A saxophonist, composer, arranger and producer, Bob Belden is also a furiously perceptive listener. It seems he has little choice in the matter. He can fascinate with what he hears and where it causes his mind to go. He comes across as a contradiction: blessed and cursed with ears that only deal with music in extreme ways. Though he is known for thematic albums that reworked recordings by Miles Davis, Prince and Sting by inventively fusing musical styles—jazz, rock, opera, Indian and Iberian folklorica—he cringes when compared to other conceptualizers or producers of that ilk. In the ’70s, he cut his teeth in the saxophone section of Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, but today he admits to an acute dislike of big bands. He continues to look to the music of Miles as a personal North Star; his award-winning work on, and liner notes for, various reissues testifies to that loyalty.
Belden, 56, was in Barcelona in November to perform at the Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival, including music from his new album, Transparent Heart (RareNoise), a suite-like meditation on the hyper-bustle and inner emotions of the modern New York City experience. The album features his ensemble Animation, a quintet consisting of young recruits from the University of North Texas’ One O’Clock Lab Band (Belden is an alumnus). Their concert was engaging and far-ranging in mood, owing as much to the leader’s fluid soprano saxophone and his compositions as it did to the relative youth and bristling drive of the group’s members: trumpeter Pete Clagett, keyboardist Roberto Verastegui, bassist Jacob Smith, and drummer Matt Young.