From Raucous to Sublime, Bob Belden’s Musical Range Explodes in Cincinnati
To the extent you can tell if a crowd is into the music, the audience on that first night in the mostly full Blue Wisp Jazz Club was either corralled (friends and/or family) or simply drawn to what they heard.
It was hard to tell.
Bob Belden and the newest edition of his Animation band were playing on the comfortable, roomy-enough stage in the club’s back room, a room with seats that wrapped halfway around the musicians. The music wasn’t necessarily easy to digest. Loud and unpredictable, scabrous and intrusive at times, it still managed to hold a charm for the mostly college-aged aggregate, the band conveying a certain on-stage chemistry that belied the age spread.
Beginning with “Urbanoia,” trumpeter Pete Clagett, Belden on soprano sax and Roberto Verastegui on Nord keyboard took solos that seemed to burst off the stage, each of them seemingly indifferent to where the notes would land yet measured in their note choices. Bassist Jacob Smith and drummer Matt Young were more than up to the challenge. In fact, they fueled everything, moving in and out of the soloists, depending on the mood.
Theirs was a confidence both pleasantly unsettling and reassuring. If you were there, you heard a band fully at home in its musical skin, one moment naturally following another, Belden-the-elder as much a fellow listener offstage as he was an onstage renegade, orchestrator and soloist.
Performing selections from the band’s new CD, Transparent Heart (Rare Noise), along with two cuts from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (recorded on the band’s recent CD Asiento), Animation delivered funky, ensemble-driven, incendiary rock with deep jazz roots. The band never lost sight of its musical moorings despite the ferocity. Playing alternating sets with a student-led CCM Mahavishnu (Orchestra) Ensemble tribute band, Animation’s more open forms and adventurous solos made for telling contrasts. Telling not only because Animation includes the veteran Belden, who wrote everything, but also because of his bandmates, three graduates of the University of North Texas and one current student. The cross-generational divide was spearheaded by Clagett (age 32 with a masters degree), along with Smith (24), Verastegui (23) and current student Young (living up to his name at the ripe old age of 19).
The second night featured two sets following the University of Cincinnati’s big band excursions through swinging and tuneful Belden arrangements of music by McCoy Tyner, Sting and others, led by the school’s director of jazz studies, Scott Belck, with Young on drums. One group of students followed the intricacies of John McLaughlin’s writing, the other Belden’s idiosyncratic ways with writing for large ensembles. The youth contingent in Belden’s band, on the other hand, taking their leader’s lead, seemed determined to paint outside the lines. Selections such as “Urbanoia” and the title cut reflected the back story to this music, a music fraught with nervous energy, stretches of serenity and ample supplies of melodic invention. Kind of like the Big Apple, Belden’s muse.
The third night was devoted to a rare slice of Belden’s orchestral maneuvers. As part of the University’s Cincinnati College–Conservatory of Music (CCM) Orchestra and Jazz Series, the complete Black Dahlia as well as three Animation pieces were performed in the school’s acoustically receptive Corbett Auditorium. The house may not have been sold out (it was Easter weekend, after all), but they were a formidable audience. And what they heard was a melding of symphonic music with jazz as its nexus, and in a room where the harps (two) and English horn didn’t have to compete with the brass, drums and massive string section. You could hear everything, a successful approximation of what one can hear on the top-notch studio recording of Black Dahlia (Blue Note, 2000).
Featuring trumpeter Tim Hagans, a longtime collaborator and Black Dahlia CD contributor who was brought in at Belck’s request—Black Dahlia served as a fitting testament to Belden’s overall musical range. Based on a true story of murder in postwar Los Angeles, the music is cinematic, ripe with feeling, unlike anything else in the worlds of jazz, pop and classical. The combined Jazz Ensemble (totally student-driven) and Philharmonia Orchestra proved more than up to the task, the music’s bright, expressive moments as well as the darker, more subtle transitions fully conveyed, if not in the spirit of the original then definitely in the execution. In conductor Belck’s words, “Black Dahlia is some of the most beautiful music ever written. Why beat around the bush?”
Hagans’ bebop style was well suited for this classical canvas, the lush, string-heavy backdrop providing a welcome contrast. Beginning with the appropriately titled “Genesis,” Hagans’ open horn filled the room, starting slow, a little rough just ahead of the full orchestra, as if to suggest an imperfect protagonist in a world of seeming perfection, a flowing, lyrical world of romance and intrigue. But in case anyone was wondering if Black Dahlia was going to be awash simply in strings and sentiment, the uptempo bebop of “In Flight” might have dispelled that notion, Hagans’ muted horn with rhythm section suddenly conjuring up images of late-night speeding on an L.A. freeway, uptempo swinging and improvising a slightly jarring break from that dreamy intro.
One of the virtues and features of Black Dahlia comes in the way soloists are written into the music. In a steady succession, Hagans and a series of others rotated in and out of the spotlight, the student musicians playing on a level that could almost make you forget the other original artists from the studio recording, artists like Joe Lovano, Lou Marini and Marc Copland. In each case, strong, imaginative work was turned in by students Michael Shults (alto sax), Jon Ludwig (tenor), Joel Land (tenor), Joe Wittman (guitar) and Josh Jessen (piano). And Belden’s writing, putting the soloist front and center with such a large orchestral complement, practically turned each of these occasions into mini-concertos, the unconventional writing perhaps more a challenge for the more classically trained, not to mention the jazz musicians accustomed to small-group and big-band charts.
This performance of Black Dahlia with selections from Transparent Heart was proof positive that university programs—especially those with a conservatory thrust combined with a jazz studies program—can pull off a remarkable “cover” of a difficult score, in this case a score inspired by the legendary Hollywood composer Jerry Goldsmith.
The concert ended with the Animation band joining everyone and Belden conducting. The final three numbers came from the new CD in a world premier performance. “Terra Incognito,” “Cry In The Wind” and “Transparent Heart” were all rendered in the same spirit as Black Dahlia, with a novel twist coming from a real band playing inside and with a full orchestra. Here again was evidence of how lines can be crossed, new musical ventures successfully pulled off, regardless of age, the back story to all of this waiting to be told.