It would be a bit presumptuous to call bassist Charlie Haden's latest release, The Art of the Song -- a lavish affair that sets the acoustic sounds of his Quartet West against the Chamber Orchestra's full orchestral backdrop and prominently features singers Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson -- his most fully realized recording. This is, after all, a man who has already anchored Ornette Coleman's legendary quartet of the early '60s, founded the ambitious Liberation Music Orchestra, and led the sublime Quartet West since 1986. But the CD does represent his most lush work to date.
The Art of the Song contains a collection of lyrical and melodic gems that, while mostly lesser-known, have stood the test of time and remain genuine classics. Rendered in full scale opulence with a string orchestra breathing life into every corner, Haden's song selections are culled from an earlier era's films and plays (such as Frank Sinatra's "You My Love," from the 1954 film Young at Heart, and Leonard Bernstein's "Lonely Town," from the 1945 play On the Town), new compositions from Haden and Quartet West pianist Alan Broadbent, and, interestingly, the classical repertoire -- a section of Rachmaninoff's Opus 16 no. 3 in B Minor and an early Ravel prelude, both piano pieces here arranged by Broadbent for quartet and orchestra.
Throughout the album, the fullness of the Chamber Orchestra and the gentle swing of the Quartet West integrate beautifully, largely due to Broadbent's arrangements. Henderson proves himself one of the more underrated jazz singers around on selections like "Ruth's Waltz" and "You My Love," and Haden's bass sounds as lush and full as ever, especially in the moments when he steps to the fore on the Rachmaninoff-derived "Moment Musical." And yet, in the midst of all this brilliance, it's Horn who very nearly steals the entire show with her breathtaking performances on four songs. Horn has always shone with tempos so slow they would drown the less talented, and on tunes here like "In Love In Vain" and "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life" she does it again, breathing life into the songs so dramatically that time seems to slow down and hang on her every nuanced whisper.
The album's only slightly sour note is hit by Haden himself, who makes his vocal almost-debut (as a child he sang as part of the Haden Family Band on the Grand Old Opry) on the disc's last track, "Wayfaring Stranger." But saying Haden's vocal isn't up to what preceded it is perhaps a bit unfair -- after the mastery exhibited on the rest of The Art of the Song, it's doubtful anything else would be either.
Charlie Haden's Quartet West with Strings and the Shirley Horn Trio perform Wednesday, October 20, 8 p.m. at Masonic Auditorium, 1111 California (at Taylor). Tickets are $20-52; call 776-1999.