Bassist Charlie Haden, one of the few players to stay true to the acoustic version of the instrument, has done it all: free jazz with Ornette Coleman in the late '50s; multicultural explorations with his Liberation Music Orchestra in the '60s, long before the term world music was ever considered; "folk jazz" on a series of well-received albums in the '70s; big band post-bop in the '80s. For most of the '90s, Haden has been showing a more traditional, almost romantic side. He's been reinventing the moody soundtrack compositions of classic Hollywood films with his Quartet West and collaborating on a series of intimate duo sets like "Steal Away" (1995), the Grammy nominated collection of African-American spirituals and folk songs he recorded with piano master Hank Jones, and this current set of down-tempo "saloon standards" with Kenny Barron, a pianist whose risumi includes work with Yuseff Lateef, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz.
"Night" was recorded live at New York's Iridium, an uptown jazz hangout, and despite the monster chops that Haden and Barron bring to their craft, the set has an idyllic, low-key feel that's highlighted by the occasional sound of silverware clicking on plates and the reserved applause that greets a particularly tasty flight of improvisational fancy.
Things get under way with Barron's "Twilight Song," a bluesy ballad. This spare, melancholy melody is anchored by Barron's almost despondent chords, but accented by his subtle trills and Haden's trademark bass lines, full of sonorous singular notes that hang in the air like broken-hearted cherubs. "Spring Is Here" sounds somewhat more hopeful. Barron's playing here is as light and bright as the memory of last summer's sunshine, and he concludes each musical phrase with lengthening improvisations that cautiously promise release and renewal. Barron attacks the torchy "Body and Soul" with an opening full of brilliant sparks that set up Haden's solo, an aching, almost painful deconstruction of melody that slowly gives way to a duel that matches Haden's gently swinging accompaniment with Barron's playful keyboard ramblings.
The set closes with "Waltz for Ruth," an up-tempo Haden composition dedicated to the bassist's wife, and "The Very Thought of You," another standard that views love with a strange mixture of hope and hopelessness, allowing the players to fluctuate between moody passages and vivid, animated jaunts. Haden, who produced the album and selected the tracks, said he wanted this recording to be "elegant," a word that sums up the music as well as any other. The tension -- between Barron's dazzling inventions and Haden's understated support, melody and improvisation, and the gin-soaked camaraderie of the nightclub and the bleary-eyed reality of the morning after -- sets the tone and echoes through every note. Those currently enamored with the ironic hipness and faux feeling of the Lounge Revival should give "Night and the City" a listen to find out what real sophistication is all about.