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Bob Belden: Riddle Me This

Listening to Bob Belden rant about the harsh realities of the jazz recording industry is a lot like what I imagine Bob Woodward must’ve experienced listening to Deep Throat spill the beans about Watergate. It’s simultaneously shocking and depressing. Having been on several sides of the “jazz issue” as player, composer, contractor, arranger, Grammy Award winner and industry insider (a brief stint as A&R man at Blue Note), Belden is uniquely qualified to dish the dirt. He knows more about the business from all angles than most musicians ever allow themselves to learn, and he’s never shy about revealing truths or speaking his mind with a sly, all-knowing grin.

And yet, in spite of his jaded wags-eye view of the record game and jazz biz, his indelible, romantic spirit continues to blossom. It’s hard to reconcile that someone so privy to the daily tales of corruption, injustice, incompetence, greed and Catch-22 absurdities that abound in the recording industry could also rise above the fray and produce something as profoundly beautiful and deeply meaningful as Black Dahlia (Blue Note), Belden’s magnum opus scored for 65-piece orchestra and featuring soloists Joe Lovano, Marc Copland, Kevin Hays, Lawrence Feldman, Erik Friedlander, Conrad Herwig, Scott Kinsey, Scott Robinson, Lou Marini, Lew Soloff, Mike Migliore, Charles Pillow and longtime collaborator trumpeter Tim Hagans. The fact that this sprawling project has come out at all is a testament to Belden’s uncompromising vision and his steadfast commitment to quality-two attributes that many chops-obsessed musicians today lack.

With allusions to Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to the 1974 Roman Polanski film Chinatown as well as conceptual nods to Puccini’s “Turandot,” Belden’s Black Dahlia is his bid for greatness in a field mired in mediocrity. Based on the James Ellroy crime fiction novel The Black Dahlia, Belden’s tragic jazz opera covers the real life story of Elizabeth Short, a Depression-era child with starstruck dreams of Hollywood fame whose search for true and everlasting love plunges her into the dark side of L.A. life that ends with her brutal murder at the age of 22. But while Ellroy immerses himself in the murky mise-en-scène of ’40s Hollywood, Belden occupies himself more with the person behind the Black Dahlia mystique.

“Essentially, my piece is about dying and how to get there,” Belden quips. “James Ellroy created a world around the Black Dahlia murder case but he really didn’t delve into her character, he delved into the Los Angeles that he grew up with and had in L.A. Confidential. And so for Ellroy, it was just a matter of taking that murder and creating a story around it. I was more interested in the character of Elizabeth Short, what she was thinking and feeling right up to the moment of her death. So in researching that idea, I read John Gilmore’s Severed, which was an account of her life. And what I found out was that she was a human being, just like everybody else from her generation she wanted something more than she had. She was a kid from the Great Depression and that was probably the gloomiest time in American history. And the more I got into her story I realized that there was something there that you could surround. So I began to create music around what I imagined she was feeling and thinking.”

Using a technique employed in Billy Wilder’s Hollywood classic Sunset Boulevard, Belden’s tale unfolds in reverse order, starting from the moment of Elizabeth Short’s death and flashing back to her birth, her small town life, her escape to the dream world of Los Angeles, her fall from innocence and the events leading up to her gradual downward spiral, her demise and her life after death. From the dark opening of “Genesis” to emotive pieces like “City of Angels,” underscored by the plaintive cry of Hagans’ trumpet, to the ethereal “Dream World” and the closing “Elegy,” a sense of longing and loss, romance and mystery permeates Belden’s expansive score.

While working on such an emotionally wrenching piece over the course of three years, Belden contemplated his own mortality, which put him in closer touch with the spirit of the doomed central figure. “The Black Dahlia is a story about a girl whose life spirals, first slowly and then quickly, to the point where she knew she was going to die,” he points out. “And I’ve had friends who have had that same circumstance, where their life spirals down and down and down. Some of them manage to stop and snap back and others didn’t. And you know, it’s just another reminder that life is so fragile.

“Living in New York City, you see the dark side of the human condition on a daily basis. You see people just lost, walking around with sad expressions on their faces-and you don’t want to become one of those people. Reading this book, I began to realize she was probably lost.

Belden began writing Black Dahlia in October of 1997 and finished it nearly three years later. “I took my time because I had no interest in rushing through it,” he says. “I had my option renewed at Blue Note and there was no rush on it. And of course, there’s such a glut of stuff on the market so the label’s position wasn’t exactly, ‘Oh, no, we want five records a year from you.’ They were actually happy that someone wanted to take a few years to make a record and do it right.”

Composing the material for Black Dahlia became a process of elimination for Belden. “When you’re trying to write something that expresses what’s in your heart, you have to eliminate those things which are just reactions to the world around you or just momentary things that come into your life. So I had to find the theme, I had to get into this girl’s life and find out how I could create a world that was in her mind. And I spent a lot of time on just four bars. Once I started finding the themes and getting the themes set then I would walk around all night and just hear it in my head and go home and stay up until four in the morning, five in the morning, just working on six bars. There’s this little sequence at the end of ‘City of Angels,’ that I remember playing over and over for hours one night. It just fell into my head and I knew I had to use it because it had just the right kind of darkness that I wanted to have and I had to figure out where to put it in. I ended up rewriting it something like five times before it eventually worked.”

Some nights when he couldn’t sleep, he would wander the streets of Manhattan in the wee hours, thinking about the Black Dahlia, or lie awake watching consecutive episodes of the original The Fugitive series on cable.

“There’s actually a couple chords from ‘The Fugitive’ that you can hear on the opening to ‘Elegy.’ And they haunted me, the sound of those chords. So I would call up Avatar Studios at three in the morning and book some time and go work out these chords just to hear what they sounded like on an acoustic piano. And I would work out 16 bars and then whittle it down to four. And then slowly but surely I would write little things. I must’ve written 10 different things of which I only used three. The piece that Lovano is featured on, ‘Danza D’Amor,’ was an entirely different thing when I first played it for him in 1998. He listened to it then and that’s the last he heard of it until the recording session. It had changed but he got the general idea. So the thing was shaped over time.”

He explains that the chord sequence to the closing “Elegy” had been in his head for 12 years. “I had it that long and I never knew what to do with it. And then one night I was in a restaurant and I was trying to figure out how to end the record. And suddenly while I was eating this meal it came into my head. And I remember grabbing the second person’s place mat, turning it over, grabbing the pencil out of the waiter’s back pocket and writing it down. I still have that place mat. It’s hanging on the door at my apartment.”

Midway through the writing process, Belden had a traumatic near-death experience that greatly affected the direction and tone of Black Dahlia. While driving in his native South Carolina with his mother in the car, he was slammed into by a drunk driver who then fled the scene of the accident. Belden, who was behind the wheel, suffered a concussion along with a seriously sprained wrist and a dislocated shoulder.

“My wrist was so damaged that it took me like 10 minutes to write one measure of music because I would have such a hard time controlling the pen,” he recalls. “And at the same time I was practically hallucinating because my mind was all jumbled up from the concussion, so I was writing stuff down and I had no idea what it was. When I recovered and went to play it, it was like, Whoa! And some of that found its way in there.”

Only a few weeks after the accident, he was back playing the Montreal International Jazz Festival with the Hagans/Belden band (documented on the Blue Note CD Re-Animation Live!). Though visibly hobbled by his injuries, Belden played through the pain, often with white-hot intensity. “I’m not one of these guys who goes out to the street corner and starts yelling and screaming at people,” he says. “I don’t raise my voice, and I don’t tell people much about how I feel because I’m always the guy that they’re telling me how they feel. And so I internalize everything. And the only way I could express myself at that point was through the music.”

When it came time to record Black Dahlia, Belden was so prepared for the session that it all went down in record time. “We did the orchestra parts in two three-hour sessions, and we did not go overtime,” he announces with noticeable pride. “We did everything on budget. It was like the minute we started, we were there playing music. We had a lunch break, we went back in and finished the session and it was beautiful. It’s like the way things used to be done when there were real professional musicians in jazz, because we sight-read the recording session. No rehearsals.

“It’s all about business and preparation. You go in there and you’re there to make music. I mean, when you’ve got 65 musicians there, you can’t mess around. It’s not the easiest thing to walk in the studio with a 65-piece orchestra at 10 a.m. and begin recording at 10:15. That’s very difficult to do these days because guys can’t accept the challenge. It’s not a matter of money because I know people who spend twice as much money on five pieces. It’s more a matter of cats can’t come to grips with their inabilities to take their music beyond what they normally do. They don’t push themselves. And I’ve always pushed myself.”

Black Dahlia now comes nearly 10 years after Belden’s last attempt at documenting such an extended, operatic form-his brilliant 1992 recording for Blue Note of Puccini’s “Turandot” (which was released in Japan but barred from distribution in the States by Puccini’s heirs, who deemed Belden’s jazzy interpretation of such ‘sacred music’ as blasphemous). The censuring of that ambitious work was a major setback, temporarily crushing Belden’s spirit, if not his output.

“When Turandot was suppressed, I stopped writing my own music,” he explains. “I took the sound that I was working on in Treasure Island [Sunnyside, 1989]-taking in the language of Delius, Prokofiev, Gil Evans and trying to find a personal form within that-and began applying that signature to other people’s music as opposed to just slavishly copying somebody. It was like taking their melodies and going, ‘OK, let me just give you a hint of what they intended and then I’ll take it into my own little way.'”

The result was a string of Beldenified renderings of the music of Sting (Straight To Your Heart, Blue Note, 1991), Prince (When Doves Cry, Metro Blue, 1993), The Beatles (Strawberry Fields, Blue Note, 1996) and Carole King (Tapestry, Blue Note, 1998), each featuring a similar cast of supporting players which Belden has carefully cultivated over the years into a kind of repertory company.

From 1992 to 1997, in spite of the writer’s block, Belden remained extraordinarily busy in the studio with a constant flow of projects that he produced or arranged. At the end of that five-year phase, however, he was overworked and totally fried. “Man, I did so many records,” he sighs, recalling those frantic times. “In 1996 alone I was in the studio more than most people are in a decade. I was doing stuff for a Japanese production company where I’d get up at five in the morning and do six transcriptions and then produce the session all day. I’d do that three days in a row, then do a record date, then work on a reissue [his ongoing archivist duties for Blue Note and Columbia/Legacy], then do an arrangement for somebody. And every night I’d go hang out in the clubs. During Shades of Blue [Blue Note, 1996], there was one week in December where I went to London and did a session on the 3rd, came back on the 4th, was in the studio on the 5th, 6th and 7th with John Scofield in the afternoon and Marcus Printup in the evening. Then the next day I had Richie Cole and brass and at night I had a string quartet come in with DJ Smash. And that was a typical week! And after a while, I became absolutely physically exhausted. I just pushed myself beyond the limit.”

In addition to Shades of Blue and Strawberry Fields, 1996 saw the release of such Belden productions as Denise Jannah’s I Was Born in Love With You (Blue Note) and Richie Cole’s Kush: The Music of Dizzy Gillespie (Heads Up). In retrospect, he says of that exhaustive though highly productive year, “It was satisfying in the sense that I got to stay in the studio and I got to hire people I liked to hire. I got to bring different voices into my life throughout those years of auditioning people, which is how I found Scott Kinsey, David Dyson, Billy Kilson, DJ Kingsize, Ira Coleman (all key players on Belden’s own recent recordings) sound that you recognized in the Basie band didn’t have it like that.”

I would bring these people in on projects and see how they would react to my method of working and if they were into it, they were cool and they weren’t hassling me for bread, then they were in.”

In 1997, Belden took the A&R job at Blue Note, which had him juggling those duties along with corporate politics. “It was a great job but it was a job where I couldn’t do what I felt like I needed to do. I mean, it was great that they gave me a shot but it’s hard to reconcile working in a corporate environment and being somebody who does what they want to do all the time. And I knew the difference between what was going to make it and what wasn’t going to make it. I knew how to budget records, produce records. But you’re dealing with artists and managers who exert a tremendous influence on these companies. And for me, I wasn’t one of these persons who would deal with things that I felt were not right-because that’s why you have a lot of bad records. Companies will give up and tell the artist, ‘OK, go ahead, do what you want to do. We’ll live with it.’ And so they make bad records and get dropped. I just got frustrated with that whole system. I could never really do what I felt I could do best, which is create records for people, to take what these people did and put it in a bigger context. Ultimately, I was frustrated because I saw big companies as a way to make big records. But a lot of artists just wanted to do the same old thing: Make a record that their friends would all like.”

Belden took an entirely different course with his latest orchestral outing. “Black Dahlia was my first record since Treasure Island in 1989 where it is about what I do,” he says, “where it attempts to tell a story and relate in musical terms something about the way I feel about life. It has nothing to do with trying to get over or trying to get any kind of critical response, to get on the radio, to make Gavin, to get on the Billboard charts. It wasn’t something that I did to save my career. It was something I did because I had to make the record that I wanted to make.

“I learned at an early age how to conceptualize albums, how to look at the record as a complete work as opposed to a collection of solos or second-trumpet parts disguised as melodies or a collection of expressions of ego. I really look at records as a way to say something.”

And he tells quite a story with Black Dahlia.

Listening Pleasures

Miles Davis: Live At The Fillmore East, March 1970 unissued Columbia/Sony)

Miles Davis: Live At Berkeley, California, April 1967 (private tape)

Herbie Hancock: The Spook Who Sat By The Door, 1973 (unissued soundtrack)

Weather Report: Weather Report, 1971 (Columbia)

Bobby Hutcherson: Oblique, 1967 (Blue Note)

Alban Berg: Lulu, 1936 (Deutche Gramophon)

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