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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.

AAJ: The music on Transparent Heart recalls (very favorably) the early-to-mid-70s electric jazz of Miles Davis and pianist Herbie Hancock. 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, Joe Zawinul and [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter—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, 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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