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Onwards, or How Bob Belden Helped Shape a Vision for the Future

A remembrance

Producer/musician/arranger Bob Belden, Jazz Connect Conference, NYC Jan. 2015
Matt Young, Roberto Verastegui, Bob Belden, Jair-Rohm Parker Wells and Pete Clagett at Abbasi Hotel, Isfahan, Iran
Bob Belden
Bob Belden (l.) and RareNoiseRecords' Giacomo Bruzzo

“At some point in time, or was it time at all, it became within the soul of the machine that the accommodation was not essential to achieve the perfection of the primary memory, the child’s dream. So the pure machine began to feel as a child, loneliness, fear and to understand what it is like to cry.” (Bob Belden, Animation: Machine Language, “Soul Of A Machine,” 2015).

This, but a short snippet from the lyrics Bob Belden wrote for Animation’s forthcoming album Machine Language, embodies several of the qualities I came to associate with Bob Belden over the few years I had the honor of working with him via his association with RareNoiseRecords-encyclopedic, interdisciplinary knowledge, boundless curiosity, boundless visual imagination, steely determination to see things through no matter what the odds, deep humanity, humor, elegance and generosity, and a gaze always fixed on the future, cultural and political, beyond the immediate.

I was introduced to Bob in late September 2010 by Guy Licata, drummer extraordinaire and longtime Bill Laswell collaborator; Guy, who had played drums with Bob’s and Tim Hagan’s band Animation at a 2006 concert at Merkin Hall, during their rendition of Miles’ Bitches Brew, thought I could help with the release of that recording.

Meeting Bob for the first time over the phone was like having known him all one’s life and a decision was made before the phone call had ended; that recording was released early 2011 as Animation’s Asiento, the title itself a reference to the (medio) Asiento, a crucial point in the development of the spiritual path of a Santero, the equivalent of a “priest” in Santeria, simultaneously a point of arrival and departure, a configuration which this particular recording prominently embodied in Bob’s life arc.

Working with Bob was characterized by a relentless exchange of ideas, conceptual/verbal, audio and visual; by the end of 2010 conversations about future studio and live surround sound recordings were already in full flow. This process led to the release in late 2011 of Animation’s Agemo, a re-imagination of the Asiento recording both as binaural-type new mix (3D60) and as complete remix by Laswell and DJ Logic, among others.

One year later, in July 2012, it led to a live surround sound (Ambisonic) performance by Animation at the Tabernacle in London in collaboration with Italian sound engineer Serafino DiRosario, a performance described by U.K.’s Jazzwise Magazine as “a prime example of jazz musicians stretching beyond the usual acoustic limitations of their instruments to create a disturbing yet compelling new sound world.”

Bob’s vision of the need for live jazz performance to evolve in its relationship with the public was accompanied by his vision about the need to innovate teaching practices within the jazz world by increasing the immediate transmission of knowledge between generations. This drive informed the progressive mutations experienced by Animation’s live lineup between the concerts played in the U.S. in 2011 (Charleston and Jazz Standard, NYC), when the lineup was a hybrid of Tim Hagans, Bob, and students from the University of Texas Jordan Gheen, Jacob Smith and Matt Young, to the lineup of the 2012 tours (Texas, Ohio and NYC in spring, then London in the summer and Spain in Autumn, when they performed at the Barcelona Jazz Festival), with Pete Clagett on trumpet, Bob on sax/flute, Roberto Verastegui on keyboards, Jacob Smith on bass and Matt Young on drums.

Transparent Heart, Bob’s ode to the heart and sound of his beloved New York City, recorded by this lineup of Animation at the end of 2011 in Bill Laswell’s studio in Orange, N.J., and released in 2012, bears witness to this sharp and fundamentally fruitful insight: in reviewing this album, Thomas Conrad stated in JazzTimes, “It is his most personal, edgiest recording to date. It may also be his most important”.

Bob’s generosity and willingness to share was immeasurable, from the very first moment one met him. Consciously or not, he’d plant ideas in your head without you ever knowing he had. Eventually you’d notice a recurrent pattern arising, and you knew it was not idle talk anymore, you knew it had to be done, you knew it would be done.

His untimely departure probably induced in his friends the need to go back and re-read endless trails of past communications. In doing this I realized that the seeds for two very recent and very important manifestations of Bob’s foresight and successive actions were planted between late 2010 and early 2011, though I suspect much earlier than that: the need to critically and aesthetically address the rise of artificial intelligence and to build a cultural bridge to Iran.

Animation’s soon-to-be-released Machine Language is the realization of the first intention. Equally, I was not surprised when, out of the blue, Bob called me one morning early this year, saying, “In a week, we are going to Iran. It is going to be big and important, it will matter.” It was also clear to me that Animation, in its last configuration with Jair-Rohm Parker Wells on bass, was the perfect band with the perfect spirit and intention to join him on this trip. All threads had finally come together.

Onwards-once more, from the beginning

“In the beginning, the primary memory, was a child’s dream, a lonely but brilliant child, whose only world was that of vivid visual imagination, of a world entirely created by and exclusively inside that lonely child.” (Bob Belden, Animation: Machine Language, “A Child’s Dream,” 2015)

Originally Published