Bob Belden: Jazz Adventurer

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Bob Belden is a jazz renaissance man: a flutist and saxophonist who began his career with Woody Herman's big band. He's also a composer and arranger, who has orchestrated jazz treatments of Puccini's opera Turandot as well as the music of The Beatles, Sting and Prince. His pair of tributes to trumpeter Miles DavisMiles from India (Times Square, 2008) and Miles Español: New Sketches From Spain (Entertainment One, 2011)- -are conceptually and sonically rich high points in a crowded discography as arranger- impresario.

As a producer, moreover, he has led the compilation and reissue of several milestone jazz recordings and box sets for Sony/Columbia records, including trumpeter Miles Davis' The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Sony/Legacy, 2005) and The Complete On The Corner Sessions (Sony/Legacy, 2007), as well as pianist Herbie Hancock's Sextant (Columbia, 1973)—and many, many others. This work has garnered Belden three Grammy Awards, and few musicians have drawn as creatively from these masterpieces of 1970s fusion as Belden.

Perhaps what is most distinctive about Belden is his capacity to craft music in a cinematic or novelistic way. His albums, his concerts, tell multidimensional stories. In his conversation with All About Jazz, Belden points out that pianist/bandleader/composer Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, bassist/bandleader/composer Charles Mingus and keyboardist Joe Zawinul also created this kind of complex Total Art. But the group of such musicians is a small one. And, as his remarks demonstrate, Belden is thinking bigger and bigger all the time, marrying technology and creativity to transcend current notions of "jazz performance." Indeed, he prefers "adventures" to "projects."

Belden's Animation band has released three records on the RareNoise label, the most recent being Transparent Heart, an aural movie about New York City, recorded with an all-new lineup of musicians.

All About Jazz: Tell us a little about your band, Animation.

Bob Belden: Animation essentially started in 1993 as part of a recording session for EMI-Japan (PrinceJazz, EMI Japan, 1993). I had a concept of reducing the big band texture to three keyboards and a guitar, plus trumpet, sax, bass and drums. It was a sextet with only [trumpeter Tim Hagans, myself, Scott Kinsey [on synthesizers], [bassist David] Dyson, [drummer Billy Kilson and [turntablist] DJ Kingsize by 1999, when we recorded Animation: Imagination (Blue Note, 1999) and Re: Animation LIVE! (Blue Note, 2000). By then we had established an exclusive sound in the jazz world, being the first jazz band to successfully incorporate drum and bass and electronica influences into the music (with two Grammy nominations to prove it).

From 2001-2006, the band was in semi-hiatus, doing a few gigs and an unissued recording session. We used Zach Danzinger and KJ Sawka (currently the drummer with the pop band Pendulum) on drums during that period and DJ Logic joined the band in 2006. We went into Merkin Hall in late 2006 with Hagans, myself, Kinsey, Matthew Garrison on bass, Guy Licata on drums (who I met on a Bill Laswell gig at the Stone) and DJ Logic to perform [Miles Davis'] Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970). This was recorded by a UK production company called Something Else and the show ended up on the BBC. I also put the concert up on YouTube, where it has been viewed about 300,000 times.

Animation—Transparent HeartIt was through this video that Mr. Giacomo Bruzzo from RareNoise Records entered the picture. Giacomo thought the concert was strong enough to release and then implement a plan to try to find work for that band. The main problem was that all of the band members from 2006 had gone on their own by 2010, with personal commitments that overrode Animation. So in a very unique business move, Giacomo approved of resetting the band from scratch. He understood that Animation was not a one-off event, it was a line of thinking, a sound-creation methodology that he was familiar with and knew of the artistic potential. We made a deal to begin anew and on that basis, with the desire to embrace the future, and RareNoise released Asiento in 2011 and Agemo in 2012 to begin the idea of Animation being alive and well. A continuum was established. Transparent Heart was issued in October of 2012.

AAJ: Transparent Heart features a new lineup for Animation. Tell us a little about these musicians. How did you find them?

BB: Music and life evolve. And adapt. And grow.

The musicians were assembled through [bassist] Jacob Smith over a year leading up to the recording in December of 2011. I had heard Jacob on a recording and liked the vibe so I contacted him and we discussed a lot of things and eventually we had a band. The members of the band all attended, graduated or are still attending the University of North Texas. It's a serious music school and has a fantastic jazz department. Denton, Texas itself has a vibrant local club scene and lots of jazz going. A hidden treasure of live music. [Guitarist/vocalist] Jimi Tunnell was also involved in the development of the band, as he had played with all of the guys. His enthusiasm for them before we had played a note made me excited to work with them. They are natural musicians and fantastic human beings. They were friends and had many music adventures together before becoming a part of Animation. This makes it easier to enjoy every moment. It's life and music at the same time, the best of all worlds.

What you hear on the CD is the pure version of the band. This was the initial performance with the current lineup. [Drummer] Matt Young and Jacob both came to the session with clear ideas as to how the drums and bass were going to interact and they provide a unique counterpoint to the legato aspects of the saxophone and trumpet. Matt uses rhythms and textures that are in tune with the times, and are completely original at the highest level of drumming and musicianship.

Jacob has a wonderful sense of what the electric bass can do, inventing a new dialogue language with Matt. With his orchestration and arranging skills, Jacob is going to push the potential of the electric bass into a different sonic and harmonic world. With [trumpeter] Pete Clagett, he knows how to play through the music and get right to the energy. And [Clagett's] development of the electronic side of the trumpet is something that will take the instrument into a more open vibe, becoming as much an orchestrator as a soloist. [Keyboardist] Roberto Verastegui is a marvel to behold; each solo on the recording is etched in a larger concept and on live gigs his solos are inspiring. He also understands this elusive concept of improvised orchestration, where one can shift the texture and ambiance at a moment's notice so that the music can go unimpeded into unknown territory. And what makes this special is that Roberto was making his performance and recording début with the band. Again, I emphasize that these musicians are intuitive with tremendous natural abilities in many of the more refined aspects of contemporary musicianship. And most important, they are curious.


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