Film noir is where you find it, and it's all but vanished from the big screen, aside from rare exceptions like Curtis Hanson's brutally beautiful "L.A. Confidential." So forget celluloid and instead hear the sound of heart-stopping romance, aching loneliness and mournful melancholy -- and visualize it all, in the mind's eye -- on a delicious little silver platter, "The Art of the Song." It's the latest in a series of concept albums organized by the versatile bassist Charlie Haden, a Midwesterner who boarded a Greyhound for La La Land 45 years ago with nothing but a suitcase and his plywood Kay.
Haden, the old-school bebopper, recovering avant-gardist and occasional guest on pop projects (Beck, Rickie Lee Jones), makes a real masterstroke this time out. He matches his accomplished West Coast quartet with handpicked tunes from Hollywood, Broadway and ancient pop charts; a 30-piece string orchestra, and emotive singing by Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson, the latter best known for his acting work.
The results are dazzling, and only occasionally melodramatic. Horn sets the tone with a haunting, insistently downbeat take on Leonard Bernstein's "Lonely Town," all breathy vocals enveloped in lush strings and Ernie Watts' saucy tenor saxophone declarations. She similarly indulges in a luxurious sense of time and space on the Jerome Kern gems "In Love in Vain" and "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," and on Cy Coleman's "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right out of My Life." Henderson's idiosyncratic phrasing lends charm to his subdued readings of "Why Did I Choose You" -- featuring a wonderfully melodic solo turn from Haden -- as well as "Ruth's Waltz," Jimmy Van Heusen's "You My Love" and "Easy on the Heart."
The singers exit for two classical pieces artfully arranged by the band's pianist, Alan Broadbent, for quartet and strings -- Rachmaninoff's "Opus 16, No. 3 in B Minor" and Ravel's "Prelude en la Mineur." Then, on the last track of the disc, Haden opens his mouth to sing an old tune called "Wayfaring Stranger." It's the first recorded vocal of a man who began his performing career at 2 years old, singing and yodeling in a family country and gospel band that made it all the way to the Grand Ole Opry. Haden's high tenor is lovely and plaintive on this tale of a prodigal son's wistful longing for a heavenly home, and it makes for his most evocative piece of music since "Beyond the Missouri Sky," his 1996 collaboration with Pat Metheny. Haden, his voice sometimes trembling on words once sung by his
mother, offers a series of pastoral images that are downright cinematic. Call it heartland noir.