Bob Belden, a renaissance man who functioned as a brilliant arranger-composer-conceptualist, a fine saxophonist, a skilled producer, encyclopedic historian, and a keen student of human nature, passed away earlier today, at 58, after suffering a massive heart attack on Sunday. I got to know Bob during the mid-’90s when he was Director of A&R for Blue Note, while also finding time to arrange some of the decade’s seminal dates, including Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard. I became friendly with him after he left that position in the late ’90s. Bob even once put me to work for him as a co-“producer” of a Carmen McRae “Round Midnight” CD, which involved culling and sequencing 14 selections from her Decca ouput of the ’50s. We weren’t close buddies, but always cordial, and I learned a great deal every time we spoke, as did anyone who had an opportunity to hear him expound in any situation or to read his erudite, exhaustive, insider liner notes to the various editions of Columbia’s massive Miles Davis reissue project during the aughts. In February, he played in Iran with his group, Animation, the first U.S. band to play there in 35 years. It’s very sad, very disheartening; Bob had so much more to share with us.
There will be informed obituaries and memoirs from Bob’s many friends. I will contribute with two long interviews we did in 1999 and 2000, successively. The first contains the proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show in April 1999. The second was conducted for the press bio for his amazing orchestral suite, Black Dahlia, which won a Grammy. After those, you’ll find his uncut responses to 14 selections presented to him for a DownBeat Blindfold Test in 2002.
Bob Belden (Musician Show, 4-14-99):
[MUSIC: BB, “Psalm #1 (For the Heavens)” – (1990)]
TP: A few words about this particular project. You said some road dues imparted a perfect edge to this date.
BELDEN: Generally, there’s always a perfect schedule, and there’s always the one they give you prior to leaving. Then they tend to change things. In this case, we thought we had a day off between the gig and another gig, because we were partying the night after (?), partying — just hanging, you know. Then we had to get up. Everybody sort of got onto the train, went to Paris, then we found out the hotel was an hour on the other side. You want to get in the hotel, you want to do your soundcheck, you want to go back to the hotel and then you want to do the gig. We were supposed to open, and then the other artist said, “Oh, I want to open.”
TP: Was this a somewhat regular ensemble of musicians playing your music?
BELDEN: It was oddly irregular. We started in ’89 in February, and we did a few significant gigs that year, then in 1990 we played a lot more. By ’92 we were history.
TP: Bob Belden is well known in the jazz community as a man who, to use a cliche, wears many hats, as a tenor and soprano saxophonist, composer, arranger, producer (he’s the man who put together the various Miles Davis packages on Columbia, the Complete Herbie Hancock, etc.). It’s hard to represent it within one three-hour show, but we’ll do our best. A little of the third degree. You’re a South Carolina native.
BELDEN: Yes. I’m from Goose Creek, South Carolina.
TP: A jazz hotbed.
BELDEN: Well, if you consider bludgeons jazz instruments, it’s a swinging spot.
TP: Is your family musical?
BELDEN: We had a piano, and at 3 I started playing piano. My brother and sister play piano. My mother used to sing in church; she used to sing for the ballgames. I had a friend of the family, Mrs. Martin, who taught me boogie-woogie at 4. That was at a period of time when being into music was considered part of being a civilized person. Goose Creek was great because I grew up in a very idyllic, carefree environment. The place was an old Southern plantation that had been converted into a golf course, so nobody lived there who couldn’t afford to live there. We had golf, and we had all kinds of adventures in the woods. It made just develop as a human.
My brother had a garage band, so we used to play with him all the time. “96 Tears” was my big keyboard solo. One thing led to another. I got in the high school band; I was a band nerd. It was amazing.
TP: Was the high school band where jazz started entering the picture for you?
BELDEN: Strangely enough, not really. We had a private music school called the Leonard School of Music, and they had the Sammy Nestico Swingphonic Series band, which was a jazz group with woodwinds. It was a studio band, and we used to play that. I was in the all-state trombone section from the Newberry Jazz Festival.
TP: Trombone section?
BELDEN: Yes. I played all the instruments in high school. I learned everybody’s instrument just to annoy them. So I did this concert on trombone. Our big feature was “Cotton Fields.” 1972, South Carolina. We had bowties. We looked really stupid! But I got out of there as far as I could and went to North Texas State.
TP: When did saxophone become the instrument of choice?
BELDEN: Boots Randolph without a doubt, because he was the most audible of all saxophone players in the south. And then when Rock-and-Roll came along, we had Walter Perezeder(?) from Chicago and Fred Lipsius from Blood, Sweat and Tears. I played alto in high school. Tenor I didn’t get into until I got to college.
TP: There are many musicians who aren’t that engaged in the history and arcana and pedagogy of the music, and you’re certainly an exception to that. You’re a detail freak in a lot of ways, as to who did what take on what day at what particular time. Was that always evident?
BELDEN: When I was a kid, I used to memorize almanacs and sports statistics. Track-and-field statistics; who ran the best 100 that year. Then I used to try to memorize encyclopedias, much to the chagrin of anybody trying to take a bath. Then I just got into this thing of trying to retain as much trivial information as possible. My mother used to complain that I knew too much trivia, which I informed her that was a small town in Alabama — she didn’t think that was funny. But I always felt you need to exercise your brain, because it’s easy to forget. Now I don’t write anything down as far as my daily plans or anything like that; I have to remember it.
TP: So in high school you’re playing all the instruments. You settled into the tenor sax…
BELDEN: Well, I was an alto player. I was technically the First Alto player in the band. I played tuba, percussion, bass guitar, regular guitar, clarinet (which I hated), flute, trombone (which I loved — my brother had one).
TP: So you came naturally for arranging and composition for large ensembles. A good prerequisite is playing all the instruments.
BELDEN: Oh yeah. I was always attracted to that disciplined color. In our band program… The marching band was the rigamarole, the horse and burnished brass, marching trumpets au lait. But in concert band… I played in the Goose Creek High School Band, the Berkeley All-County Band, the All-State Band, and then we had a region band, and then I had a private band. So I was playing throughout the year in five concert bands. We would just play a lot of music. Clifton Williams, Alfred Reed, Vittorio Gianini, transcriptions of classics like Shostokovich’s Fifth Symphony. I went to Brevard Music Camp in the summer of ’72, and we must have read maybe 200 classic band pieces that summer. Modern stuff. Paul Yoder. Private pieces written for that band. So by the time I left high school I had a lot of reading skills and a concept of what music is supposed to be about.
TP: Then you landed in North Texas State one year early.
BELDEN: Yes. I figured that my tenure in South Carolina was going to…that I had just done my highlight. So I pretty much applied as a history major, because you didn’t have to audition to North Texas to be a history major, and they accepted some odd credits I had in Sixth Grade… Because in Texas you only have to have 16 high school credits to go to college, and in South Carolina it’s 18. So they accepted a typing credit from my Sixth Grade year, and I got into college. It was wonderful. I had a private room, I had a bank account, I was 16, and there were all these…how would you say…bad influence wouldn’t be the right word, but it would be the most understandable.
TP: Hardcore jazz veterans of 20 in the early ’70s.
BELDEN: Yeah! I’ll tell you, these guys were hipsters.
TP: Let’s talk about the North Texas State experience as it affected you. You seem to be a particularly enthusiastic alumni.
BELDEN: Yes. Because my entire musical… The fact is that I can do anything, any kind of orchestration job, arranging job, producing job, analysis, dealing with copying music, running sessions. It all came out as a result of what you thought you had to get together before you left the school. See, part of college is illusion. It’s this illusion that things are going to go well for you because you’ve got a college degree. I didn’t buy into that illusion, because i could measure talent pretty easily, and I knew who was doing it and I knew who was not doing it. I just followed the guys who are doing it.
TP: From what it sounds like, what we call hardcore jazz doesn’t really enter the picture for you until you get to North Texas State.
TP: Talk about psychically how that affected you as a musician.
BELDEN: Well, as plain as day I remember the moment things changed. I had gone down to the record store, and trying to prove how hip I am, I bought a Dave Brubeck record, Together Again For the First Time, with Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond, and I showed it to my neighbor, a guy named Mike Winter, who was from Ohio, and he was very slick — a wise guy. And he takes the record and he throws it out the window like a frisbee, and he takes me over to his room and he plays Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue. He said, “If you don’t figure this out by the time you leave here, you’re an idiot.” And I bought it. I used to hang out with the better players, because they could play records for you. So I used to hang out with Sam Riney a lot, who was in the One O’Clock Band. My best friend was the youngest member of the One O’Clock Band at that time, and we were just complete renegades. I mean, I never went to class, but I got a 3.3 grade point average. But I never really spent much time as a student in the practical sense.
TP: What did you spend your time doing?
BELDEN: Playing, hanging out, partying. Texas was cheap. $4 a credit hour for school. So you could spend 50 bucks and get a full load. You rent a house for $300 a month max.
TP: So it sounds like you were gigging on a pretty functional level for most of this time. No? Yes?
BELDEN: Well, yeah. You have your horn band gigs, and you’d have an occasional… Very rarely any jazz gigs, because the pecking order there was so stringent. We had what we called a dorm circuit, and it took you a minute to get onto the dorm circuit. That’s where all the reputations got made — playing in the dormitories for the musicians?
TP: Is there a guiding aesthetic, as it were, to the musical philosophy that North Texas State imparts to you as opposed to other institutions?
BELDEN: The highest level of professionalism. Probably up there with Eastman. What they demanded was that you actually know what you’re talking about. Because a lot of the students who went there were kind of on the edge of having anything together. Mom and Dad footed the bill, they couldn’t get into podiatry, so they would go to school. And there were a lot of people who couldn’t really function in the music world. But it put you around musicians, and you met so many cats, and it was constant music. People were just hanging. You’d go to this guy’s house, you’d go to that guy’s house. Constant. There wasn’t time for school.
TP: Was there a particular area of composition and arranging that the faculty was interested in? Talk about the pedagogy.
BELDEN: I was the Composition Major. So my entire class load was spent essentially in private instruction with the senior faculty members. I mean, I had Martin Mehlman(?), and he only had 3 undergraduate students — and he was the only teacher who took undergrad students. Michael Doherty I’m sure you’ve heard of; he’s a composer of opera and orchestra music. Kevin Mayfield, who could listen to something once and write it out. It was uncanny. He was also completely anti-social, and a perfect-pitch-playing trombonist, which is a nightmare. And a guy named Christopher Pierson. He let me write jazz and pop oriented stuff, and Elliott Carter material, and Stravinsky-esque stuff. All he wanted us to be was creative. But not petty. Not just like, “Oh, I can do this.”
That’s the problem with jazz avant-garde, is that in my college that would be considered student pieces. A lot of the stuff that I hear would be considered student pieces in college, because that was the tail-end of the real intense avant-garde period, where guys wrote densely and thought densely, and had to tie it all back to Schoenberg and Mahler. So in jazz, they think that what they’re doing is modern, but it’s really not. It’s when you’re exposed to it and how it’s explained to you.
TP: This is also the attitude of a lot of musicians who were in dance bands in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, like the Boyd Raeburn band, Johnny Richards, a lot of the Kenton arrangers, and Woody Herman arrangers as well. And your first professional jazz experience was with Woody Herman.
BELDEN: Well, Woody was a real jazz band. When I was in the band, it was a very strange period. We were coming out of fusion, and he was coming back into his Nostalgia-Reagan Era kind of thing. In our band, our drummer played like Jack DeJohnette our bass player played like Dave Holland, and they played loud and they played unrelenting. These guys had this pulse [CLAPS] which is like the Miles Davis Quintet, which we used to listen to a lot. People wouldn’t dance to it. They used to dock us money. It was an incredible experience because I got to see what it was like being on the road. Roy Hargrove made a comment, “Yeah, we worked over 200 gigs a year.” My first year on the road, of the 365 days of the year, we worked 300-and-something days.
TP: What does that do for a band?
BELDEN: It makes it have an uncanny sense of phrasing. Woody’s band is just like Duke. The phrasing was passed down from generation to generation. So when you came on the band you couldn’t just read the notes. You had to listen, and eventually you just got into listening. And guys would change things every now and then. You don’t need the music. I mean, Smulyan memorized his book in a couple of days.
TP: A lot of talented improvisers who emerged in the ’80s came out of that band.
BELDEN: That was the jazz-rock period. As far as writers are concerned, Alan Broadbent really came out well. He’s just a brilliant musician. Of course, Lyle Mays, who actually did some interesting arrangements for the band that weren’t pursued as far as recording. Dennis Dotson, who is one of the most beautifully melodic trumpet players in jazz. In the late ’60s and early ’70s you had Ed Soph on drums, who was one of the smartest musicians I’ve ever met in my life — just cutting intelligence. Joe Lovano. That’s who I replaced, which was a trip. He actually came out and did a gig, and it was me, Lovano, Smulyan and Dick Mitchell. That was fun. He was the first real cat I met who had it together as a jazz musician. And the difference between him and almost everybody was that he had it in his blood from childhood because his dad was so supportive of this strange business. So to me, Joe was always Jazz. He was always the essence and the spirit of Jazz.
TP: Did that experience transform you into someone whose essence is jazz?
BELDEN: Yeah. I knew I couldn’t deal with… Because I’m very sensitive. I’m one of these guys, you know, a flower child; everything’s got to be beautiful and perfect. And a lot of the jazz business is pretty…
TP: You need a thick skin.
BELDEN: Well, you don’t need a thick skin. You just need to understand that there are some people who were raised by wolves. I just don’t like being around these kind of cats. When I first came up, I had a thicker skin. But now I don’t need to be around them. Life is beautiful, man!
TP: You brought along a tape of the Woody Herman band at the Hotel Catamaran, San Diego, May 28, 1979.
BELDEN: Frank Tiberi will play the first tenor solo, who is a completely unique saxophone player. He’s a combination of Al Cohn and Coltrane. That was supposed to be a dance, and we got there and the people didn’t dance. They didn’t want to. So we played pretty full-out. We had some disasters at dances.
[MUSIC: Woody, “Reunion At Newport” (Broadbent)]
BELDEN: I always felt that big bands had a sense of excitement in the way they can come across which you can’t get out of a five-piece band. With Woody it was unrelenting excitement. He believed in a hot band. He’s always had it. If you heard the band from the ’40s, it’s ridiculous. It’s the highest level of musicianship, execution, intonation, the arrangements were custom-fit for the soloists, and it’s a great organization. And you followed into that tradition — as much as Ellington’s tradition. Duke and Woody were very close, and Woody was Dukish in a way that he didn’t want to fire anybody who he really liked, and he would let us play. I mean, we played a lot. This was not a dance band.
TP: Was band material organized to personalities in a similar way that Ellington would set up his material? Was it Dukish in that way as well?
BELDEN: Yes. Well, when you had a chart written for a certain person, it only lasted as long as that cat was in the band, and then it got passed on. Sal Nistico had an arrangement done for him of “Easy Living” by Nat Pierce, and that went all the way through to Joe Lovano, and then Smulyan got it when I joined the band, and it got changed to a baritone feature.
TP: Did you get very much into the lore of the Woody Herman band, in terms of playing the old arrangements? Was it a very informing experience for you?
BELDEN: There were a lot of arrangement that were functional, because we did have to appeal to survival tactics, like Steely Dan stuff and Carole King’s “Corazon.” But you’d have charts that really reflected the high point of the Herman Herd. Especially Ralph Burns, “Summer Sequence.” I mean, “Four Brothers” was a lot of fun to play. One of the bouncy, chubby bebop tunes. We used to see a lot of the alumni. We’d run into Chubby Jackson and Don Lamond all the time. Everybody would come out. He was amazingly revered by professionals.
TP: Inspired loyalty.
BELDEN: There’s more people coming out of Woody’s band who made a career as a professional musician than any other band. You wouldn’t believe it. Go to Los Angeles, and whoa, half of the town had spent time with Woody. Even Bill Watrous played with Woody.
TP: Your tenure with Woody Herman is ’79…
BELDEN: ’79 to ’80. Then I freelanced around. I moved officially to New York in ’83. I did a lot of television work, a lot of ESPN arranging. I was an arranger for their company, doing sports themes.
TP: Do you get royalties, I hope?
BELDEN: Oh, no. But I got even, because I used to interpolate ABC News Show themes into the second theme of all the sports themes.
TP: Would you hum one of the sports themes?
BELDEN: Gee, I can’t remember. But I can hum the second themes I put in there [SINGS ABC NEWS REFRAIN] But yeah, I had a lot of fun doing that. Then I ended up doing a gig in Visiones, and got a couple of record deals.
TP: Was it basically New York is the mecca; you need to be here?
BELDEN: Oh, no. It was frightening. There wasn’t any real work. This was right before the jazz renaissance, and there were no CDs. You don’t make a living playing jazz, you know. I fortunately found a cheap pad, and I just stuck it out. I did a lot of commercial work, a lot of TV movies. Farrah-Fawcett stuff, and Jackie Cooper, Paul Lemat. I would play keyboards a lot and I would do some mild arranging. I would do Country songs for Country shows, and Pop songs and stuff.
TP: Did your jazz affiliation emanate from your North Texas State and Woody Herman experience, people who’d come to New York who you knew?
BELDEN: Well, what was great was I knew a lot of people from Woody’s band, and when I started doing commercial work I would hire the cats for sessions. So I never was perceived as a threat to other saxophone players, which is why I know so many of them and get along pretty well with them. I never was taking their gigs. I was always hiring them for sessions and stuff. And when you pay guys money, they tend to think of you a little bit differently until you stop paying them money.
TP: Tell me about this gig at Visiones you’re speaking of. Because it would appear you were writing music for local workshop type ensembles…
BELDEN: No-no-no. About half of the ensemble music I had done…we had done some recording in 1985 with Wallace Roney. See, when I was doing ESPN stuff, I was taking the studio time that I was bringing to the studio and getting free time in the studio. So if we did about ten ESPN dates, I’d get a full day in the studio for nothing. Joe Chambers and I did a record, I did an ensemble record, I did two records with Wallace Roney, then a New Age kind of record, and some odd stuff for free. Because all I think about is the studio. I’m not interested in anything else. This is right after the Cabaret Law got beaten down by Paul Chevigny, and Visiones was going to have big bands, and Marc Copland handed them a tape and they called me up — February 6, 1989. I remember it very well, because after the first set Francois Zalacain came up and said, “We must record,” and after the second set, Matt Pierson, who was at Blue Note, came up…
TP: And said, “We must record”?
BELDEN: Yes, pretty much.
TP: We’ll hear music from Turandot.
BELDEN: Turandot was sort of a misguided effort by me to make a good record, based on something that goes beyond just chords and changes and stuff like that. They gave me a lot of money, and we came in right at budget. I wanted to capture… It’s what I always feel is important, this overbearing kind of emotional context that big bands can get. I tried to kill the trumpet players because I believe in trumpet masochism.
TP: You mean you tried to kill their chops.
BELDEN: Yeah. Because the context of the piece is the princess during this ancient time is one cold woman. So she has people beheaded for not answering her enigmatic questions. But in this aria she comes to the realization that she is just totally messed up. She is completely cold, she has no emotion. And so… [END OF SIDE A] …the most perfectly in-tune playing you can imagine from these players. I mean, they are impeccable. And we did it at Capitol Studios, and it just has this incredible ambiance.
[MUSIC: Belden, “In Questa Reggia”]
TP: This was never issued in the States.
BELDEN: One of the most litigious companies was recording through their subsidiary, Herndon Music, and they just sue-sue-sue — “We refuse to allow a jazz version of an opera.” And under U.S. copyright law, shows that are dramatic in nature enjoy an extra level of protection that people who just write melodies don’t enjoy.
TP: Bob was talking about the intonation and in-tuneness of the trumpet section, and that was an amazing feature for Wallace Roney.
BELDEN: You have to have a voice to write for, and if you don’t have a voice that has some context, clarity and idea behind it — a sound — then you’re just making a high school band chart.
TP: In this next segment, I’d like to talk to you more about your compositional influences in jazz. I guess the most obvious name in terms of tone color, mood and so on, has got to be Gil Evans. You have cued up an unissued performance of “Dolores.” Did your Miles Davis obsession begin at North Texas State, when this fellow turned you on to Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew.
BELDEN: Oh yeah. Because you could buy the records for $1.99 at the stores, and I just went down and bought them all. I figured, “This is it.” Miles Smiles always had a strong place in my heart, because it’s just the perfect record. And “Nefertiti,” once I remember discovering it was a drum solo at my sister’s apartment in Charleston, it just became revelatory. See, there’s so much detail in Miles Davis’ work, and especially in small group stuff, that whe you go to a school that encourages analysis you get into the details. We were trained to try to understand everything on every level — every detail.
TP: Did studying Miles Davis or the Kenton arrangers dovetail with the classical music you were listening to in a very natural way?
BELDEN: At that time we were all kind of college geeks, and we were doing the Elliott Carter trip, and generally music you’ll never get performed again and nobody will like, because it was about density and contours and tone clusters. People used to write without actually listening to music; they’d write mathematically. We had all kinds of people. Guys who would write only in C. People who would do these kind of like what Zorn would have been doing the collage cut-and-paste kind of mentality. I figured that anybody who can’t swing has a problem. Because swinging is the eternal rhythm of jazz. As much as people make it an issue whether you’re in the club or not, it still is the eternal clock in jazz. And there are a lot of people who couldn’t get it. They just couldn’t get the feeling. Because to me, it’s always about the feeling.
TP: In that regard, talk about Gil Evans’ work and his salient characteristics through the filter of Bob Belden.
BELDEN: Well, I listened to a lot of Gil’s stuff. The Cannonball record, Great Jazz Standards, is an incredible album. What Gil did best was capture the essence of the soloist in an environment that made him completely positive, and it also provided challenges to the artist, and it put him in an environment that he never-ever would experience again. Because nobody wrote like Gil. Nobody thought like Gil. Gil was coming from another planet as far as arranging is concerned. I only kind or am influenced by the slower stuff that he did, the tone poems. But his lighter writing, the Birth of the Cool and the Cannonball record… I mean, the Cannonball record is one of the greatest big band records — period. Of course, it’s out of print. But Gil had a way of capturing who he was writing for, and sometimes the talent wasn’t quite up to it and sometimes it was Miles Davis. I never really got into any of the later stuff, because I just think that he didn’t care per se.
TP: You’re talking about the electric bands post-’72.
BELDEN: Yeah. I mean, the guys didn’t seem to care in some cases. Because when I went to see them at Sweet Basil it was like, “What is going on here?”
TP: It could get a little sloppy.
BELDEN: Yeah. But see, Gil lived in the neighborhood, and I’d run into him every now and then. He just wanted a place to go and be around musicians. I understand that. Because he’s already done Miles Ahead. He’s already done Sketches of Spain. He’s already done those things. So why make the guy sweat and then say it’s not as good as the original. He had a good life.
TP: Give us some context for the Miles Davis track.
BELDEN: I figured that since I’m associated with Miles, I should play something from the underground. Because this is an incredibly rare track. It was at the Berkeley Jazz Festival in 1967, and it just shows the band playing a tune they recorded in the studio but aren’t known for playing live.
TP: Any personnel variations?
BELDEN: Albert Stinson is on bass.
[MUSIC: Miles, “Dolores” (1967); Gil-Wayne, “Nothing Like You”]
TP: We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that Bob Belden is in the middle of producing a mammoth Miles Davis retrospective with full discographical detail of his Columbia work. The full collaborations with Gil Evans are out, the complete Bitches Brew, the complete Miles and Coltrane. Talk about the salient characteristics about Miles Davis filtered through you.
BELDEN: From a musician’s standpoint it’s like listening to Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms. There’s just so much detail in the work that you have a lifetime to listen to it. He’s one of the few artists that I can listen to over and over and over. Sometimes I’ll get into these obsessions. There’s a bootleg CD from Sinfingelden, and they do “No Blues,” and it’s just swinging-swinging-swinging. So I’ll listen to that for days on days, and only that.
TP: Is this band, Miles-Wayne-Herbie-Tony, the one that sparks you, or all of them in different ways?
BELDEN: Well, overall, because they were more classically oriented in terms of Romantic tendencies and form. They really concentrated on improvising complex forms. The band with Chick, Dave and Jack was just high energy, like a Rock-and-Roll band. And I like the Agartha bands, because again, we were talking about blocks of sound, how dynamics become the composition. It’s loud. You play loud. Then you play soft.
TP: There are people who will play Stockhausen and the Miles Agartha band side-by-side, so that comes through.
BELDEN: Well, Stockhausen can’t swing. He’s just improvising in their context. You have to notice Miles Davis, who if he wanted to could sit down and play “Royal Garden Blues” and really make you feel that he has a connection to something that goes deeper.
TP: So you’re saying that they’re classically informed, you’re referring either to their ability or interest in playing over more complex, longer forms, extended structures.
BELDEN: Yes, more disciplined structures. Because again, free jazz, or what people call free jazz, sometimes is not very free at all. It just has an attitude, and a lot of it is just the people who are buying it don’t know. Miles Davis once said, “White people will buy anything.” In a sense, a lot of artists are… They’re not successful. I don’t know anybody who makes abstract music and really is successful with the exception of Ornette Coleman, and he’s mellowed lately. But it’s very unusual to see guys develop a level of financial security in playing non-romantic music. Maybe after hearing what the show was prior to this one, that may change. But I think that…
TP: When you say “successful,” do you mean aesthetically successful?
BELDEN: I think the whole point is to get your music across to as many people as possible. It’s not about money. It’s not about a fancy house. It’s about having people who you’ve never met make comments in positive ways about your music. When people say it affects them, it has some effect. To me, it’s that they actually bought a CD of mine. That always throws me for a loop. I’m not involved in the entertainment side of my business. If somebody buys one of my CDs, I’m flabbergasted. Out of all the CDs in the store, you went and bought mine. To my dying day, I’ll never lose sight of that innocence about having people get your stuff.
TP: Talk about Miles Davis in his different periods. Because apart from a lifetime of immersing yourself in this music as a fan and student, you’re now immersing yourself in the music from the perspective of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” on an entire corpus of work.
BELDEN: Well, we do a lot of that detail work just to eliminate mistakes in future research. Because musicians especially have a right to know what went down, so they can make a decision. The general public who happens to buy it will be overwhelmed by the information. It really won’t make much sense. But musicians (that’s all I think about) generally gain so much from these sets. Because they lay a story on them. We tell a story as much as we can. And not the information that the guy had a problem with something or his ex-wife or something. We don’t get into that too much. we get into the music. We get into the players, their perspectives. Unlike a lot of the reissue companies, we deal with the musicians straight-up. They get paid for bonus tracks. They get paid for unissued material that comes out. And they’re willing to work with us. It’s great to be able to call Dave Holland or Jack De Johnette to discuss an event, or ask Ron Carter to look over what you’ve done to make sure you haven’t said anything stupid. For us, that’s… We treat Miles like Classical people treat Bernstein or Rubinstein.
TP: After the complete ’50s Quintet and Sextet comes out, I believe there’s to be a collection of a lot of the live-unissued material?
BELDEN: Oh, that’s an interesting rumor. No, our plan is that after… These plans are subject to whim. So after the Coltrane box, which is a 6-CD set with a lot of bonus tracks (stereo alternates to Milestones; it’s pretty good), then we have three choices. We have the Jack Johnson sessions. We have In A Silent Way, which is assembled but not mastered. Then we have a period called Seven Steps To Berlin, which is the Hollywood ’63 sessions up to Berlin ’64.
TP: Again, if you’re willing, I’d like you to talk about Miles the musician in his different periods.
BELDEN: Well, Miles Davis has some different periods, definitely. To me, his most powerful period in terms of communicating to a listening audience, as well as musicians, was ’57-’58-’59-’60-’61. On the Milestones date, the alternate takes, Miles plays these perfectly constructed solos that swing hard, and every note is perfect. Every note is right. There’s no extraneous baggage on it. So he was striving, I think, to create real highly constructed melodic solos — because then his other guys would just go nuts. But his contrast to that was playing these perfectly melodic solos. And it peaked to me with the “Blues #2” with Philly Joe, which is coming out on Someday My Prince Will Come. I have that solo memorized. I can play it on saxophone. He plays “Royal Garden Blues” as a quote. You can hear how he can always take his music back to that time. There’s a bootleg where he quotes “St. Louis Blues” very abstractly. But you can tell he really liked the older stuff.
TP: Well, he himself did talk about Louis Armstrong as fundamental in his conception even if the connection wasn’t transparently apparent in his music.
BELDEN: He liked Bobby Hackett a lot. He liked pretty players, people who had control over their instrument. A lot of the white guys had this Harry James thing to deal with, so they couldn’t play raucous; they had to play pretty and melodic. I think Miles liked that, because Miles gravitated towards sophisticated music and music that gave an air of sophistication. Which is why he didn’t keep playing Hardbop. His band with Wynton and P.C. and Jimmy Cobb was funky, and it was beautiful, swinging, melodic. Happy. You just felt happy listening to it. I think he really wanted to get there.
TP: You think that’s part of why that rhythm section was so successful for him, that it conveyed that mood.
BELDEN: Oh yeah. You’ve got to smile every time you hear those guys. I mean, Wynton Kelly, for some reason, God gave him the talent to make people smile when he played.
TP: Now, you’ve talked fairly extensively with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter about the formation of the band that’s called the classic band. Talk about how you see Miles’ intentions at the beginning of that band and how it panned out in ways he may or may not have foreseen.
BELDEN: I think Miles had tried to get Wayne for a couple of years, and the guys in the band finally said, “Hey.” Sam Rivers didn’t work out, and George Coleman, whom I love dearly, apparently he left the band. He wasn’t interested. He wanted to do his own thing. He was already formed when he joined Miles’ band. And Miles used to pick on him. I mean, I have tapes from a session where Miles was just picking on the guy. This is a funny story. They’re in Los Angeles and they’re playing “So Near, So Far.” Apparently, the arrangement had a coda written into it as part of the solo, and Miles didn’t make it. Right? So the band breaks down, and Miles goes, “What happened?” Victor Feldman said, “Miles, you didn’t take the coda.” Miles says, “What coda? What coda?” George apparently goes to the stand and points at it, and then says to Miles, “I’ll nod my head when it’s your turn to come in.” And Miles stops for a second and looks at George and goes, “You’ll nod your head? What is that George? Method thinking?” Because they’re out in Los Angeles. George goes, “Hey, man, back off.” Miles says, “You ain’t in New York any more, George.” George says something to the effect of “Why are you bugging me?” and Miles said, essentially, “Because I want to.” George goes, “You don’t pick on Ron” and Miles says, “Because Ron has three degrees.”
So there was some element of Miles just sort of wanting to get through all this stuff at the time. He was definitely in a bored period during ’62-’63. I think Wayne changed the band, because it gave him a complete unit. See, Tony and Herbie were already stretching when George was in the band, and it just seemed to go from Miles getting involved to George forcing himself to get involved, and then Herbie coming in. Herbie to me is the greatest jazz pianist.
TP: Let me pick up on two comments. Wayne Shorter changing the band; Herbie Hancock is the greatest jazz pianist.
BELDEN: Well, Wayne changed the band, and he brought music in eventually, but he had this kind of casual way of approaching stuff. What he does technically on the saxophone is pretty intense. His articulation is right on it. He was able to tongue every note. So he could get real intense articulations going, and he had this humorous side, which he used to play for Miles and get Miles to crack up on stage. He had this old Gene Ammons kind of tenor throw he would put in. You could hear him; he sounds like he was drinking a lot. That’s what Miles really liked. He liked that history.
TP: That Midwest thing that he came from.
BELDEN: Well, Miles played with Coleman Hawkins, so he was very accustomed to big-tone tenors.
TP: Well, he played with the Eckstine band with Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon.
BELDEN: I always describe Wayne as somebody who’s squeezing the cat. You got a cat and you’re holding him around the neck, squeezing, and the thing is squiggling and stuff, going RRROWWWRR…
TP: A wonderful image, Bob.
BELDEN: Well, I described one musician as his playing sounds like he’s molesting a child.
TP: The second part. Your intense admiration for Herbie Hancock.
BELDEN: Well, to me, I like hip. There’s something about somebody who is quintessentially and consistently hip. And Herbie is hip. He is able to make every context he does hip, much hipper than it would have been without him. And I am a big student of his commercial sideman dates. I mean, I have every one of them. There is something he brings to a recording session that, as a producer and arranger…he’s a genius. Everyone who worked with him in the ’60s said he would come into the session and bring life to the band. Mel Lewis said that he was always creating, he was always pushing forward. He did a lot of commercial dates where his solos were not commercial. They were very hip.
TP: We’ll move to the subject of Stan Kenton and some of the arrangers who informed you in various ways.
BELDEN: When we were in school, we had the Kenton library. He donated his library to North Texas. So I played almost 200 Kenton arrangers.
TP: He was close to the founder of the North Texas jazz program, Dr. Gene Hall. No?
BELDEN: Well, not as close as he was to Leon Breeden. Breeden was a big Stan Kenton fan. The Ken Burns documentary is coming out, and they were talking about the guy who runs the Jurassic Center Orchestra is bringing jazz education into the schools. I looked at the woman who made that statement and said, “Obviously, you’ve never heard of Stan Kenton.” As much controversy as people have about Stan not being particularly kind to Colored musician, as the common misnomer, and not allowing pot smokers in the band, I mean, he did have a vision and he had a sense of professionalism that overrode everything else. And he would hire the best arrangers and have great bands and make highly emotional music. Highly emotional music. Because he came out of the Germanic tradition. At North Texas we played a lot of the material, and we had to understand it. A lot of Bill Holman’s stuff, a lot of Bill Russo, and then we had guys who were writing for Kenton’s band from our school. That was the time of the stage band clinics that were started… Donald Byrd was involved. Stan Kenton was involved. Leon Breeden was involved. More musicians came out of that than any other single movement in jazz. Especially good musicians. Every year in Los Angeles they have this big Kenton-Fest, and it’s like cultish.
TP: So the general overall aesthetic comes out of a Germanic orientation.
BELDEN: Oh yeah. Again, he came from a period of time… He lived in Los Angeles, he lived in California, and Hollywood films were heavily blown… Especially in his early period, it was like a bad film noir kind of thing; wild, flailing bongo drums and brass. You’ve seen those ’50s TV shows where they’re trying to show the demented person in a small apartment in New York, and they play loud, Latin-oriented jazz. To me, that always created…
TP: Sweat pouring down the face.
BELDEN: Edward Dymytrk. So you get this real intense visual image, and then that translates to your heart and you become emotionally involved with the music. I always liked that about him. He had a dark side to him.
[MUSIC: Kenton, “Vida Prada”; Mel Lewis, “Interloper”]
BELDEN: Thad Jones was literally a genius, in the sense that he never used a piano to write his arrangements. He would just write the parts out. Sometimes he would do five or six charts the night before the session. “Interloper” was one of them. He had this uncanny ability to just write and not worry about it. It was second nature. His language, his phrasing were all completely personal. I mean, he was just a complete-complete arranger and musician. That tune, “Interloper” was done in the later period, and he started putting emotion, a romantic kind of emotion into his music. That piece is very sad. That’s what I find attractive about musicians, is when you get past the brassy, extroverted kind of thing, you find guys who cry. I cry at Flintstones weddings. So for me, I search out musicians and charts, especially arrangements, that have an emotion to it. Also, I played in that band at that period of time, and to play that particular chart, you just were carried along on this ride, unlike almost any charts they had in there. The band just kept going and kept going. And they loved playing it. We all did. It’s a great tenor solo.
TP: Talk about the difference of playing in that band vis-a-vis with, say, Woody Herman a few years before. You were speaking about the difference in phrasing, how every band has its own personality.
BELDEN: Oh, this band, with Earl Gardner and John Mosca, they’re phraseologists. They constantly change stuff up and they have little background figures. They communicate to themselves, and they create interesting things — the sound of surprise. When Thad was there, they’d create backgrounds… He was great at riff backgrounds, and they just kept chugging along and making things exciting. I’ve seen Thad when Thad was directing the band a few times. A very great, exciting band.
With Woody the phrases would be subtle. We had an arrangement of “Laura” where the written part is like… [SINGS REFRAIN], and we did it completely rephrased, out-of-time, and we all nailed it — because eventually we had to learn it. So Woody’s band I think was really into laying back phrases big time, and Thad was into changing phrases all the time.
TP: Albeit that Thad Jones was a sui generis composer-arranger, who were his influences, as you see it?
BELDEN: Well, he liked all innovative… They all loved Fletcher Henderson’s writing, they all loved Jimmy Mundy; they were all influenced by the great writers of the time — Ralph Burns. Geez, there are so many cats from that period, the older guys. Not so much… I mean, Gil was really influenced by the older guys, because that’s the music of his childhood. But I think Thad was not really influenced by anybody, because his harmonic language was unique, completely unique, and his orchestration was unique. He always used dense chords in his voicings, and he’d always write the sections opposed to one another. So in the ’40s and ’50s, the chord would be based on block harmony, and they’d just move it in parallel. Eventually they got tired of that because everything sounded the same. I mean, Thad had no real method, even though there’s a book that tries to analyze it. He just wrote what he felt like. And you you play with those players, everything sounds good.
TP: Not unlike Ellington, Thad Jones (correct me if I’m wrong) would use that band as kind of a workshop. Pieces weren’t set it stone with him, and they would change and evolve, as befits a band that’s playing at least once a week for 30 years.
BELDEN: Well, I think Thad didn’t do anything until the date, and then he came in with five or six new charts. Then they’d edit it at rehearsal, and they’d go and record them. Sometimes the charts are a little different than what was recorded; little arrows going here and there. But he was such a genius. Literally. That mind. You just can’t see too many people with that kind of intelligence.
TP: And did you discover Thad Jones, again, at North Texas State, or…
BELDEN: Oh yeah. You automatically had to go down and buy the records. I mean, they were on Solid State, the charts were published, and we used to play them a lot. I mean, “Cherry Juice” was a big college favorite. They used to play it so fast. We’d be chugging and not making it.
TP: A New York tempo versus a Texas tempo, huh.
BELDEN: Well, North Texas liked to play fast. They just were a little stiff. They never approached the rhythm section from a jazz standpoint; they approached it from an ensemble standpoint.
TP: So in the mid-’80s, you’re doing this commercial work, you’re playing the Monday nights or various workshop type big bands and filling in, and you’re embarking on your personal writing and developing a cadre of musicians to play your music as well. All this is going on in the 1980’s.
BELDEN: Well, in the ’80s… There was a period from about ’82-’83 to about 1991 when I must have written a couple of hundred pieces. I had just gotten a synthesizer, and I had enough work to pay the rent and pay the bills, and plenty of free time. So rather than get into a life of decadence, I just sat home and wrote a lot of music. Because of the clarity of synthesizers, you can create chord structures that are very precise and clear, and that pushes you on to other things — intervals of fifths, spread-out fifth intervals. I would translate that kind of gothic approach on synthesizers to big bands.
TP: So there’s a very specific instance of how technology influences artistic creation.
BELDEN: Oh, synthesizers to me are the most under-utilized instrument in what we call jazz — because nobody can play. There’s one guy who is truly a synthesist — Scott Kinsey. Because he goes beyond the mindset of most synthesists, who are just playing paths and stuff. He will take a sound, and he will play a solo and he’ll edit the sound during his solo, so that the solo has a different level. It has the harmonic level, and then it has this kind of sonic thing. Things will pop in and out, noises and samples, and it’s incredible. Because his mind is so fast, he can improvise and set up… He plays an edit mode, so any time he touches the keyboard, he can change anything. And nobody is out there doing that. I’ve used him exclusively since 1993. I mean, I fly him out for any session I do under my own name. There are no really any-good synthesizer players in New York.
TP: We have cued up a track from the Ellington band in the ’50s that’s somewhat obscure…
BELDEN: I like “Jeep’s Blues” and so on, but I like this because it’s commercial — at the time. It’s like an Alan Freed kind of vibe. But listen to how hip the band plays. Incredibly hip. It’s got one of the greatest shout choruses in jazz.
[MUSIC: Ellington, “Rock City Rock”; Belden-Denise Jannah, “I Didn’t Know About You”]
BELDEN: We had a Pop record to do of Prince’s music, and I got a huge budget, and I decided, “Well, I’m just going to go in the studio and record.” We did about 30 sessions over a period of like five months. I did the Pop record, and I went in and did a bunch of some originals and then all these Prince songs.
TP: There are several dynamics of Pop music translating into jazz. One is that jazz musicians sound like they’re slumming when they’re playing Pop music, and the stuff sounds sort of trite. That’s one of the pitfalls. I’m falling into the Bob Belden trap of A&R’ing here. Another is that you often lose the lyric content, which in Contemporary Pop music is crucial to the meaning of a song. And it’s said that Pop material is much more simplified now than 30-40-50 years ago, and so there’s less protein for the improviser to build on.
BELDEN: Have you ever heard the original version of “Body and Soul”? It’s pretty hokey. Jazz musicians are able to transfer Pop music, sometimes very successfully and sometimes very unsuccessfully, into a new appreciation for whatever melody there is. I mean, they used to write real melodies. On the Prince record, we did a thing called “Electric Chair,” which doesn’t really have a melody. We just made the drums real loud and made it a groove.
TP: What makes Prince’s music particularly suitable for this type of rearrangement and reinterpretation?
BELDEN: Because I can do anything I want to it. I don’t get into this argument of should you do it for jazz or not. Nobody tells me what to do.
TP: I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about what are the dynamics of his music that make it suitable for rearrangement. Is it just because you choose to do it, and therefore you do it?
BELDEN: Well, a lot of the tunes I wanted to do. The Pop stuff was pretty obvious. But the ones I wanted to shift into jazz mode, I got a lot off of bootlegs. There was a tune called “In A Large Room With No Light” which was phenomenal, but he had a fight with Wendy and Lisa and wouldn’t let me do it. And this song that we’re going to play called “Power Fantastic” was never issued. It was on a couple of these bootlegs; they thought it was Miles. I recorded it three times. The first time I sent it to Prince, nah; the second time I sent it to Prince, nah — because the versions were modest. And then we went into the studio and hit, and really made it powerful, and we sent it to him and he said, “Okay.” He put out “Power Fantastic” on his Greatest Hits, and that allowed us to get a mechanical license.
TP: So this was done in collaboration of some sort with Prince.
BELDEN: Well, not collaboration. Just “Can we do this tune?” Because he’s a composer, and why would he let somebody record his tune for the first time when (a) there’s no money in it for him, and we’re just some lowly jazz guys. But he’s into good musicians.
TP: But I still want to know why, in this particular case, Prince?
BELDEN: Because it’s a Pop record. We covered Prince in a Pop kind of context for Japanese — huge-selling records. I’d just finished the Sting record and I’d established some strange sort of… But the record did great in Japan and terrible in the United States because of unfocused company policies. But in Japan, huge sales — it really did well. Again, I’m one of these guys who, when I’m in the studio, I don’t waste time and I record a lot of stuff, a lot of my material. So I got a lot of stuff done on this.
This track just jumped off the page. It really has some power. It’s heavily electric, but it has a lot of emotion to it. If you can take anybody’s music and make it happen emotionally, it doesn’t matter. Nobody knows this melody. But it’s a beautiful, simple song. It’s something any jazz guy could do.
[MUSIC: Belden/Prince, “Power Fantastic”]
TP: Coming up is an interesting segue, from Prince to Herbie Hancock’s ’70s fusion music. Bob Belden was the arranger of The New Standard…
BELDEN: Verve demotes me all the time.
TP: One way or another, you’ve been heavily involved in reinterpreting the popular music of the last 20-25 years in jazz contexts. You were talking about Herbie Hancock’s creativity on commercial dates.
BELDEN: Manchild was one of Herbie’s finest records, because it involves groove and it involves pretty serious electric playing, but it also involves orchestration. Herbie always colored his records in very Gil Evansish… That record and Sunlight has so much interesting stuff in terms of backgrounds. And nobody understands those records, they don’t listen to them… Only a handful of fans. But they show that Herbie can meld commercial music and art music better than almost anybody I know. His music is about feel. So if it feels good, the general public likes it and then he throws in some pretty intense… I mean, if you listen to this track, “Sun Touch,” you hear this bass clarinet-flugelhorn kind of ensemble, and compositionally it has this little bass line that they repeat, actual proof, where they lock into that bass line occasionally. It’s really a beautiful tune.
[MUSIC: Herbie, “Sun Touch”]
BELDEN: That’s commercial music and it still has intensity about jazz. We were talking about jazz musicians don’t improvise. For the most part, if you’re a bebopper, you’re not improvising. You’re playing things you’ve practiced all day and all night. The improvisation may be considered how you string them all together. But very few people are… Keith Jarrett comes to mind as somebody who can really improvise. But to me, a lot of people, they just play what they know, and they focus in on a sound that they know and they stick with it. Because you have to look at improvisation as something that’s totally free and open, something that’s very spiritual, or something that’s constructed into what you’re trying to express.
TP: Well, improvisation is supposed to be the essence of jazz expression.
BELDEN: Yeah-yeah-yeah… I hate the bromides, because they never really apply, and they often are used to keep people out of the scene. Like, “He ain’t swingin’.” “He doesn’t have the tradition.” There are all these cliches, and it really doesn’t matter. Once you get away from having to deal with jazz on a level where your daily bread comes from that… Because I’m doing a lot more Pop-oriented stuff.
TP: To throw the epigrammatic question at you: What constitutes Jazz for you? If improvisation isn’t necessarily it, swinging isn’t necessarily it… Bob is giving me a disgusted look.
BELDEN: Jazz is an attitude. That’s all it is. If you seem like a Jazz guy, you are a jazz guy. Let me ask you this. Have you ever met Rodney Kendrick?
BELDEN: He’s a jazz guy! No matter if he works with Wu Tang Clan or he works with Abbey Lincoln, he’s a jazz guy. It doesn’t matter what he does. He’s a jazz guy. You can tell a difference in how people play. Jazz musicians have confidence. Good jazz musicians can play anything. They can walk in any circumstance and sound good. True jazz musicians. A lot of players, they’re just so open and fresh, and they have the attitude, and they’re humorous and they’re fun to be around.
TP: Isn’t that improvising?
BELDEN: Well, in a contextual element. But if you’re talking about notes, very few people really improvise everything they play. But to give an emotional element to music is very spontaneous.
TP: Well, to project your personality I think is what you’re talking about, and to project that personality into any given situation that you may find yourself…
BELDEN: Well, that’s not improvisation. That’s having a style. If you have a style, you can project it over anything. I think that’s what’s sadly lacking today, is nobody wants to have a style. I get tapes in the mail, and I get records from other companies, and for the most part they’re terribly imitating records that have gone down in the past.
TP: Why do you think this is, in this particular time?
BELDEN: Laziness. It’s laziness, lack of a good musical education, and no vision. I mean, I can imitate Miles Davis as well as anybody, as you will hear from this next track. But it’s like, “Do we want to put this out?” Do we want people to think, “Oh, this is our stuff”? And generally, I don’t put the imitative stuff out. Even if people don’t like what we do. Again, almost all the things I’ve done in the last few years have been Hip-Hop, Rap, Drum-and-Bass and R&B, and I get to put my personality on that music.
TP: Why are you choosing those areas as opposed to what we might call “hardcore jazz”?
BELDEN: Well, we do play hardcore jazz. The Tim Hagans record is hardcore jazz. It’s coming out of Freddie Hubbard. It’s coming out of playing the trumpet at the highest possible level, in perfect time, with an unrelenting sense of direction. I did a Hip-Hop version of “When Doves Cry” with Cassandra Wilson that’s one of the most popular licensee tracks. I mean, 45 compilations have pulled that track. Because it has a jazz attitude. It’s dark as hell. It’s dark and it’s very mysterious, and for some reason people like it because it’s jazzy. I have a difficult time with going straight commercially because I’m an old-school guy, so I tend to like real instruments played by real people. But for the most part, it’s really the personality of the individual. And we don’t have that many personalities now. Guys play, the image you get from them is a Berklee classroom.
TP: Does this have to do with the institutionalization of jazz education, and taking it off of the street or the road? Is it a little too reductive?
BELDEN: Younger guys don’t have older guys yelling at them. They haven’t been screamed at. They haven’t been completely dressed-down publicly. So there’s a lot of confidence the younger guys have that their stuff is happening. I’ve worked with a few of the younger guys, and they’re all beautiful, serious musicians, but they’re having a difficult time really coming to grips with the next ten years. I mean, the hardest thing to make it in the jazz business is past-40. You get forgotten. Your music is marginalized. Most guys get dropped around that time. That’s a stigma that’s really a terrible thing in our business.
Coming up… Again, we were doing the Tapestry record, our paean to Smooth Jazz. At that time, I was the A&R director of Blue Note, so I said, “Hey, we’re just going to record; I don’t care what it costs. I’m going to slap my own wrists.” So we spent six sessions just recording, and I recorded a lot of my material and we recorded the Tapestry stuff. Tony had just passed away, and I wrote this thing for him, and it’s like a Wayne Shorter, mid-late-’60s Miles. It’s funny because it has a mood, and that’s the way we sound when we feel like playing that way.
[MUSIC: Belden, “No Title” & “Winter I (Vivaldi)”]
TP: Bob Belden’s rearrangement of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Jazz and the Classics, with flautist Patrick Gaulois, Kevin Hays on piano, Ira Coleman on bass, Billy Kilson on drums. Another Belden project not available here.
BELDEN: We recorded it for Deutsche Gramophone through Verve, and typically it’s too progressive for Verve. They just wouldn’t put it out. They demoted me on some projects and dropped me from stuff. It was terrible. But again, it’s my theory that musicians have lost control of the business.
TP: And when did musicians have control of the business?
BELDEN: Oh, in the ’50s and ’60s for sure, and in the ’70s, which was the last time when musicians had influence over what people bought. But since then it’s all marketing people and promotion people. They look at you as a musician like you’re some kind of weird guy. I did a lot of reissues for a company, and I pick things from what sounds good musically, not historically, because that whole historical view is crap. It’s all revisionist anyway, because unless you know the people and you actually play and understand the nuances of what real music is all about, you’re just guessing. And we don’t guess.
TP: At the time you recorded this, or shortly thereafter, you then came under the employ of Blue Note as the A&R director, and were right in the belly of the beast, as it were, in the attitudes you’re referring to…
BELDEN: Everybody in record companies now is an A&R guy. The marketing guy, the radio guy, the assistant A&R guy, the President of the company, the General Manager… Everybody is an A&R guy except the A&R guy. Again, I’m not the kind of person who takes suggestions. Because I know what I’m doing. I don’t need help. I don’t need anybody telling me, “We should sign this guy” or “we should sign this guy” or “what do you think about this.” I know the musician scene so well that I know about cats far in advance of record companies. Because the word on the street comes around, “so-and-so is hittin’,” “so-and-so is shucking.” And the process is, they eliminate the element of musical taste and judgment from the mix. It’s all about marketing, the image of the artist.
The other day a guy complained, he said that Omer Avital’s record, the tracks were too long — nobody would play it on the radio. Then one of their strong radio-oriented jazz records got number-one for a couple of weeks and sold 5,000 copies. That’s it. Kevin Hays had a trio record that was #1 on the Gavin charts for 3½-4 weeks and he sold less than 1,000 copies.
TP: With Omer Avital’s record, you’re referring to something that was ready-to-go and packaged, and got dropped when Polygram merged…
BELDEN: Yes. It got Verved. Again, they’re making a business decision. But I think eventually musicians are going to become more business oriented, and not follow the trap of a company.
TP: In A&R there is room for different aesthetics or different ways of presenting a sound image imprint for your company. Bob Belden may have different taste than someone at another label, and it doesn’t become quite that absolutely a matter of musical taste. Or does it?
BELDEN: Well, if you’re given control, which I was never going to be given any kind of control… Yeah, I’m intelligent enough to make decisions and stick with them and follow through. But I just can’t deal with people who can’t sit down and talk to me about the music. Because it’s about the artist and what they play.
TP: Is there a self-marketing aspect in musicians and their choices? In the Pop projects you’re doing, say, are you thinking about the commerciality of the material?
BELDEN: Sure. What’s the point of making a commercial record. I mean, what’s the point? If you’re going to make a record that’s not going to sell, why waste people’s time and energy and money? Because right now we’re flooded by records that are not going to sell by artists who are not artists.
TP: Why does a record sell? Why does a record not sell?
BELDEN: According to most companies, what they want it to sell and what it actually sells are oftentimes wide apart. You just have to know how few you’re going to sell. Gerry Teekens knows he’s going to sell a couple of thousand records, and that’s all he cares about. But Verve everything they do has to sell a lot of records, and that’s a tremendous amount of pressure. There’s no challenge in what they’re doing, because they’ve signed all these artists who actually have reputations. I don’t think they can break a creative artist, or somebody who is kind of left-of-center. They dropped Geri Allen after one or two records. They dropped Jason Lindner. They dropped Omer Avital. Didn’t even tell them. It’s kind of a shame, because if they have a bad year, it’s going to be even worse up there. The Herbie Hancock record I don’t think is going to make any money for the except maybe over a long period of time. But at Blue Note, three months, they make an evaluation, and that’s it.
TP: Let’s give our audience a blindfold test. One clue.
BELDEN: Yes. He was 13 years old when he made this record. The other thing is, if you listen to how professional these guys were. The arranger is Ernie Wilkins.
[MUSIC: Stevie Wonder, “Get Happy” (1963)]
BELDEN: See, guys who are Pop-oriented are much easier to work with. The whole business side, Smooth Jazz and R&B. Especially independent labels. They’re enthusiastic about the music. They really like what they hear, and they go to the bat for you. There’s not like some jazz tradition you’ve missed out. I see it a lot in the business, how they marginalize talented musicians, especially musicians who have a high level of musicianship — and they tend to go to a fashion. Again, for a non-musician, they look at a person and notice what they’re wearing and what the color of their skin is, and they make decisions based on that. And it has nothing to do with the notes, which are the real deal going down. So when I deal with all the kind of Pop-oriented labels, they are just much more professional about what they want to do. They tell you what they want and they do it, and they pay you the money. And they don’t sit down and talk about, “Well, what market is this going for?” They are trying to sell it. Because they don’t know about the Jazz tradition, and frankly, they don’t care.
I mean, the Jazz tradition is strangling our music. Why should a trumpet player have anything to do with New Orleans parade music? Why should all these guys imitate cats who passed away, and a lot of them lived in obscurity and poverty? Why can’t you live in modern times? Miles said, “You drive a modern car, you watch a modern TV, you live in a modern apartment.” Why be…
TP: I will say that some of the people who play the parade music did play that music coming up if they grew up in New Orleans. There are people who played Second Line, for whom that resonates.
BELDEN: Woody Herman was King of the Zulus in 1980 in New Orleans. They brought the whole band down. We had Afro wigs, blackface, grass skirts, the whole routine. We played the Heritage Hall with Wynton’s Dad and Nicholas Payton’s dad, and we did two nights at Al Hirt’s. The Zulu’s Ball. It was nothing. It was those guys who were locals. And they were modern players. They were playing like Cannonball stuff and Miles stuff, and then all of a sudden… I think it’s a tourist and cultural thing. They created this funeral music image. I don’t like old-fashioned music.
TP: You were talking about that before. You were saying that pre-Bebop players don’t really appeal to you.
BELDEN: Well, first of all, if you think about what that music meant at that time, that was some hard dues. And those guys basically played in smoky clubs and they had really no chance. Many of them had to retire… There are so many — in the ’50s — ex-musicians that had day jobs or taught schools and so forth. There wasn’t any real prejudice against white musicians back then, so you had a comfortable intermingling among musicians. There’s Mexican bebop players and there’s Puerto Rican bebop players, and they used to interact deeply back then. Now musicians have managers and agents and they have this kind of hi-falutin’ look of what their contributions to jazz are. I know as a writer, if I really wanted to, you could go and minimize what people think their contributions are. It’s so easy to imitate the past. It’s so easy to copy somebody else’s record. The hardest thing is to not put it out. I hear modern stuff occasionally, and it’s lifeless to me. There’s no adventure because nobody is buying those records. They’ve made the audience so traditional-oriented. They’ve tried to define jazz as a certain kind of music that has a certain kind of look. That’s why Smooth Jazz is primarily Caucasian.
TP: Well, the look you’re talking about is very much about marketing and has to do with the function of media. Everything is branded, and that look becomes the brand of the music.
BELDEN: See, I don’t agree with that. I think most jazz musicians are horribly ugly. They’re just not appealing physically. Because they never strived in their early years to do their face up and get their hair cut. Smooth jazz is a very visual well-to-do Yuppie kind of music, but a lot of those guys do pretty well. And the audience is so much more enthusiastic than jazz audiences. Jazz audiences tend to hoot and holler, and they like to go to hear picnic jazz, festival jazz. But the real serious Hardcore Jazz has sort of been banished from the planet. None of the companies want to take any chances with creative music at a certain level. If you’re fashionable, they’ll give you a shot. But they won’t come to the conclusion that they have to diversify completely and follow through with it.
The last time jazz was popular in America was when the fusion era was around. Now they’re talking 1.9% of sales. That’s like nonexistent. They sell more bootlegs than they sell that. But in the ’70s, it was 7%-8%, because of Fusion. Then in the ’80s they just dissed Fusion and Electric Jazz to the point where somebody reading a modern jazz magazine comes to the impression that there’s only the guys at Lincoln Center and only the guys who could play with Art Blakey and there’s nothing else. And there’s the Downtown scene, which has about 7 or 8 good musicians and a bunch of posers, people latching on to a scene — because it’s a social thing. But the main guys… If you deal with Zorn, Zorn is a very-very evocative conceptualist, and he takes care of business. He’s one of the strongest entities in the jazz business because he doesn’t need it to survive. And Bobby Previte, Dave Douglas…they’re all dedicated and very serious about what they’re doing. Yet they’re going to really sell mainstream numbers. If you’ve ever sold 50,000 to 60,000 records, you know what it feels like to see sales. In my Japanese records, sometimes I make a tremendous amount of royalties because the records sell.
TP: And it’s 9 o’clock. The next show must go on.
BELDEN: I love to poke fun at Verve. You have to understand.
TP: Well, Bob, you have many idiosyncracies, and many of them have come out on this program.
BELDEN: I’ll get nasty letters from people.
TP: And phone calls hopefully.
* * *
Bob Belden (for bio) – (9-13-2000):
TP: I think we should talk in as much detail as possible about the form of this piece, the events surrounding the piece, and the various associations you have to the piece. Will all this be described in the liner notes?
BELDEN: To some degree, yes.
TP: I have a lot of stuff from the Musician Show on your bio. I assume you want things like, “The Goose Creek, South Carolina, native, started playing music as a toddler, and did blah-blah-blah and did this in the school band, and went to North Texas State and did this and that, and from North Texas State went to Woody Herman and did this and that, and came to New York in 1980 and did this and that, and wrote the ESPN theme…
BELDEN: No, I didn’t write the ESPN theme. I arranged many themes.
TP: But all of that is in this interview we did. So if you want that stuff in the bio I have all of it to draw on. When we first were speaking, you said you wanted a thorough document, because you didn’t feel that you had an adequate bio.
BELDEN: Well, I’m sure you saw them.
TP: No. They didn’t send them to me.
BELDEN: They probably didn’t want to be embarrassed. Most of the bios are sort of for morons.
TP: Let’s talk about the piece. I won’t worry about the liner note. You’ve done a number of extended suites before. Before we talk about the personal circumstances that led to the work, let’s talk about the work formally in terms of the progression-of or the line of composition that you’ve done for large ensembles and suites.
BELDEN: The first thing I ever did as a suite was a piece called “World of the Past,” which is kind of science fiction jazz, which I wrote in 1981, and I had it performed in Denton, Texas, by the One O’Clock Band in 1987. It was essentially a piece of music about a dead world and about just intensity… It’s a very intense piece, non-stop. It was a three-movement piece that was continuous. When I was in school, we had a lot of encouragement to create pieces that went beyond just a chart, because we came out of a tradition of composition for large ensemble. It’s unlike anything you will find today, with the exception of maybe Miami University at one time. But Eastman School of Music and North Texas are probably the two places where composition for a large “jazz ensemble” is still taken seriously. Then in 1985 I started work ona piece that eventually became part of Treasure Island, which was originally for a quintet. The completed piece was commissioned by the Atlanta Arts Festival, and we performed it in 1987. Then I expanded it for a large ensemble, which I performed in April 1989 at Visiones, with my band at that time. And I had performed in February 1989 at Visiones for the first time with a band under my own name, and I so impressed Francois Zalacain that he gave me a record contract.
TP: You said that after the first set Francois came up and said, “We must record,” and after the second set Matt Pierson came up and said, “We must record.”
BELDEN: Yes. And then for the second gig, Matt brought Lundvall down. I thought, “Wow, this is easy.” But I had never played a gig under my own name in New York City until I was 32 years old. That was the first gig I ever played as a bandleader. Because I had pretty much not been interested in the jazz world in the ’80s, since they were reinventing the past, and I did not want to put together a band to imitate Miles Davis or Art Blakey or anybody, which seemed to be the de rigueur of the moment. Which I still have strong feelings about that whole thing. I felt that jazz musicians at that time looked at serious composition as a form of frustrated abstract expressionism. They hid behind the intense nature of abstract jazz to feign seriousness, when in reality I felt that there was very little beauty. In Treasure Island I tried to create a bridge between the two, between the intense abstractness and beauty. It was also the first piece that expressed my feelings about the search for eternal love, and how jazz music comes out of a tradition of romantic music that was first proffered by Romantic composers from the 19th Century. And I can’t deny the fact that I am influenced profoundly by Western music, and will not lay claim to any part of African-American culture, and will not coopt that… I never wanted to lay claim to the cliche of African-American culture.
TP: A cliche?
BELDEN: Yes, it’s a cliche in the sense that people wrap their aesthetic around without really understanding what jazz really is. Nobody can define jazz except in the most analytical sense of the word or a historical sense of the word. I define it as a feeling. That it’s one of the few forms of music (using the word “form” in a loose sense) that allows you to go deep into your heart for no other reason than to say what you have to say. That you can express yourself deeply without having to think of any kind of commercialness. Because it’s the most unpopular music in the world.
TP: People are terrified of it.
BELDEN: They really are. It’s getting worse and worse, simply because people don’t care any more. They have to go to movies to cry. They can’t cry because they think about things. People only cry when they are surrounded by a tragedy. But I am surrounded by sadness all the time. I see it in people’s eyes. I see it in the way they act, the way they feel, the way they talk. “Love” is an abstract word that’s become commercialized. Miles Davis loved songs. It’s the same music, but it’s in a package. People say, “Oh, love; oh, Valentine’s Day; oh, makeout music.”
With Treasure Island I just decided, “Okay, what do I want to express about the idea of being in love.” And the idea of being in love has many implications. But to me there’s true love and eternal love. And to some people, love is a form of possession. So I wrote this piece…
TP: You addressed this in the earlier interview. But it sounds to me like the core of your ability to articulate your inner self as a writer of music really stems from your experiences at North Texas State.
BELDEN: No. I learned the tools from that. But I learned how to express myself from living in this place, in New York City, being alone for so many years…
TP: So North Texas State gave you the most thorough apprenticeship and training, and then you honed this living in New York in the ’80s through your various navigations of the sharkpit.
BELDEN: Well, I went on the road with Woody Herman, and that introduced me to the real life, the real world of jazz. It gave me experience going around the world and playing in every state in the United States and Europe and South America. I got to see things that… I looked for things. I felt things. And I realized that music was a viable way to make a living, even though the rest of our culture tends to dismiss it because for some reason they feel that their inadequacies as human beings prevent them from dedicating their life to something like this. So New York City brought everything good and bad in the world here, in front of your face every day, all the time. So having lived alone for a long time in New York City, my social circle was mostly musicians, and it was hard to develop any kind of meaningful relationship with a woman because my intensity scared them. So I said, “Hey, I’m better off just thinking about it rather than dealing with it.” So Treasure Island was a real just crying-out to say, “Hey, I have a soul; I’m a sensitive person; I have dreams about these things, but I can only express them in music.”
TP: So it’s 1989, and you do Treasure Island and you record for Francois, and then Bruce Lundvall hears you.
BELDEN: Well, actually, right after I recorded Treasure Island, which was in August, I was in the studio for Blue Note in December working on the Sting record. Which was just one of those moments of inspiration. I had met Sting at the David Sanborn show and invited him to sit in with my big band, and then said, “Well, geez, if I invited him, I might as well write some music.” And I just listened to some of his music and said, “You know, there’s something there,” and went to Matt Pierson and said, “This is what I want to do,” and six minutes later I had a record deal with Blue Note.
TP: I don’t think I ever heard it.
BELDEN: Like most records today they go out of print faster than… Their out of print life is greater than their on-the-shelf life.
Then I recorded in October 1990 in Paris at La Cigalle, and there was a piece on there called “Psalm #1.” In 1984 and 1985 I had a bunch of free time, because I was doing all this stuff for ESPN and I was bringing this work to the studio, and they gave me free time. So I used it as a lab to record music. I did a couple of records with Wallace Roney, and one of them was half of an album with this ensemble. It was an intense piece that was a Valentine’s gift for someone, which was totally misunderstood. I played it on a gig, because I wanted to at least have it on record.
But then I did the Sting record, which went from a straight-ahead record to a commercial record, because Matt Pierson sort of… I just wanted it out. I wanted to have a record out on Blue Note, because I’m a big Blue Note nut. It’s a dream come true.
Then I did Turandot, and that changed my life. Turandot was an extension of finding a way to express deeper emotional feelings in music, and the subject matter and the melodic nature of Turandot were exactly what I wanted to deal with. It was about love, as most tragic operas are, and it was about the quest for unrequited love and eternal love set against a society and a social backdrop that put obstacles in the way. For instance, if you’re a musician, a very creative musician who is sensitive, who is into romantic music, into music that carries a sense of like sadness in it, which is essentially the melancholia, it’s hard to relate that to a female, especially when you haven’t quite gotten to yourself as an artist, simply because society has a prejudice against artists because they never make any money — the starving artist kind of syndrome. In reality, what we are…some people are really the heart and the essence of the tenderness of the human heart. I did this record because it was…you know, nobody had ever done it before — covering an opera. And I did it in such a way that I was able to transform the musicians who were involved on the record into following the personalities of the characters in the opera. It started out with Tim Hagans playing a certain role, and it ended up with Jim Powell playing that same role but having been affected by falling in love. Because Jim Powell was a very sensitive, very romantic player, and Hagans was a very confident player. I had Wallace Roney play the part of this Princess, a cold, heartless Princess, and I told Wallace to play it that way, and he played it just perfectly — just a very detached kind of lonely, searching kind of thing. He was the only one who could do that. I had Lovano play and Migliore play, the two main Italian Tenor operas, because they’re Italian, and coming from their upbringing, they understood that.
TP: It sounds in a certain way like Black Dahlia is the next step from Turandot.
BELDEN: Well, what happened was that Turandot was suppressed by the publisher because of some prejudice that the Classical Music Establishment has against all forms of music that come from human suffering, as opposed to the aristocracy. It put me into a state of artistic depression that you would not believe. Because I felt I could not express myself any more than that record at that time. And I stopped writing music. I started doing arrangements, mostly arranging and producing for other people. What I would do was take well-known material and twist it, so it sounded like Turandot or Treasure Island, so you will hear in all of these records I did, the records on Prince’s music and Carole King and the Beatles record… I would twist these things, so that I was able to maintain my skills and my sound, and further develop my sound using other people’s music. Because that way I wouldn’t have to deal with… The fact that Treasure Island is still in print is only because everything on Sunnyside will stay in print because Francois Zalacain owns the company, and he loves music, and he’s not interested in sales, he’s interested in having stuff available.
TP: Talk formally about how your sound developed between Turandot and now, in terms of what you were looking to develop and hearing it evolve.
BELDEN: Well, in the ’80s, when I was doing commercial music, I was doing a lot of television and film. I would finish all this work and I would stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning almost every night writing music. I had a group with Smulyan and Powell and Hirschfield and Jay Anderson and Marc Copland, and we would rehearse every Wednesday. I would write for sextet, and I wouldn’t be satisfied with it because from a standpoint of harmony you can do things, but from a standpoint of orchestration, you couldn’t. When I bought the Yamaha DX-7, it allowed me to hear a certain kind of harmony that you couldn’t really hear on the piano, and I started developing a sound, a (?) of how chords should sound, and I started being attracted to certain kinds of chords, really dark minor chords, minor chords in like C-sharp-minor or E-flat-minor or A-flat-minor — dark, very dark, and they have a certain sound. I got away from writing in guitar keys, which are sharp keys, or string keys, which are sharp keys, because they are brighter. I really was gravitating towards darkness. I just felt it. There’s a Gil Evans arrangement of “The Barber’s Song” from The Individualism of Gil Evans which was profoundly affecting me, not only in the fact that it was dark, but the tempo was dark. It was just surrounded in this kind of darkness. Which is what New York was to me. Because I used to hang out at night all the time. I used to walk around at night. And you feel that even though there is sunshine, there is intensity here. There is a lot of evil here, a lot of evil in this city, and there is a difference between Good and Evil. I’ve been there.
So I developed a sound, the sounds of chords. I don’t write music that’s happy, like Kenny G or any smooth jazz per se. When I did Carole King, I turned her record into darkness. I found the sadness beneath the surface, and I exploited that. The record started kind of light and smooth, and it went further and further into abstract darkness, where you lead way over yonder. And at the same time I was developing a sound with three keyboards, because I couldn’t afford to go on the road with a big band, I couldn’t afford… I got frustrated. With Turandot that was like 26 musicians on one session, 64 total involved in the project. On Shades of Red, Shades of Blue, 104 musicians were involved in the project. I managed to arrange these Blue Note tunes and to twist them into the way I heard them. “Song For My Father” I totally twisted around to make it sound like my tune. And I got players who I thought could get the sound. In 1995 I did a piece for Deutsche Grammophone based on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and I twisted that into my thing. You can hear stuff from Treasure Island and Turandot in that. They rejected that completely because it scared them. Because they see the word “jazz,” and they think, “Light, happy, bouncy, peppy dance music.” Then when you come out of… I was heavily influenced by Alban Berg, heavily influenced by music that accompanied noir pictures. Chinatown to me is one of the greatest movies for music. So I was just essentially writing arrangements, and… I just wanted to see if I could make a million dollars in five years. And I did. I mean, it all went to the Federal Government, for the most part, because we live in a state that’s a welfare state.
TP: So it’s ’97 or so.
BELDEN: In ’97, I read an article in the Village Voice which totally, totally freaked me out. Because I realized that something was wrong with me. I became the A&R director at Blue Note during that time, in the summer of ’97. On the one hand, it was a dream come true, and on the other hand it was terribly disappointing. Because I had learned how to produce records and I had learned how to conceptualize records, and I had learned how to take musicians and put them into environments where they sounded better than they did on their own records. Because I knew how to recognize strengths and weaknesses in players. I would study them. I would check them out. When I started working for Blue Note, musicians there who I was dealing with were essentially… It was a foretelling of the situation we have today in that musicians will not let their egos down enough to make a good record. Miles Davis trusted Gil Evans and he trusted the people at his record company to put him in an environment on the odd occasion that would take his music and sound into another world. That’s why those records, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, Miles Ahead, will last forever, and will define a certain kind of ultimate expression in jazz. And there are only a few musicians who would ever trust me enough to do that, one of them being Tim Hagans, and another one being Gary Smulyan, who unfortunately was not on Blue Note at the time. But certain musicians, a guy like Joe Lovano, would let me work with them on certain things and just allow me to do my thing.
But I realized I was fighting a losing battle, because cats these days want to produce their own record because they want to say, “I’m a producer.” But most people produce records that are basically average. They are the same record that they’ve recorded a month ago, or two months ago, or two years ago. And Blue Note was in a period where they were signing certain guys who had no conception of how to make a record, nor did they want to know, because they were having peer pressure, they wanted the New York Times to love them, and they felt that they had to make records that sounded a certain way as opposed to finding out who they were.
TP: But just to hold off for a second, this stuff won’t be in the bio.
BELDEN: But it’s going to lead to it. So I got frustrated, and then I found out that I was not well. That was in October 1997. And it was such a shock that I said, “I can’t do this any more. I have to write my own music again. I can’t be a producer who is just there to tell musicians how good they sound. I’m not a babysitter.” So that’s when I started writing Black Dahlia. Because the subject material was something that I found just totally intriguing.
TP: Let’s address the subject material, then.
BELDEN: You’ll get the information, then you’ll come up with it, then you’ll figure it out. See, the web-site is irrelevant. There’s three levels to the Black Dahlia. One is the legend. Number two is the crime. And number three is the human being. You’ll find out all about the legend on the website, and there was a TV movie, and James Ellroy wrote a book. The crime is a real thing. The crime was a crime of murder. But the story is of a human being who is born innocent into an indifferent world, a world filled with sadness and desperation. This girl, Elizabeth Short, had dreams, and like most kids from her generation, had to escape the drudgery of the Depression. And society created this dream world called motion pictures, and she became totally involved in this fantasy world of falling in love and being famous and being rich and happy. She had one of these childhoods that was dreadful in that there was no hope, so she moved to different places, and eventually settled and resettled in Los Angeles in order for herself to find love and find happiness, to free her spirit. Because that’s essentially what she was. But the problem is, when you move to a place like Los Angeles, the exterior of it is very misleading. Palm trees, sunshine, beautiful people, Hollywood. But at the same time, it’s still the wild, wild West. It’s a place where people move to to escape, and they brought themselves with them. So Hollywood, on the one hand… If you read any of the books about Hollywood, like City of Nets by Otto Friedrich being one, Hollywood was a horrible town. Hollywood was a place that was essentially greedy, selfish, narcissistic people surrounded by defense workers and servicemen and Oakies. So on one hand you had the glamour of Hollywood and you were surrounded by trash, you were surrounded by essentially kind of a low-level experience — no sophistication.
Hollywood was all fake. And I think she found how fake it really was. But by then it was too late. For her, it was becoming a nightmare instead of a dream. If you think about people who get caught up in the dream world of New York, and it slowly becomes a nightmare. Woody Shaw. Miles Davis got caught up in it. You know, Miles Davis almost killed himself, out of loneliness and desperation, in 1979. People come here with dreams. They can be shattered. Others have their dreams fulfilled. I saw this. I read about her in this book called Severed by John Gilmore. It talked about her, and it talked about the crime, and it talked about the real environment around her. And I read City of Nets by Otto Friedrich. And I got a feeling for how a human being can get trapped in this world. Because I was trapped. I lived in a dream world here, because I was totally focused on music and being a musician and being an artist, somebody who expressed their innermost feelings in music. It took me into the hardest part of New York City, the darkest part of the city.
In ’97 I realized that I had to write this music. And little by little, as my health deteriorated, I got focused more and more on the music, and I would write little bits here and there, little bits and pieces, and I would rewrite it and rewrite it. This is what I had to do, was eliminate the idea that these would just be little pieces that had no connection. And I had to create a theme that would be running throughout the music, which is the theme of her life. And I had to create themes that would capture episodes, moments in her life. That’s how the piece is. Every theme is exploited, just like Wagner. The piece starts at the moment of death, and it’s a flashback. It’s her life. She’s reliving her life. “Genesis” is the point of birth — death and birth. And the melody that enters is this lonely trumpet sound, and it’s the sound of one soul being born against this solo piano, which is the backdrop, just the simplest essence of creation. Then it develops into a full-blown orchestrated theme, which is how people’s lives develop. Then there is this little section which transitions to the solo, which is essentially the love theme. The harmonic basis of “Danza D’Amour” is right there. Then it goes into “In Flight,” which is when she is desperate to leave. “Genesis” ends with this triumphant kind of screaming-out, like “I’m here, I’m alive, I’m a human being.” Then the last three phrases are, “But I must cry, I must sigh, and I must die.” Because those chords that end “Genesis” are the chords of Death that follow her throughout the piece.
On “In Flight” she’s leaving, trying to escape the world she was born into. In “Dawn,” she’s at dawn and she’s overlooking this misty kind of valley and she has no idea what lies ahead. Then “City of Angels” is the moment when the city is revealed, and this artificial world, beautiful, a kind of a gauze, a golden gauze that holds over the city, and she looks around and sees movie stars, mansions, people who are just everything she ever fantasized about. She was there. Hollywood. California. Yet at the end of the piece you hear the essence of evil striking out, this moment of like uncertainty. But then she blows it off and just starts, you know, “I believe that I will see; when I believe, I will see.” She just accepts this as her world. Then “Dream World” is the world where she becomes an adventurer in a dream world.
TP: That’s where you enter.
BELDEN: That’s where I play the saxophone.
TP: And Hagans is playing most of the trumpet up to there. You play the soprano saxophone solos?
BELDEN: There’s no soprano saxophone solos. That’s English horn. Charlie Pillow. “Dream World” is the world she’s in at that moment, the fantasy world of California. “Prelude to Love” is the moment she stops and thinks, “What is it I’m missing? What is it I really want? I want to be in love.”
In “Danza D’Amour,” Joe Lovano plays the character of the potential suitors, the different men in her life that she fell in love with but who never could love her. And it ends tragically. The theme starts out very nostalgic, very period in some way. And it dances in and out of little harmonic cells which constantly modulate and change, and gets more intense and more intense until it kind of dwindles out. Because when you fall in and out of love, the feeling just peters out, you know. And it goes back into the theme again. But it ends incredibly tragic, and that’s the end of what her life was as Elizabeth Short. She could never fall in love because she did not have the capacity to fall in love, like the Princess in Turandot or like the characters in Treasure Island.
TP: Didn’t she specifically have…
BELDEN: That was irrelevant. Because love has nothing to do with sex. She wanted to find somebody who loved her because of all of her situations. So then “Zanzibar” is when she sort of starts hanging out in the nightlife, becoming a night creature. And “Black Dahlia” is the moment she becomes this person who transforms herself into someone who will draw people to her. In other words, she knew she could not fall in love with a man; she had to have men fall in love with her.
TP: Or desire her.
BELDEN: Well, pretty much one and the same. And she can control it. She became the Black Dahlia. And there’s a phrase that’s basically one of the melody phrases, which is “When your day becomes your night” in the beginning, and then at the end it’s “when your night becomes your day.”
Then there’s this piece called “Edge of Forever.” It’s her last night at the Hacienda Club. The Hacienda Club was a dance hall, and I envisioned it being a proto Kenton-Dizzy Gillespie band, these wild, extreme trumpets. Each soloist becomes a different phase of…
TP: The trombone soloist is Conrad Herwig?
BELDEN: Yes, it’s Conrad. Migliore on alto and Lou Soloff. At the end, there’s the famous Gene Krupa-Harry James kind of maddening trumpet-drum thing, where we wanted to get to this frenzy. There’s kind of a cliche… Like, if you’ve ever watched the Twilight Zone episode with Richard Conte; it’s really like this wild, crazy… I described it to Tom Evered as “bongo madness.” Just an intense bongo kind of driven piece that evokes the Afro-Cuban kind of dark, evil, sinister thing that they used that music for in movies. And it was her last night on earth. Then there is the piece called “Freeway (101 North),” which is the Hollywood Freeway. She was using that, heading toward the mountains. The way that was written, it was improvised, but I told Kevin Hays to imitate traffic, visualizing driving half out of your mind, desperate to leave, to get somewhere. I don’t even know if she drove, but in a car, going somewhere, and seeing lights…you know, being distorted in the headlights, headlights being distorted in the windshield, and creating this kind of illusion and this intensity, cars zooming by, horns honking, and just like total paranoia.
Then “Elegy” is basically in four parts. On “City Lights” she’s on top of the San Gabriel Mountains, overlooking the city of Los Angeles, wondering what has gone wrong with her life. It’s late at night, she overlooking the valley, and she’s wondering what has gone wrong with her life. Why is she in this position? Because in her real life, she had been involved with criminals, people like robbing houses, and she was a setup for robbing houses. She’d become a petty thief. She knew too much, and she probably was going to turn people in. She wanted to get out of that life and she wanted to have those people put away so she could be safe. So she’s up on the mountain, looking over the city, seeing all these little street-lights, and thinking, “For every light that I see in Los Angeles, that means their soul has died and gone to heaven to become a star in the night sky.” Then she prays, “God, if there is a heaven, then that’s where I want to be. I want my soul to live forever, for all eternity.”
Then as in most tragic operas, she starts walking to her destiny, to the moment… She knows she is going to die, and she accepts that. And she is going to walk to the place where she is going to meet the person who is going to kill her. And she starts thinking about how sad her life has been, and trying to glimpse into her mind the moments of happiness. When you hear the strings score up, she starts crying, crying like, “Why? Why? God Almighty, why do I deserve this? What have I done?” Then when the trumpets come in screaming her theme, she is back to the moment, like, “I started out innocent, and now my life is just intertwined with Evil and bad people.” Then those last moments, it’s like the emotion overwhelms her, to where she’s face-to-face with Jack the Ripper, the personification of Jack the Ripper, who begins cutting her up. Then there’s this big tympany roll, and then she screams — the last sound she ever utters. A scream. But it wasn’t a scream that anybody heard but her, in her mind.
Then you hear this like little low note, and then you hear a string note, and it’s like the very beginning. The trumpet comes in. And she looks down upon the crime scene, this vacant lot, and sees her body, and sees a little kid come up and see it and go and run. Then she sees the kid’s mother. Then the police come. It’s like dissolving from one to the other, happening, like floating… The time is like speeding up. It’s no longer like slow in real time. It’s like getting faster. She’s in Purgatory. She doesn’t know whether she’s going to ascend to heaven or if her soul will spend eternity in Purgatory. She is suddenly bathed in a light, and she looks up and sees this light just enveloping her soul, and she hears a voice and it says, “Please come to me, my little child.” That’s the voice of God inviting her to Heaven. So you can hear it go into tempo, and it just starts getting more intense, and the strings start playing a little higher and higher and higher. She’s ascending into Heaven, going higher and higher, until she breaks above the boundaries of the earth into this beautiful…like what people dream Heaven is. It’s a clear blue sky, the most beautiful blue. It’s Heaven. And the clouds is the cushion beneath you. She knows she’s made it, she’s done it. Her one dream, to live forever, will be achieved. Then the light intensifies and intensifies, and it becomes so bright to where it disappears into total blackness. Then suddenly a star appears in Heaven, and then a light appears in the City of Los Angeles, and then the Sun comes up over the mountains. Then you hear those three chords saying, “The Black Dahlia will live forever.” And that’s the story.
TP: You mentioned a few times Gil Evans. He seems a primary inspiration for the way you think about music. Not so directly tied into the sounds on this. But for instance, you said no one had done an opera, but he reimagined a different type of opera. Other things as well. Maybe this is a totally fallacious line of questioning, but I want to talk to you about tangible landmarks in your intellectual journey.
BELDEN: Well, simply: Alban Berg, Lulu. Puccini, Turandot. Wagner, Tristan and Isolde. And Jerry Goldsmith, Chinatown. This record has nothing to do with Gil Evans. I talked to Gil. Gil and Miles were thinking of doing Tosca, and I asked him once, “How come you didn’t do it?” He said, “There wasn’t enough there.” But see, Gil could never conceptualize a unified work on his own, because he never thought like that. Basically, Gil could deal with one voice effectively, which was Miles. He could wrap Miles around in something. But he could not really deal with the idea of putting together…to create a work that told a story.
TP: That said, you spoke of what happened to you psychically after Treasure Island and Turandot, which was more a reimagination of the opera than a rearrangement, so we can call them creative works… Do you see this as in line with a late 20th century opera? How would you describe…
BELDEN: How about an early 21st Century opera? Well, it has the elements of opera and it has the elements of tone poems, which is like Richard Strauss — “Das Sprach Zarathustra,” “Der Eulenspiegel.” It’s a tone poem. It’s a work that tells a story, that’s based on themes. It comes from that tradition.
TP: But it deals with improvisers as the voices.
BELDEN: It deals with people who can improvise emotion, who can improvise feeling. Because there’s not a lot of improvisation in there. Because it’s about telling a story. It’s about telling a melody. It’s saying that melodies can become human characters.
TP: Lovano has a phrase, “tonal personality.”
BELDEN: Yeah. But I don’t even know if I’d call it that. Because I create the personality that the musicians will… I have to put that musician into a point where they can instinctively play that. Before we played the first piece, “Genesis,” I turned to Tim Hagans and said, “Do you remember how I felt last year?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Play like that.” He knew what I meant. And he played like that. He played like somebody who thought they were going to die. You never heard Hagans play like that. I got Lawrence Feldman to play that alto solo on “Black Dahlia” because I knew he would play exactly what I had written. We talked about that. I had him come over to my apartment in August 1999 and go over that with me, and I told him, “This is what I want you to do. I am writing this for you because I know you know what I want.” His solo was written out.
TP: What voice are you when you’re playing saxophone?
BELDEN: I’m just one of the characters… In “Dream World,” I am basically her as an existing human being in a situation. And when I am playing the last piece, I am like her watching herself die, which is when I watched myself slowly die. Because this shit is not your normal record, man. This has things in it that are so deep to me, and stuff that I really can’t talk about, because people won’t understand. They have to know that this purely emotion. This has nothing to do with the jazz tradition as people think of it. It has to do with the tradition of Germanic music. It goes beyond just a jazz record. Like, Keith Jarrett’s solo piano record. You can hear how bad he felt when he was trying to recover from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, trying to get over an illness that was sapping his life out from under him. When you are at a point in your life when you can’t do anything, you have no strength to do anything, and your mind is like completely left to just ponder your fate, it’s terrible.
* * *
Bob Belden Blindfold Test (11-15-02):
1. Oliver Nelson, “Blues O’Mighty” (from MORE BLUES & THE ABSTRACT TRUTH, Impulse!, 1964/1997) (Oliver Nelson, arr.; Thad Jones, cornet; Phil Woods, as; Pepper Adams, bs; Roger Kellaway, p) – (4 stars)
The pianist sounded like it came from a deep source, like he has everything in it. And the bass player, the only guy who can play like that is Richard Davis, so it has to be Roland Hanna. It sounds like a Thad Jones tune. The baritone is a very, very different kind of Pepper — if it were Pepper. Outside of that, a funny reverb on everything. That’s as close as I can come. In terms of rating, it sounds like a basic record date, a blues, but if it’s those guys, they’re always quality musicians, so I would say four stars. If it were somebody else, I would say 2 stars for imitating.
2. Daniel Schnyder, “With the Devil On The Backseat” (from TARANTULA, Enja, 1996) (Schnyder, comp., ts; Hubert Laws, fl.) (3 stars)
I guess the drummer was out getting high or something. That’s a very intriguing way of dealing with that kind of cluster voicing that Brookmeyer and Gil Evans use so well. The flute player was great. There’s very few flute players who can have that tone. It could be Lew Tabackin. So it could be Toshiko’s band. Tabackin has that kind of tone. It’s a big tone and it’s uniform throughout the register. Jazz flute is kind of a dying art form. The saxophone player I couldn’t really tell, because the changes were kind of tricky for him, and it didn’t sound like it was something written specifically for that person’s phrasing technology, so to speak. But the arrangement is interesting, and it has certain intellectual qualities which are apparent. But it’s just all right. It’s okay. You know? If it’s Toshiko’s band, it has to be Frank Wess. But if it’s not, it could be Kenny Wheeler; he writes like that a little bit. Kenny Werner writes like that. I don’t know if Maria… She can, she has the potential to write like that. All these people kind of write in the same similar thing, where the music is more based on how much ensemble they can manipulate in between solos. My philosophy has always been the drama created from the hero, the antagonism between the hero and the society, as opposed to everybody being a communal player. And that music was framed around little solo vignettes for the soloists, but there was no emotional focus or where they were going to end up. It just sort of was a piece, something like you would write in college. For the concept, four stars. For the emotional thing that hit me, 2 stars. So three stars.
[AFTER] I wouldn’t have thought Hubert Laws, because he’s been kind of off the scene. But he has that big tone like Lew, a classical tone. I know who Daniel Schnyder is, but I don’t really follow his music that much. I get stuff in the mail from him. I know he wrote for Lee Konitz a couple of years ago. But I’m into just intense maniac stuff. I’m not into this kind of thing.
3. Cindy Blackman, “Green” (from CODE RED, Muse, 1990) (Cindy Blackman, d, comp; Wallace Roney, tp; Steve Coleman, as; Kenny Barron, p; Lonnie Plaxico, b) – (5 stars)
Okay, I think I know who that is. Cindy Blackman had to be the drummer, and probably Mulgrew Miller on piano, which means the bass player could have been… It’s a Muse date. I can tell by the fact that the recording quality has a certain “je ne sais quoi.” But the trumpet player can be nobody else but my man Wallace Roney, and anything Wallace plays is 5 stars. The Muse dates were kind of like the Prestige dates. You could tell that if they had just focused on this tune and another two tunes for a session, they could have gotten what Wallace really wanted. But it’s Wallace, and it’s killin’. I can tell by the articulation. [Any guesses on the saxophone player?] I know who it is, but I can’t remember. There’s this whole line of alto players who come out of Spaulding in a way, this angular kind of Spaulding thing. There’s Kenny Garrett… This might have been an early Kenny Garrett, because they were a tandem for a moment there. But I could be wrong again. [Whose date was it?] Well, I’m not sure. These days there’s no… It’s kind of not really a Wallace Roney kind of tune. It’s a Cindy Blackman date probably. It’s the drummer’s date, because the tune was written around the drummer. I could be wrong again. But there would be more space if it were a Wallace Roney date. Five stars for Wallace. The record, because of the way jazz records are made, I’d say is not 100% of what they could have done with the people they had. But under the circumstances, that’s all they could get out of it. But I’ll give Wallace five stars for anything he plays. Cindy Blackman deserves a four star record, but she could have done a five-star record if it was her record… So four stars.
[AFTER] I remember Steve Coleman mostly as an alto player on Thad Jones & Mel Lewis’ band, and next thing you know, he’s got this system of music out in Brooklyn. I was going to say Osby, but it was too bebop for Osby. Greg has refined that whole concept, I think; has distilled the art of deception to an incredible length. But I guess he is severely influenced by Coleman.
4. John Patitucci, “Isabella” (from COMMUNION, Concord, 2001) (Patitucci, 6-string-electric bass, comp; Chris Potter, ss; Ed Simon, p.) – (2-1/2 stars)
Is that Michael Brecker on soprano saxophone? Oh, man! I said Brecker first, but it sounds Liebmanish. Dave Liebman has a conception on the soprano saxophone. It’s hard to say. I only liked the last 30 seconds. The melody is quasi-Weather Report, quasi-quasi, but the last one, they just stayed on that groove, the low pedal, and just stayed there, kept what sounded to be like a berimbau or something of that nature in there. That was cool at the very end. Had that been a Miles Davis date, Teo would have just looped the last end for about 20 minutes. On a record date like that, the vamps are when all the shit happens, because people are over all the agony of having to play the tune, and by the finish of the tune, they’ve already had an orgasm, and now it’s kind of like they’re relaxing and mellowing out, like lighting up the cigarette, and the music is just going into another world. I think that when people play, they should just let the thing run out, even if it’s a 20-minute ending. Because you can always edit it. But you get amazing things from the finish of tunes. And that tune had a great finish. I have no earthly idea who it is. The recording quality is pretty miserable, too. Everything is dark and muddy. So it could be the bass player’s record. The only guy who’s like approaching that stuff is…like, Richard Bona has a worldly approach. But it’s hard to say. The cliche of Fusion, as Zawinul once said to me, is that everything has got arrangements. That tune there was so many different tunes within the tune. Just the vamp could have been tune. Just the melody. You could have just played around with that melody, like “Nefertiti,” and not ever played a solo, and just let the melody breathe. Sometimes you don’t have to develop things. Sometimes you don’t have to make an issue out of things. But then, it’s their record, not mine. 2-1/2 stars for the last 30 or 40 seconds of the piece. The soprano player was nice, but again, there’s all these things in there. It’s all Coltrane-based. Very Coltrane-based. I mean, anybody who plays the saxophone can do that without thinking about it. And I think he should send at least $1.40 to Coltrane’s family.
[AFTER] Chris Potter, my man! But yeah, the bag is you get into those Middle Eastern kind of grooves, and the tendency is go on to Coltrane, and the thing is that you’ve got a slash mark that says whatever the tonal center… Say it’s A-concert, and that’s an open string for the bass, so he’s able to jump off and do all kinds of interesting stuff. But for a horn player, you’ve got this one note, and you’ve got to have everybody on the same wavelength, and then you can play melodies to it instead of playing the Slonimsky kind of stuff. But it’s just basically the kind of thing where he wrote a tune… They all write tunes, and they’re tunes, and it’s not really about the actual music that happens on the tune. Just the arrangement happens. Patitucci is a guy who comes from that area. All his influences are evident in that kind of thing. But record companies put pressures on guys to write tunes as opposed to letting the music just happen. Personally, I’d have just let them go for a half-an-hour on that little vamp, and got the Sonic Solutions out. But again, those guys are all 100% musicians. It’s just they’re making records, as opposed to making momentary snapshots of the way they feel about life that day. It’s a very abstract way of making music. But to me, it’s the only way of making music that is a true testament to how you feel about life. Otherwise, you’re just making a date with a bunch of all-stars.
5. Brecker Brothers, “Slang” (from OUT OF THE LOOP, GRP, 1994) (Michael Brecker, ts, comp.; Randy Brecker, tp.; George Whitty, keyboards, arr.; Dean Brown, g; James Genus, b; Steve Jordan, d; Steve Thornton, perc.) – (3-1/2 stars)
Right there’s another one, man. They get into it on the fade. The back end of the tune is killing. They get into a groove. It’s like it’s all focused on that. What I heard is two different record covers. It’s almost like a hip Saturday Night Live band. The first part is all Brecker Brothers, the voicings, the Hindemith descending fourths, very early Miles-’80s, the muted trumpet, bebop licks… It’s just a lot of stuff in there. And at the very end, it gets into this kind of groove, and kind of very Pop, and then they fade out. It’s a tune that’s five tunes in one. You’re on an emotional roller-coaster ride there. Like, where are you going? It’s again about two stars! Because that’s all I ever want to hear it. I don’t want to ever hear it again. I don’t need to hear it again. It will stick in my mind forever because it was getting nice towards the end, and I’ll probably steal a few voicings. But outside of that, wow. Who was it?
[AFTER] Man, the Brecker Brothers! Yeah. I was thinking that if it was somebody STEALING the Brecker Brothers, then it should be 2 stars. But that’s George Whitty. See, I was going to say George Whitty. But they’re the only guys that are doing that stuff. It’s totally Brecker Brothers language. Now that it’s a Brecker Brothers record, it’s 5 stars. No, you have to understand. If it’s an imitator, then it’s definitely 2 stars, because there’s groups out there that imitate very well. I’m thinking, my God, a band has come out, and they’re copying the Brecker Brothers note for note. Because that’s George Whitty and that’s Robbie Kilgore doing the programming. I know the record, but since the car accident, my memory has just gone. But I knew that was the Breckers, because Randy is the only guy who does that. And I knew it was Michael. But then again, there are so many people who imitate Michael Brecker note for note, to the point where it’s scary. And I dare venture a guess, and I’d rather make a hip remark about somebody imitating them than to give them… Because this kind of music is so easy to imitate, because it’s note for note transcription. It’s an arrangement. It’s something that starts and finishes with endings and beginnings. And the kind of music that’s more difficult to imitate is the music that…to imitate or capture the feeling that went into making the music in the original. That was Dennis Chambers on drums, right? I saw that band live. Barry Finnerty was on guitar. It wasn’t Dennis Chambers. Oh, Steve Jordan. But Dennis Chambers did the live shows. But yeah, that had to be… I knew that was Randy Brecker. Nobody does what he does. But again, I don’t think it’s the best example of their band. The best stuff they ever did was in the ’70s on Arista. That was ridiculous. And nobody has imitated that. Well, actually they have. I take that back. I heard a group at the Blue Note one night, but it was fake Brecker Brothers from the ’70s. But it’s hard. Michael is the kind of guy… I feel bad for Michael, because he’s the first guy that synthesized Stanley Turrentine and Coltrane, and he made the connection because Turrentine dug Coltrane, and they all came out of Gene Ammons, and they all came out of the big tenor tone — Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon. Michael Brecker just took that and made it his own thing, and then everybody…even Chris Potter can sound like that if he wants. So I have a difficult time even distinguishing him sometimes. Which is why when you played the thing with Patitucci, I thought that was Brecker on soprano. I thought somebody was giving him a break, and having him play soprano. Because there were so many lines there, patterns that saxophone players play, and articulation. It’s very gender-specific. It’s like a code. I can tell somebody who’s… I know the record collection. I know the record they got it from. On the one hand, it’s great. But when you put it out on your record as being your thing, then it’s kind of disingenuous, because the guys who made the music in the original to begin with suffered enough.
For Randy Brecker, five stars. For Michael Brecker, 5 stars. For the track, 2 stars. There is a distinction. They are 100% artists making a 50% album. I’ll make it easy. 3-1/2 stars, with 5 for the Breckers, for Randy, and for the conception, 2 for the tune, and average it out for the fact that everybody steals from them and they don’t pay them any money.
6. Benny Carter, “Blue Star” (from FURTHER DEFINITIONS, 1961/1997) (Carter, as, comp, arr.; Coleman Hawkins, ts) – (5 stars)
I’m going to make a stab. Marshall Royal. No? I mean, that’s a really tight saxophone section. It could be Bobby Plater. It’s very bizarre. Like, the old-school vibrato, reverby room… Wow, that is so out there. Because there’s a record with the Count Basie sax section and Coleman Hawkins, and Marshall has that kind of sound. But I’m trying to think… [Do you know the tune?] [SINGS REFRAIN] Yeah. The bebop tune that’s based on “How High The Moon.” Yeah. I have no earthly idea. It’s from the ancient days. [You think you recognized Coleman Hawkins, though.] No, there’s a record called “Coleman Hawkins and The Big Sax Section.” It’s with the Basie Sax Section and Coleman Hawkins… [A Savoy record.] A Savoy record, yeah. But no, there’s only a handful of these kind of sax ensemble records that exist in this old-school stuff. Earl Bostic… Benny Carter. Yeah. I’m not familiar with the recording, but I’m thinking who plays like that? There’s only a handful of guys who can play like that, and it’s an elegant kind of thing. I knew it wasn’t Woody Herman. He’s the other guy who plays that style. It’s a touch of Johnny Hodges, but what Johnny Hodges brings to it is a skilled… It’s very elegant. Everything was very precise. The vibrato was very precise. It was a lot wider than Hodges. Why I say Marshall Royal is because Marshall is from L.A. and was profoundly influenced by Benny Carter, and Marshall plays exactly like Benny Carter when he solos. So I don’t think I was too far astray. But yeah, Benny Carter, and I can’t venture to say who was in the section. But if the readers could hear it, the tenor players, when they played their ensembles, they played it perfectly in the same…no vibrato. I knew it wasn’t any of the Ellington guys, because the pitch would have been all over the place and the vibrato would have been all over the place, so you’d have had that fuzz. This was done by meticulously trained musicians…who were probably sober at the date. [But you think the tenor player was Coleman Hawkins.] I couldn’t tell. [Well, it was.] Okay. [Do you want to know who the other saxophone players were, just for professional curiosity? The other tenor player was Charlie Rouse and the other alto player were Phil Woods.] See, I told you, man. They played like not on the road, playing the same music every night. You could tell when the tenor counterline came in, they were playing the same vibrato and the same phrase. Benny Carter, 5 stars. The arrangement, 5 stars. It’s a very specific kind of writing. There are six saxophones… [Four.] So there’s not a trumpet in there. I guess I’m hearing the reverb… Oh, the guitar. So the guitar is playing some of the notes, too. But it sounds a lot bigger than it is, and that’s a testament to his writing. It’s also a testament to the reverb.
7. Jack de Johnette, “Where Or Wayne” (from EARTH WALK, Blue Note, 1991) (de Johnette, drums, comp; Gary Thomas, ts; Greg Osby, as; Michael Cain, keyboards; Lonnie Plaxico, b)
A black hole. That’s the only rating I can give this. Do you know what I mean by that? There are no stars in a black hole. It sucks out all the light. The only guy I can think of would be Gary Thomas on tenor saxophone, or Billy Harper, because of that certain kind of sound. But I just didn’t like it at all. I guess this is what happens when you go to Berklee. Again, for the composer, for the people who are making the music at that moment, to have an arrangement and to have the structure and to have polychords in little spots for the soloists to work out all the things they work out… It lacks any sense of spontaneity, and it’s derivative of almost every inner city fusion record of the ’70s and early ’80s. I have no idea who it is. I probably know them, and they’ll probably smack me in the face. But it’s very Downtown. Very Downtown New York. Again, something like this, it’s hard to say. They’re going for something. It’s jazz guys trying to play fusion music. It’s like a burgeoning thing. And forgetting that fusion music in itself was a natural evolution of a certain kind of playing of hard-bop. So where do you take it? What is Fusion of today? The fusion of today is far more electronica than groove-oriented, than beat-oriented, than backbeat-oriented, than repetitive chord sequences. [When did it sound like it was made?] Definitely in the ’80s and ’90s because of the string synths. It’s hard to say.
8. Bill Holman, “I Didn’t Ask” (#5) (from A VIEW FROM THE SIDE, JVC, 1995) (Holman, comp.; Ron Stout, tp.; Pete Christlieb, ts) – (5 stars)
Is this the Vanguard Orchestra? Holy shit. That’s a sound. The only guy sick enough to write this is Bob Brookmeyer. It’s not Brookmeyer? He’s the only other guy I know who’d be sick enough to write something like this. [Besides who?] Thad Jones. Jim McNeely… [You’re thinking of the wrong clique.] But see, it’s the same sound. It all comes from Brookmeyer’s tune, “ABC Blues,” and Thad Jones, from his first record. That’s a Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band tune. It’s a Basie and Gerry Mulligan. [You’re in the wrong clique.] In the wrong clique. It’s bizarre. It’s a good… I don’t know this specific album. But that’s definitely not a… [It’s lineally connected to all the people you’re talking about.] So it’s very current, right? [It’s a recent recording.] That’s what I’m saying. It has to be a radio band in Europe or something. They’re the only other ones who can rehearse that well. No? Who is it? I’m dumbfounded. I’m not up on what goes on… Well, the composition style is basically an imitation of the first Thad Jones-Mel Lewis record, of “ABC Blues,” which came out of the Concert Jazz Band, which was like a combination of Gary MacFarland and Gerry Mulligan, and they had this kind of conception. But Thad Jones had that kind of Basie pop thing, so there’s these interrelated rhythms going on in between. so it’s a guy who’s amalgamated those particular kinds of sounds. Or it might be a woman. It might be Maria, and Julie Cavadini did a record — she’s pretty much into the Brookmeyer kind of thing. But it’s hard to say, because it’s such an identifiable… [It’s a cousin of Brookmeyer.] Manny Albam? No? [Or maybe an uncle.] An uncle. Not Gil. No, of course not. Who is it? [You’re not only in the wrong clique; you’re on the wrong coast.] A West Coast guy, a cousin of Bob Brookmeyer. Bill Holman! That makes total sense, but I would not have guessed it, because I know the source. The source comes out of Gerry Mulligan. I’m one of these guys who goes back to the source of it. Gerry Mulligan comes out of Lester Young, and that goes back to Count Basie, and you know where that comes from. And it’s the blues. But all of these things you’re playing me, not one person has played anything that remotely resembles anything to do with the Blues in any of their playing or any of their tunes. There’s nothing that has that essence of it. Just the Brecker Brothers tune had a moment of it, I think. And the deJohnette tune had just a moment of it… The Oliver Nelson tune was a straight blues. But everything else, the fusion stuff, is all devoid of that feeling. So it becomes like a guessing game. With Oliver Nelson, I could pretty much tell who the main stars were, but it wasn’t their best playing. For Bill Holman and the fact that it’s an L.A. band, the miracle of that coming out of L.A. is five stars alone. Bill Holman is a genius, and I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve compared him to Bob Brookmeyer and the Gerry Mulligan Jazz Band at all, because that’s the sound he’s fighting for. He wrote a chart for Mel’s band called “Just Friends,” which is the art of taking Tristano’s idea and bringing it to a big band. He’s truly a brilliant musician who, unfortunately to us, lives on the West Coast and doesn’t hang out here where it’s cold and damp. Five stars. It was a great performance. It was very cool in terms of big band writing… The soloists I didn’t particularly find fascinating, because what could you possibly play after that writing? With Miles and Gil, Miles played written out solos on a lot of the stuff, especially the “Miles Ahead,” because what could you possibly think of, improvise off the top of your head that will follow what you’ve just heard from the mind of somebody like Bill Holman?
9. Jeremy Pelt, “Madness” (from INSIGHT, Criss-Cross, 2002) (Pelt, tp.; Jimmy Greene, ts; Myron Walden, as) – (4 stars)
To play that tune that way, which was “Madness,” a Herbie Hancock tune, it’s like playing Vivaldi with electric violins. See, I have the alternate take of that. There’s an alternate version of the way they approach the melody, and Miles just says, “Well, let’s just play a feel.” They also recorded that in the summertime. They played differently. Miles played differently in the summertime than he did in the wintertime. If you listen to all those Miles records from the summer, which is “Nefertiti” and “Sorcerer” and you put them up against “In A Silent Way”… If you listen to “Bitches Brew,” “Nefertiti,” “Sorcerer,” “Filles De Kilmanjaro,” and you put them up against “In A Silent Way” and the stuff from the early “Jack Johnson” sessions, you hear the difference in the way guys play summer and winter. And the feeling on that tune, “Madness,” is about getting to a point or a place. And these guys… It’s Jeremy Pelt, right? He’s one of the few young guys out there looking at this kind of music like Wynton did in the early ’80s. But it’s not doing the tunes, because the tunes were just captured in the studio by Miles at that day, and if they ever played them again, they probably appeared in quotations of other tunes, as they did on the Plugged Nickel, where you hear Wayne go into a tune from “The All Seeing Eye” or you hear on some of these live tapes where they go into “Prince of Darkness” and actually play “Dolores” on the gig. So musicians tend to go by the recording, and extant bootlegs of certain things, and they base that on how they approach this kind of music as opposed to using a particular kind of method to it. Of the younger cats out there in the city, he’s one of the most serious guys about playing the instrument and being involved in the music, and I’m on his case all the time about just this thing, about dealing with this kind of music in a way where you just do it privately, and publicly, you try to create an image of yourself as a musician who is on top of everything that’s going on in the world around you. Because to play that kind of music, you’ve got to recreate the environment. That tune sounds great in a big studio like the 30th Street Studio in Columbia, where the ride cymbal can ring out into the room, and you’ve got a great classical engineer like Fred Plath, who made the most of it. But I think this was a Fresh Sound recording, or a Criss Cross recording… Criss Cross. So it’s from Systems II, and the drums bleed into everybody. Was that Ralph Peterson? This record was a long time coming for Jeremy. I met him a few years ago, hanging out at this club, Assault(?), where all the up-and-coming young hard boppers would play. I see him all the time, and we talk all the time. Was the tenor player Mark Turner? Oh, Jimmy Greene. My man. All these guys are having to deal with things that they didn’t think they’d have to deal with, which is what to do with their sound and where to put it and place it in the modern world, not in the world of the mythology of jazz. In the world I live in, we recreate the… On Legacy or Blue Note, when we do these reissues, we can set a tone for a style of music, and it can come back to haunt you, where people are imitating the records you put out as reissues. If guys lose themselves so much into somebody else’s identity, they will eventually lose themselves in the identity of the world, because it’s getting bigger and bigger for us as musicians. And by being bigger and bigger, it’s harder and harder to show yourself as distinguishable from somebody else. The amount of pressure on guys like Jeremy and Jimmy Greene is something that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Four stars for Jeremy Pelt. He could do better, and he knows it, and he… The conditions for making Criss-Cross records are like the old days, where you have to go in, and a lot of times the guys don’t go in with working bands, they go in with all-star bands, or guys go in with rhythm sections that are dovetailing from another session. These guys played the music, but they didn’t work on the music for this record intensely. Horace Silver said that he would work on his music for months with his band, and he would invite Alfred Lion down to hear the music, and Alfred would say, “Yeah, that’s great, all this is great, this one maybe not,” and then he’d go into the studio, and boom. And you’d get the feeling like they’d have it down. What Jeremy wants to get is a group telepathy thing going, and it’s hard to get it going on a record date where you’re going in to make a whole record in one session. The guy that he is aspiring to be…the feeling of this track… That was done with one or two other tunes in a three-hour session in the middle of June or July in 1967. They weren’t thinking of making a record. They were just in recording, of how they felt that day, and they were working at the Village Gate that night. So the conditions of making recordings today are so inverse of the way they used to be, and yet, they’re expected to have the same visceral effects as the recordings of yesteryear.
10. Bob Brookmeyer, “Seesaw” (from WALTZING WITH ZOE, Challenge, 2001) (Brookmeyer, comp.; John Hollenbeck, d.) – (4-1/2 stars)
Man, that’s an amazing arrangement, because the arranger made 8 minutes seem like 20. I daresay who could possibly be. But whoever it is doesn’t play solos for a living. They like to write. It’s a lot of ensemble writing, and it was hard for me to discern a melody that anything could be based on. Like most of the things you played for me, the ones where people are trying to become complex, they don’t establish any kind of groundwork, anything that says “this is the thing that I want this moment, that we’re forcing you to listen to, to be.” Especially with ensemble writing, the tendency is to get carried away, and to just write-write-write, and instead of going, “Well, man, let the tenor player open up, let the trumpet player open up, let things open up and be free…” Some bands are like that, mostly the European bands. But I couldn’t venture to guess. Maria could potentially write something that complex, but… For the arrangement, I would say like a 4.5-4.75 arrangement. That’s a serious arrangement! But it was just an arrangement. It was a tour de force, so to speak, for the arranger. So I’d say 4 stars. It was really good. You can’t say there’s anything bad about it. It’s a matter of an aesthetic opinion, a difference. But still it’s a stellar, an amazing performance.
[AFTER] Brookmeyer is the only one who could play like that. Bob is in that phase where he’s not like into just opening up and blowing all the time. I mean, he is into having the form structured and stuff like that. The beauty of that music is it’s composition. It’s not really about soloing. And I’m lazy. I’m a Southerner. And I just like to write slash marks out for cats to play, and I like to write whole note melodies. Bob is much more developed in terms of composition. In his modern day writing there’s no… This tune wasn’t a long-form melodic thing. It was gestural writing. He had phrases, he had a recapitulation. But I thought it was a little too happy to be Bob Brookmeyer. But he told me he was thinking of moving to Canada, so maybe this was his “I’m moving to Canada” piece. But 4-1/2 stars. Bob Brookmeyer is one of the best in the world. But again, my concept of having fun with a big band is road trips, hanging out with them, and letting them all play long, boring solos. But he likes to write music. I went to a college where that’s what we did all the time, so I left school to be a Bohemian. And he was a Bohemian, and now he’s really a composer. But he’s the only guy who could play the trombone solo like that.
11. Marcus Miller, “Visions” (from TALES, Dreyfus, 1995) Miller, bass clarinet, bass guitar; keyboards, rhythm programming, sound programming; Michael “Patches” Stewart, tp.; Kenny Garrett, as; Poogie Bell, d.) (5 stars)
Kenny Garrett. Of course. Five stars for Kenny Garrett. The tune was really nice. I vaguely recognize it. It’s a pop tune. [Is it a new standard?] I don’t know. But it’s Kenny Garrett, and that’s all that matters. Because he has a SOUND. When you hear it, you know it’s him. That’s the beauty of Kenny Garrett. It doesn’t matter what he plays. He has yet to make his ultimate record, I think. [Was it Kenny’s record?] Uh…no. No. Could that have been a Don Byron record or something? There was a bass clarinet player. Was that Marcus Miller? Yeah, Marcus Miller. [END OF SIDE] …”In A Silent Way” sequence. But Kenny Garrett and Marcus, they’re coming out of the way “Tutu” derived from the “In A Silent Way” thing. You can tell, because there’s more blues in that. There’s more of that darkness in the Marcus way of doing it. Because they think that way all the time. And that’s why I can hear that thing, just sort of that floating down and letting it slip out every now and then. Where some cats, they don’t let it slip at all. Jazz comes from basically the deepest feeling of all, the feeling of sadness. And you can hear it from Kenny’s playing, you can hear it in the way he plays every note. He’s one of my favorite musicians, just to hear him play. “Tutu” to me wasn’t a jazz album; it was an ambient album with Miles Davis involved. It was a textural, ambient record. That’s what I have to say.
12. George Garzone-Joe Lovano, “The Mingus I Knew” (from FOUR’S AND TWO’S) (Garzone & Lovano, ts; Joey Calderazzo, p; John Lockwood, b; Bill Stewart, d) (3 stars)
First I said Joe Lovano, because the first phrases the tenor player played were like pure Lovano. Then I realized Mark Turner, and I thought this has got to be a Criss-Cross date. So it’s got to be like Orrin Evans? [You’re getting cold.] But it is a Criss-Cross date. It’s not a Criss Cross date. It sounds like a Criss-Cross date. But it’s just sort of a jazz date. The tenor players were both young modernists… Well, one guy seemed to have a little older phrasing in him, but it just didn’t…it was just sort of there. It was just a tune. 3 stars for Jason Koransky. Now, on the composition end of it, it had the schizophrenia of a Mingus composition, the bipolar nature of a tune, and the spirit of it was that kind of thing. It’s like when guys do faux Ornette tunes; like, they all copy “Lonely Woman.” When people copy a Miles tune, they do something that sounds like “Madness” or they write their own “Nefertiti.” Everybody’s an homage. I guess that’s the whole thing. Because it’s very difficult to come up with something unique or to be brave enough to let people hear it. [So at first you thought it was Lovano…] Well, the phrasing… Modern saxophone players, in my opinion, who are being recorded on a regular basis… This does not include college players or part-time players. But the guys who are disseminated in the recording world, the younger guys have an influence… Like, Chris Potter is seriously influenced by Joe Lovano, as is Mark Turner, as is Joshua Redman. Joe gets it from Dewey Redman, and Dewey gets it from basically living in Texas. But there’s this kind of flow, and it’s a phraseology kind of thing. If you keep up with guys… There are guys like Seamus Blake and Mark Turner who will probably acknowledge their many influences, and Joe being one of them, not only for the fact of the way he plays, but that he’s accessible as an artist and they’re able to deal with him as a real-time jazz musician. He’s been on the scene. So I would say that the presence of Joe Lovano is within the saxophone players. [It was Joe Lovano and George Garzone.] Wow. I got it. The first one I knew had to be Lovano. The second one was the one I wasn’t sure of. Because that’s why I mentioned Mark Turner. But again, I don’t know. Because all these guys sound like Lovano. But I would rather say who I think it really is, and then say, “But these other guys copy his stuff.” It’s like with Brecker. So to me, it’s always a dilemma, because I’m very precise on the notes. I can tell you what note somebody steals from somebody. It’s that sick. Like, Lewis Nash…it sounded like Lewis was the drummer. Bill Stewart? Wow, he was pretty straight-ahead there. Wow, Bill! I would never have guessed the bass player, but Calderazzo I might have guessed because of the sudden shift into a more modernistic approach on the bridge of his solo when he got a chance to burn. It’s not the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard any of those guys do, especially Lovano. I’ve heard some of the most ridiculous stuff. 3 stars.
13. Ellington, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (from DUKE ELLINGTON: THE REPRISE STUDIO SESSIONS, Mosaic, 1966/2000) (5 stars)
Duke Ellington selling out. That’s just amazing. The only other hip version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is Grant Green’s version, with Hank Mobley and Larry Young. But Duke Ellington did a track, it’s very obscure, called “Rock City Rock,” from 1957. It’s the best Rock-and-Roll tune performance ever done! And at heart, he was really a Rock-and-Roll musician. As you can tell, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to do it. But that’s Johnny Hodges playing that little break there, and I think that’s… Around that time, Basie did a Beatles album as well. Everybody likes those melodies, because you know it right away, and I found from rearranging standards of popular music that you can do anything you want, anything artistically, once you establish the fact that you’re doing somebody else’s well-known song. All they have to know implanted in their mind on this end is “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” And you can hear it. So they know it’s that, and so they’ll follow along with it, as long as you make it interesting. It’s kind of an illusion that clever arrangers use. You’re a magician. What you hear is a popular song, but what you’re actually hearing and seeing is something totally different. I’d say for the sheer balls of it all, five stars for Duke Ellington, and five stars for the A&R guy who got drunk and had him do it.
14. Ben Webster, “There Is No Greater Love” (from MUSIC FOR LOVING: BEN WEBSTER WITH STRINGS, Verve, 1955/1995) (Ben Webster, ts; Ralph Burns, arr.)
Isham Jones, “There Is No Greater Love.” The saxophone player has a direct connection with Benny Carter. You can hear it in the phrasing. Because they grew up around the same time. The way they ended their phrasing… It’s like those romantic violin players in restaurants, when we see the cliched gypsy violin, how they do the phrasing, and they put tremolo on it, and they dovetail their phrasing. That’s from doing vaudeville shows and being involved in all kinds of other-world kind of music. He always wanted to do a string album, and he did it, and people put him down for it. He was like one of the first jazz guys to really adapt well to this kind of string environment. Am I correct? [Who did you say it was?] I said he and Benny Carter were contemporaries, more or less. Although this particular saxophonist started his early years with a blues singer. And he used to get on his knees and play, and he also used to play clarinet with her. Then he became probably the most famous jazz virtuoso in all the world. [If you’re saying it’s Coleman Hawkins, it wasn’t.] There’s only two people who play like that. Victor Goines… Well, Joe Zawinul would kill me. It’s the king of the boudoir saxophone, Ben Webster. [I knew you’d know that. I wonder what you thought of the arrangement.] For a musician, they all have a soft spot, especially saxophone players…not necessarily exclusively. But they all want to get over with women. And Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins especially… Coleman made a string record that was widely criticized by the jazz purists because it was commercial, but probably for him, it allowed him to make quite much ado with the young ladies who frequented the jazz spots he performed in.
But with the arrangement, it’s like you were replacing a vocalist. That’s how the vocalist arrangements… Strings were orchestrated in an upper range as to not allow them to interfere with the range of the tenor. It’s as though he were Mario Lanza in the midst of all this, just going freely throughout this, and it’s a very Puccini-esque orchestration, the strings glittering up high. The way they do it is they basically keep a lot of violins, and then they just double the melody line with a viola, and it gets this rich texture, and then in the middle you have the saxophonist flying all through it. It’s a very simple arrangement, obviously for the jukebox, obviously to facilitate a more commercial approach to his sound. The Boudoir Tenor is a very romantic kind of thing, a very affected playing. [Any sense of who the arranger might be?]
Well, to do a Ben Webster date, it’s not going to be… It could have been Quincy, it could have been… Well, with Quincy you never know either, because he farmed it out. But Ernie Wilkins could write like that, and Ralph Burns could write that style. But that kind of arranging, that was the style. It’s like a particular kind of voicing. It was Ralph Burns! I couldn’t tell the pianist… [Teddy Wilson] I was going to say Teddy Wilson. He had that Nat Cole touch. That was about the only guy I would say. Again, you’re talking about recording sessions, and a lot of guys are great soloists, but on a recording date, they go in and they freeze. They can’t play. And certain guys, they nailed sessions. They were just the consummate professionals. Teddy Wilson could read music. He could comprehend the form and the texture of an arrangement. But the only two guys who could adapt to a jazz soloists effectively in that style were Ernie Wilkins… He did a record with Stevie Wonder, and he got that sound. But Ralph Burns. It wasn’t Nelson Riddle, because Capitol would not have let Nelson do a record like that.
A lot of these records, you can hear the business involved. You can hear the effect of being on top of a trend, or the pressure to get a record done in six hours because the guy is too cheap to pay for two extra hours of a rehearsal. And you can hear that in the rushed tempos, in the uncertainty of… Everything is getting put into one thing. [In this date you can feel that?] On this date, no. This was a commercial date, where they probably ran it down once or twice and they nailed it. Norman Granz wasn’t a spendthrift in the studios, but he was professional and the sound was good.
Overall, the pieces like Brookmeyer’s piece require lots of rehearsal and lots of patience. That’s probably a European orchestra. The Bill Holman piece, he has a rehearsal band, and they are very dedicated to his music. That’s what it takes to make that kind of music. And it replaces the environment of the touring bands. But the small group jazz people always have the ghost of the past haunting them. It’s caused a quandary within the industrial circles as to what to do with those pesky hard-boppers.