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Interviews

Bob Belden: Jazz Adventurer

By Published: January 28, 2013
AAJ: Your capacity to create a jazz record that resembles a mural, or a film, or a novel in its story-telling coherence, is rare: maybe Duke, maybe bassist Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
, maybe arranger Gil Evans
Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
composer/conductor
did something like that, sometimes. Black Dahlia has that same kind of ambition; your Miles albums, too. How would you characterize what you do when you envision and carry out a project like Transparent Heart, or Black Dahlia, and how does it differ from what your contemporaries in jazz are doing?

BB: Modeling music along the lines of film narrative (not film music) should be a logical evolution of the jazz composer mindset. Sadly, we happen to be in an era of absolute music, music that does not tell a story other than that of "hard work becoming a musician in a practice room." It's a shift in jazz towards the player and not the conceptual artist. The player mindset evokes a strong empathy with the self-conscious hero. The conceptual artist uses the player as a character or object in a grand design. Music can inspire the imagination to create an imaginary world but it has to develop from the conceptual mind.

In jazz music, some artists prefer a no-drama or a scripted drama approach to their music. This is the most popular form of jazz today: predetermined. Since musicians have to be method actors as well, playing the part of the "jazz musician," it's only fitting that the music tends to be flat and predictable, directed and mildly contrived. Consider the emphasis on Ellington and Mingus in our contemporary jazz canon; rarely mentioned in the same context is basic humanity, nor are the films, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, novelists, painters, etc., who surrounded these two artists' cultural universe. The music, the musicians, the personalities are all taken out of context, leaving out a connectivity to the full nature of art/life that is described in some manner as Total Art. In Total Art, we find our true selves. "Jazz" as it is practiced contemporaneously is limited and suffocating to the imagination. It's an Incomplete Art.

Black Dahlia was in part re-imagined from two books, one Fiction—James Elroy's Black Dahlia (Grand Central, 1987)—and one non-fiction—Otto Freidrich's City of Nets (University of California, 1986). The dark music of romanticism and expressionism came from listening to Alban Berg's operas Lulu (1937) and Wozzeck (1925). Watching and listening to Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) with Jerry Goldsmith's score as a model for ambience and texture and the sepia- tones of Polanski and his director of photography John Alonzo transformed oneself into another era.

The underlying stories in both Transparent Heart and Black Dahlia are obvious but there are some deeper conceptual elements that come into play. For instance, there is a connection between my earlier recordings Treasure Island and Turandot in that the idée fixe of eternal love and happiness creates a common thread between these recordings (Black Dahlia, Turandot, Treasure Island). In all three recordings, there is a narrative about the quest for a true and pure form of love and what one will do to find this state of mind. And in each of these recordings, there is a subtext, in that with love comes the pathway. In these pathways come fate and that is eventually how darkness will prevail. The pathways of Treasure Island, Turandot and Black Dahlia led to the fates of madness, suicide and murder, respectively. So you have extreme contrasting emotional and psychological elements, and this constant triangulation is at the heart of the tension of romanticism, expressionism and narrative. Keep in mind that until recently, Manhattan was a bachelor's paradise, so the hope of finding eternal love and happiness was always in the air. But so was the shadow of madness.

There is a focused connectivity between Black Dahlia and Transparent Heart. They portray specific environments, urban environments filled with life, energy, love and sadness, light, shadow, sound and voices. One is set in Los Angeles during the late 40s and one is set in Manhattan post-Taxi Driver. With Black Dahlia, I could imagine a world that existed and with Transparent Heart, I could shape a world that not only existed but a world that I was a part of in my lifetime. Because of the electronic nature of Transparent Heart, we could incorporate audio samples into the music that would push the limits of perceptible reality within the borders of a jazz recording. With Transparent Heart, you will find no real love, only sadness. Love is gone from the city. It has been replaced by a plastic-collar sense of heartless sympathies and benign neglect.

Transparent Heart uses documentary film concepts with narrative film concepts and this is embedded within a jazz performance that is abstract in nature.



Duke Ellington was a portrait artist, both literally and musically. In many of his compositions he told of people, events, pop culture and these pieces would be considered short stories of some kind. Duke was comfortable to base his larger works on existing or imitative texts, being more theatrical, symphonic and operatic in form and construct, Black, Brown and Beige (Columbia, 1958) being one of the most magnificent.

Charles Mingus was a literalist and also a social re-engineer, commenting on the world surrounding and confronting him. The world of Mingus was immediate and unsympathetic and in many ways, a mix of noir expressionism and a dark personal inner narrative that exploded into the music at any given time. Mr. Mingus did dream of better places but his very difficult life made glimmers of sunshine shaded in hues of blue. I always considered Mingus' Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse!, 1963) a chamber jazz ensemble LP and Epitaph (Columbia, 1989) [posthumously premiered], his large-scale composition that is very deep and confessional, to be perfect narrative constructs.

With Gil, the closest he got to programmatic music was Miles Ahead (Columbia, 1957) with Miles Davis. Although the LP is programmatic, there is no narrative. Porgy and Bess (Columbia, 1958) was based on a novel, an opera, a Broadway show and a film by the time Miles and Gil recorded it. So I would say that these three musicians were portrait artists as opposed to filmmakers.

There are other musicians you forgot to mention (out of hundreds): Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, [saxophonist] John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul. All are narrative composers when they desire. With Chick, he created Now He Sings, Now He Sobs {Blue Note, 1968) and Return to Forever (ECM, 1972) as poetic narratives. Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973) and the other Return to Forever recordings of that time frame were dramatic episodic constructs.

A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964). Om (Impulse!, 1965). Meditations (Impulse!, 1965). All narrative recordings by John Coltrane.

And with Joe Zawinul, most of his songs are portraits, postcards, human conditions, adventure, exotic perspectives. His two great narrative recordings, Stories of the Danube (Philips/Polygram, 1996) and My People (Tone Center, 1996), really take Ellington into the modern era. Joe and I used to talk a lot about the need to tell stories in music. Even Herbie Hancock's Empyrean Isles (Blue Note, 1964) and Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965) are descriptive narrative recordings based more on Nora Kelly's prose and less with a leitmotif concept of inter- connective musical elements. Wayne Shorter needs no explanation.

As far as contemporaries, I am not sure who thinks along these exact lines. If I "named names," I am sure I would leave out many. I do find inspiration in life observed and imagined and, within Animation, realized.


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