Bob Belden’s Brilliant Portrayal of New York in the Here and Now
Transparent Heart, the new suite by saxophonist Bob Belden’s Animation project, is one of the most important and gripping albums in any style of music released this year, especially as far as New York is concerned. “This record is not a jazz record. In essence, the music is a reflection of the lingering tension since 9/11. It’s an honest look at Manhattan through music,” says Belden. And it’s a crushingly honest one at that. Belden rightly identifies 9/11 as the single central factor in the decline of New York dating from 2001. And he speaks from experience: he was about five blocks away from the World Trade Center when the planes hit. He dedicates the album to those murdered in the attack and to their survivors.
Belden is equally outraged by the Bush regime’s reign of terror that followed: “The intense buildup of the New York Police Department to the point of having one of the largest standing armies in the world, placing citizens under surveillance on the streest and in the subways – stop-and-frisk developed from this quasi-military policing initiative,” he reminds us. Nor is he happy with the ongoing displacement of the small businesses that have given New York so much of its individuality over the centuries, replaced by the generic blandness of fast food restaurants and national chain stores. He may not have made it to New York until 1979, but Belden is a New Yorker to the core.
The album defies categorization. Lush and picturesque in the style of late 70s film music, with jazz flourishes from Belden’s saxes and Pete Clagett’s trumpet, richly orchestrated with Roberto Verastegui’s electronic keyboards over the relentless pulse of electric bassist Jacob Smith and drummer Matt Young, it’s a film for the ears. It opens with Terra Incognito (a reference to late 70s/early 80s Central Park above 96th Street). Its uneasy cinematics shift over a determined trip-hop rhythm with Rhodes piano, tersely sailing sax and trumpet lines. Urbanoia – an examination of the pervasive sense of danger that despite gentrification has never abated in the city’s poorer neighborhoods – opens with desolate washes and electronic bleeps and a thicket of samples from tv a la Roger Waters and The Wall. As it builds over a tensely bubbling background, alienation-fueled trumpet and then Belden’s own agitated crescendo combine vividly to recall Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver soundtrack..
Clagett’s trumpet also carries the hauntingly brief tone poem Cry in the Wind, inspired by the time Belden came to the rescue of a late-night stabbing victim. They follow that with the sweeping, majestic title track, driven by distantly lurid, epic washes of string synthesizer, plaintive horn lines and Young’s relentless yet terse drum volleys. If there’s any star of this album, it’s Young, with his sledgehammer attack on the kick drum: even when the music reaches a lull, he never lets the intensity diminish, and fuels the many crescendos here with a mighty force that somehow manages to be more matter-of-fact than dramatic.
Seven Towers begins with a tense, rubato series of bass pulses, revisits the brooding opening theme as Young subtly foreshadows what’s looming beyond the horizon: we all know what’s going to happen. Yet the band approaches it with a frantic precision that perfectly captures the events of that morning in downtown New York: after all, the towers had been bombed before, and had caught fire, and they didn’t collapse either time. Belden’s microtonal, desolate flute and then Verastegui’s surreal, darkly starry electric piano capture the horror and numbed shock afterward, Young’s drums finally veering toward pandemonium.
The militaristic response afterward is portayed via a return of the main theme, plaintive against a practically satirical, funkily fusionesque beat. Vanishment – inspired by how so many mom-and-pop stores downtown were shuttered for good in the wake of 9/11 – works variations on the theme with a steady yet practically weeping electric piano solo over a remoreseless drum vamp. The final track, Occupy!, at first maintains a disconsolate tone, then offers guarded hope via Belden’s spirited soprano sax, yet ultimately returns to an angry agitation and ends unresolved, perhaps a reminder that eternal vigilance is a price we can’t avoid paying. Many of the songs are streaming at Soundcloud (including Planetarium, a bonus track); the album is out now on the Rare Noise label.