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Interviews

Bob Belden: Jazz Adventurer

By Published: January 28, 2013
AAJ: The music on Transparent Heart recalls (very favorably) the early-to-mid-70s electric jazz of Miles Davis and pianist Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
. This is music you know particularly well. What do you draw from Davis and Hancock?

BB: When I was a lowly 16-year-old freshman in college in 1973, I was told in no uncertain terms by my dorm neighbor Mike Winter that if I could not figure out Bitches Brew by the time I was a senior that I would be an idiot. So I purchased all the available Miles Davis LPs that were in the catalog at the time. They were list priced at $1.99. [Davis'] In Concert (Columbia, 1973), was fresh, so I listened to it right away. Being an impressionable kid with the threat of long-term idiocy, I assumed that In Concert was what jazz was supposed to be.

With Miles Davis—and, through Miles, Herbie Hancock, [keyboardist] Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
, Joe Zawinul and [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
—it is, to me in part, a matter of an elegance of harmony that is both romantic and impressionistic and a real strong feeling for a groove. Using this as a template, the idea is to develop a sense of subtle elegance and also, within the framework of expressionism, have the overall texture of romanticism exist as an equal. What is in some instances referred to as something that "sounds good" is really, in my mind, a transference of a sound into an expected and accepted cultural norm of elegance or romanticism via personal taste.

There was this other side of the same coin that Miles Davis was incorporating into his recorded and live performances during the '70s: that of a larger form and focused structure pieces, symphonic and operatic in design and unique in modern jazz history. It was a mix of ambient orchestration (the total sound of the combined mass of instruments within an ambient sound field) and intuitive structure and form-based songs and improvised songs with a strong groove. Miles Davis used volume and density just as he would use chord changes and instrumentation.

With Herbie, Chick and Joe, it's about how to place your band in the midst of an evolving world. To be able to insert your band, your vehicle, into whatever surroundings come up. In this way, Animation has always embedded itself within other sonic templates, be it an orchestra or an Ambisonic live concert. Or even a big band; the core sound has to travel so the center expands and you develop a textual universe beyond a quintet. The history of Animation is filled with recordings that embedded the core members within a commercial or artistic endeavor, from Strawberry Fields (Blue Note, 1996) to The Four Seasons [unissued] to Animation: Imagination to Black Dahia (Blue Note, 2001) to Asiento. The core sound was there but embellished with conceptual narratives, colors and textures that were not part of the basic aspects of a traditional hard-bop jazz quintet.

If you listen to any body of work you will hear not only evolution but refinement, a narrowing of choices that defines a particular style. Transparent Heart is a refined composition, if the entire CD is to be construed as a complete work. In the same way that Miles Davis would edit harmony and form on songs to get the bare essence, many of the songs on Transparent Heart went through the editing process over years until the right sound was developed to capture the essence and heartbeat of the music. It was when the band was finally formed in the studio, with Roberto making his debut with the band at that moment, that the final editing process was set into motion. This way all of the "editing" could be done live in the studio using intuition and a sense of adventure.

AAJ: Transparent Heart is a musical suite. The experience of listening to it is like reading a novel by Dickens or Balzac, in which London or Paris is the central character, and a broad cast of characters tell a multitude of stories. Tell us a little about the "novel" at the heart of Transparent Heart.

BB: A better analogy would be Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness with subways.

My first CD on Sunnyside Records, Treasure Island (1996), contained a suite ("Treasure Island Suite") that was fashioned to accompany a ballet along the lines of Walter Piston's The Incredible Flutist. I recorded Turandot for Blue Note Records in 1992, and this was a full-scale project that followed the narrative of the opera closely. This was when I began to incorporate the idea of "human orchestration" into my thought process, where you can put a person's instrumental (or vocal) characteristics inside a larger ensemble cast, just like opera or film. It's Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, expanded. But when you add the character into a flowing dramatic narrative the idea embellishes Ellington in the best way possible.

These projects led me into focusing on the similarities between novelization, film and jazz aesthetics. There were some parallels that made things easier to make the move into this narrative form of jazz composing. With Turandot, I was able to artfully manipulate the musicians into performing to the exact emotional level of the Puccini opera as well as transform the sound of an instrument (as a character in the opera) via personality and texture. I would apply the knowledge of an individual's music DNA and match that to the development of the character in the opera.

With Transparent Heart, there were some literary models, mostly The Power Broker (Vintage, 1975) [the biography of New York City "master builder" Robert Moses], by Robert A. Caro, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (Vintage, 2010), by Piers Brendan, and, most importantly, The Looming Tower (Knopf, 2006) [the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the rise of al-Qaeda], by Lawrence Wright. The film models would be Taxi Driver (1976) [directed by Martin Scorsese] and the documentary Limelight (2011) [directed by Billy Corben].

I came to Manhattan in the time of Caro and Taxi Driver and the track "Terra Incognito" was just how I felt about the city at the time. I had a "chapter one," so to speak. And to tell a story all you need is a beginning and humanity fills in the rest of the story for you. You have to observe. Balzac witnessed the death of royal lineage and the emergence of France from democracy into dictatorship, and Dickens the horrors of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain and the emergence of the middle class, both highly significant to the development of the human race. So yes, there is some connection in that way. With Caro and Taxi Driver, I had Robert Moses and Travis Bickle [protagonist of Taxi Driver] as the embodiments of what it was like to be in Manhattan and New York City in general. Today a new person entering Manhattan has two contrasting iconic figures, [Mayor] Michael Bloomberg being the ghost of Robert Moses and the shadowy terrorist being the ghost of Travis Bickle.

There is that old model for any writer: "write what you know." So, rather than try to explain Indian or Spanish music via a Western cultural icon, I chose a story that I was a part of, a story that I lived and kept a music diary of that existence. And the world lives in Manhattan so there is a very personal global connection in this narrative.


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