eno biography, On Some Faraway Beach. On top of written media work, David is also one-third of the team driving new and promising ‘boutique’ record label Second Language.

David is currently working – albeit slowly – on a new Phelan Sheppard LP, fresh ‘broken Euro-African funk’ material with Ellis Island Sound and a solo Pete Astor record, for release over the next year or two.

In-between times, David might even attempt to fit in some well-earned sleep and a trip to the barbers…

Visit and listen to David Sheppard at: