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Before & After with Bob Belden

An uncontrollably analytical mind

Bob Belden and Ashley Kahn

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.

Just before his concert in the Conservatori del Liceu, Belden participated in a public Before & After.

1. Was (Not Was) With Sheila Jordan
“Ba-Lue-Boliver Ba-Lues-Are” (from That’s the Way I Feel Now, A&M). Don Was, guitar, synthesizer, horn arrangement; David Was, flute; Jordan, vocals; Marcus Belgrave, trumpet; Jervonny Collier, trombone; David McMurray, alto saxophone; Michael Ward, tenor saxophone; Larry Fratangelo, percussion; Carol Hall, Donald Ray Mitchell, Harry Bowens, “Sweet Pea” Atkinson, backing vocals. Recorded in 1983.

BEFORE: If Mingus and Ellington had a kid who turned out to be an arranger, that was it. The voice sounds vaguely familiar but at a certain point it’s like an updated Ivie Anderson kinda vibe. It’s like burlesque in some ways. It’s this strange side of jazz, that unwieldy aspect of it. The parts are cliché parts, like the muted trumpet is trying to do a Rex Stewart thing. It almost sounds like a Millennial Territory Orchestra project or something like that. But I have no clue who it is.

AFTER: I see—Was (Not Was), and this was a Hal Willner project. You see, to me these kinds of records are so idiosyncratic that they just throw tradition away. I mean, that was not a jazz guy’s version of the Monk tune because no jazz guy would pull that off. They’d find so many things they wouldn’t want to do with it that they’d stay away from it. But pop people have no fear. It was interesting.

I am entranced at the macabre nature of the whole thing. I was analyzing the chord changes, B-flat minor, and just figuring out where it went from there. I get caught up in hearing the changes and then I forget everything else. I want to figure out what the harmony is and how fluid it is. It was a pretty straightforward harmony.

2. Quincy Jones/Harry Arnold
“The Midnight Sun Never Sets” (from Quincy Jones + Harry Arnold + Big Band = Jazz!, Mercury). Jones, composer, conductor; Arnold, bandleader, arranger; Arne Domnérus, alto saxophone, with the Swedish Radio Studio Orchestra. Recorded in 1958.

BEFORE: Oh, man. This sounds like so many different kinds of vibes. It has a West Coast feel—the alto player has no vibrato and he’s not overly aggressive, underplaying in a way. Like Paul Desmond without the air in the tone, Benny Carter-ish, a bit.

It sounds like a ’50s recording, for sure, and the trombone writing sounds like something that Johnny Mandel would write. It could be Art Pepper, it could be Lennie Niehaus. That era, that area of guys.

AFTER: That was like a flat kind of Charlie Parker. The alto player played triplets, everything nice and pretty, but with no energy and no vibrato, very classically oriented. The alto players at that time played like that was their last gig, but he sounds like he’s got plenty of work ahead of him.

3. Stan Getz
“Mickey’s Theme” (from Music From the Sound Track ofMickey One, MGM). Getz, tenor saxophone; Eddie Sauter, composer, conductor. Recorded in 1965.

BEFORE: That’s Stan Getz—Mickey One, [film director] Arthur Penn, right? 1965, black and white. And Eddie Sauter—I mean, you cannot disallow his talent and his abilities. He was just one of a kind. As was Stan Getz.

AFTER: Sauter was one of these guys who came from the classical side, and he was uninhibited by it. He took the language of jazz writing to another level, but then it kind of faded away. They don’t teach his concept in music schools. That was the highest art of jazz arranging, period. It’s very hard to find people writing at that level for strings. Most musicians just want pads, ’cause they can play over it and say, “I did a record with strings.”

Nobody writes like Sauter did because he composed, as opposed to arranging a composition. When I write for orchestra, I think in terms of a melody and a chord structure and a form and then how to orchestrate and color it. Sauter composed. So it wasn’t about, “Well, I have to end the phrase here.” I’m gonna go on. And I don’t have to have a solo here, I can have it here.

I remember Gil Evans would give me cryptic advice. I’d see him on the street, and one time I said, “What is it that you think is the most important aspect of an arranger?”

“You have to have a voice to write for,” he said, which in his case was Miles Davis. And with Stan Getz, Sauter had a voice to write for. What made his music so successful is that he knew what Stan sounded like. He could hear it in his head and write phrases for Stan.

Modern arrangers, they don’t spend enough time getting to know the soloist. Like with [trumpeter] Tim Hagans, when I wrote Black Dahlia, I knew the register that he sounded good in and I knew his weaknesses. I knew how he was going to play a certain phrase. I knew he was gonna make a mistake on that note, so I put it in there [laughs].

4. Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
“The Mystery Song” (from The Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings, RCA). Ellington, piano; Freddie Jenkins, Arthur Whetsel, Cootie Williams, trumpets; Joe Nanton, trombone; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, banjo; Wellman Braud, bass; Sonny Greer, drums. Recorded in 1931.

BEFORE: This is from the ’30s, the Raymond Scott era, but it’s not recorded quite as well as Raymond Scott. There was a period of time when jazz was humorous and it was also campy. Harmonically, this is just all over the place. You can’t tell who the leader is, and it has this kind of businessman’s bounce, which is any rhythm where an average businessman, who knows nothing about music, can look like he’s dancing to it. I gave up listening to big bands—I mean, I’ll listen to specific big bands, eight bars of it, and then that’s it.

AFTER: I start with Duke around 1956. The ’30s, it’s an acquired taste. You have to really want to relive that time. But the ’50s-you know that record Newport 1958? The greatest Duke Ellington record ever—a perfect exposition of the blues. Oh, my God. Just perfect for composition, arranging and everything. They do “El Gato” and “Princess Blue.” It was actually a fake live record—they recorded [most of] it in the studio and dubbed in applause.

This track sounded kind of cheesy in some ways, but that was common back in those days. There was no shame in cheese, and much of it was for dancing. [Ed. note: “The Mystery Song” was in fact written specifically for a dance number in Ellington’s Cotton Club show.] So it was about showcasing movement onstage, and there was never any longterm development of ideas. Everything was cut and paste. The Casa Loma band was cut and paste, Louis Armstrong’s early bands were cut and paste. They never thought about extending the arrangement beyond three or four minutes, and they spread the melody around 15 people.

5. Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra
“Everyday People” (from MTO Plays Sly, Royal Potato Family). Bernstein, trumpet; Shilpa Ray, harmonium, vocals; Curtis Fowlkes, trombone; Doug Weiselman, clarinet; Peter Apfelbaum, tenor saxophone; Erik Lawrence, baritone saxophone; Charles Burnham, violin; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Bernie Worrell, organ; Ben Allison, bass; Ben Perowsky, drums. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: That’s a harmonium. … I have no idea what that is. Wait—it’s “Everyday People,” Sly Stone’s tune from the album Stand!, I believe.

AFTER: Steven Bernstein, the Sly Stone project. Arranging is a thing where you have to have a purpose, and sometimes your version is actually better than the original.

You have worked with melding folkloric sources with jazz, which Bernstein is about as well. That impulse to fuse different sources together, when does it work and when does it not?

It depends on who’s listening. It’s different people, different tastes. But by and large, when you put it to where it’s so abstract [that] it becomes a new tune, then write a new tune.

My philosophy in making a record is, first, can I convince somebody to give me money for an idea? With Miles Español, I was hanging out at a bar with Joan [Anton Cararach, artistic director of the Barcelona Jazz Festival], and the next thing you know, this idea came to us and he said nobody will fund it, and I took that as a challenge. So I got a record company to fund a double-disc record, which is a lot of money in my world.

But the idea is that you don’t impose yourself over the music; [don’t] be a musical colonialist. I withdrew from imposing myself on Miles Español and let the musicians define it. He could’ve started it out a lot quieter and just had the single voice come in and chant, and it could have established a kind of melodic shade rather than this triad, which establishes the drone. The way it was mixed, the drone was right in your face. But everything Steven does is good because he totally believes in it. He pushes to the limit and he’s trying to do something.

Steven is beyond the notes. He’s the kind of musician who lives the music and does not recite it. You may or may not like his music but you will always love the human inside the music. He is a reflection of his upbringing in Berkeley, California.

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Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.