Recently I entered The Jazz Standard, one of my favorite places for jazz in New York or any other city, to eat some gourmet barbeque, hear some unique electric jazz and talk to the men who would be making the music. On the first two counts I got exactly what I expected but on the final count I got much more than I bargained for. I had been invited to attend the performance by Animation, the band led by trumpeter Tim Hagans and saxophonist Bob Belden, and was asked if I wanted to interview the guys before the show. I was eager to do both as electric jazz is my thing, as they say, and though I’ve enjoyed any number of conversations with Tim I’d never met or talked to Bob Belden and was intrigued to do so.
I’ve been to the Jazz Standard many times and not just to hear music. The crew there has been so welcoming and accommodating to me when I come early for sound check to catch the artists for conversation right before their first set of the night. I’ve made it a regular series over the years and have enjoyed interviews with artists like Greg Osby, Gretchen Parlato, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Michael Wolff, Julian Lage, Dave Samuels, Jacky Terrasson, Amina Figarova and many more. Plus, I make it a habit to come early enough to enjoy some of the delicious treats on the menu created by Danny Meyer, the man who is oftentimes called the premier restaurateur in New York. Being a born and raised Southerner I know a little about barbeque. Mr. Meyer hails from Kansas City, where they also know a bit about smoked meat, and has a belief that jazz and barbeque go together in a natural way. That’s why he opened the Jazz Standard down below his Blue Smoke Restaurant, which sits above and feeds the Jazz Standard patrons. A wise man this Danny Meyer.
I walked in off of the steamy New York street and took a seat to listen to sound check. On stage were the aforementioned Mr. Belden & Mr. Hagans with three young cats on keys, bass & drums that looked like they could have been their nephews. I later found out that they were Jordan Gheen on keyboards, Jacob Smith on electric bass and Matt Young on drums. They’d been drafted out of the prestigious music school of The University of North Texas State, which Bob Belden attended along with musical luminaries like Lyle Mays, Norah Jones, Conrad Herwig, Zachary Breaux, Marc Johnson, Dewey Redman, Dennis Irwin and many more. Bob told me that when the original players with Animation, DJ Logic, Scott Kinsey, Matt Garrison and Guy Licata, were not available he just checked in with his sources at his old school and got the name of Jacob Smith the bassist. Jacob had a ready made rhythm section of his fellow students ready to roll and they made their way from Denton, TX to NYC and the new incarnation of Animation was set to go. The sound check proved they were more than ready. The young bloods blended with the vets just fine and rehearsal proved that this would be a great night of inventive electric jazz based on a “re-invention” of Miles Davis’s classic “Bitches Brew” and other music from that era with some Belden-Hagans compositions in a similar vein on the set list too.
While Tim Hagans finished up a little more polishing on a couple of tunes to wrap up the sound check I made my way backstage to start the conversation with Bob Belden. I try to make my interviews simply a conversation, and have rarely worked from a list of questions unless the artist requests that it be that way. In this case I didn’t have a word out of my mouth before Bob began to speak about some very personal aspects of his life that had nothing to do with music or any other aspect of his career. His words were a mixture of jokes and seriousness, comedy and tragedy if you will, and it set the tone for one of the more interesting conversations I’ve had in a long time. I remembered that old adage “many a truth is spoken in jest,” and I kept that in mind throughout the interview so that I could glean some nuggets of truth to share with others.
Bob Belden has seen it all in jazz in the past 30 years from the peak of the record business with the explosion of CD sales to the current state of confusion as the industry, from the players to the business-types, try to figure out how art can be marketed successfully, an incongruity at best. He’s not only seen it all but done it all, from being a player in every setting you can imagine from big to small bands, to being an arranger and producer of enumerable projects including reissues of some of the most famous artists in jazz including Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorius, Joe Zawinul, Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Jacky Terrasson and many more. Almost from the first day he left with his diploma from North Texas University he’s been one busy boy working almost constantly and for all the biggest labels including Columbia, Blue Note and Verve. His own releases have been critically acclaimed and have included his own jazzy take on the music of pop artists like Sting, Carole King, Prince and The Beatles. He’s worked with many of the greatest players around too, including of course Tim Hagans, with whom he’s had a solid and fruitful relationship since Tim replaced two trumpeters in Belden’s big band in 1989. With all this success I had to wonder why in the world Bob Belden appeared to be so bitter about the current state of the business and his own career and life?
Tim Hagans joined us backstage and the formal “interview” began. I asked about the special bond that has held these two together for over two decades of collaboration. Tim said he simply wanted to work with a genius like Bob because there are so few in the world and that Belden, being the master arranger he is, could “frame” his playing so well, in other words put him in the perfect setting to express himself. Belden simply said that he wanted to work with Hagans because he liked a trumpeter that was shorter than he was (a joke) and he had heard that special something in Tim’s playing when they first worked together in 1989.
I commented on the fact that each of these gentlemen has worked as a solo artist, in small ensembles, big bands, and as arrangers and directors of large projects, and wondered which of these varied aspects of their activities brought them the most personal fun? Tim refused to answer outright instead giving a politically correct answer of how each one was equally rewarding. Belden answered the question with the one word question…”Fun?” His answer was instead a detailed picture of how difficult, misguided, unfair and off the tracks the whole business of making and marketing jazz has become. He lamented the fact that there are hardly any bands any more and that each artist has to selfishly fend for him or her self with individual projects. Producers, something that shows up on his resume more than any other title, have become abused and lightly regarded slave laborers. If there was any fun to be had for him personally it was in putting all the pieces together for any project and seeing how it could work to anyone’s benefit.
A large part of the spirit of the work that these two men have created is pretty obviously inspired by the electric side of Miles Davis. I asked about that and got some very revealing thoughts. Tim Hagans mentioned how his work on the Future Miles project with Sweden’s Norbotten Big Band was in line with a lot of what he has done, and that is to basically take a suggestion from Miles that led him to make his own unique statement. I believe the same can be said for the Belden-Hagans collaborations Animation-Imagination and Re-Animation Live as well as the newest release Asiento. Bob volunteered jokingly…”I’ve tried to get him to imitate Miles for years and he won’t do it!” There were honest laughs all around on that one. Belden became serious about how free and outrageous the electric side of Miles’s music was, and he should know a bit about that as he’s heard almost every note over and over since he was the Reissue Producer for every Miles release from ‘Round Midnight to The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions. Plus, he was the producer of some of Miles’s last records of his career like Decoy and Star People. If anyone has insight into the state of mind of the great master and chameleon of jazz it would be Bob Belden. His answer to why Miles made this kind of flowing, free, electric jazz based on starting a groove and building on it with a kind of automatic writing style was this…”Miles was bored.”
While I chewed on that last statement I asked about this new band and what we’d hear later in the night. I was told that we’d be hearing the music from Animation’s latest album, Asiento and the group would give us their version of “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” and “Spanish Key,” among other classic cuts though we might not instantly recognize them. Bob told me how he’d had to wean the young guys off of the traditional way they’d learned to play at school since we’re now in the “Post- Be Bop Era” of jazz. He wanted them to get away from the sounds they heard in the practice rooms and classes and hear the sound of the music in their own heads. From what I heard at sound check and during the set those young guys were certainly getting the idea without too much trouble. Tim mentioned how he wanted a drummer to really play the kit instead of the just riding the cymbals keeping simple time on the hit-hat, so he’d have something to work off of. Young Mr. Matt Young seemed to get that idea too. There were moments when the music was really soaring and I think I’d love hearing this band again after a little more time together.
As for the way that Tim Hagans and Bob Belden sounded together, well that had to be the peak of the set, as the harmony created between the soprano sax of Belden and the trumpet of Hagans were the sweetest notes of the night. The set ended with the Joe Zawinul song “Dr. Honorus Causa,” renamed “Dr. Honorus Hagans,” that Bob dedicated to his old friend Tim and his recent honorary doctorate from the Sibelius Academy of Helsinki, Finland. The sincere and honest, multi-Grammy nominated, Dr. Hagans just put his trumpet to his lips and blew like a master as he had all night. Twenty + years together and still going strong, and no matter how crazy or difficult the “business of music” may be there’s always the art. These two guys make some of the most interesting new jazz I know of. Though Belden mentioned that bands just don’t stay together these days something tells me this one will. Stay tuned for more adventures of Animation!