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Tag: bob belden

A Contrast in Sonics: Matana Roberts and Supersilent at the Poisson Rouge Last Night

Matana Roberts stole the show at the Poisson Rouge last night. And she played solo, without the electronic rig she often employs. Purposefully, with a disarming, often shattering directness, she built songs without words, drawing on two centuries of gospel, blues and a little swing jazz. The first number was a matter-of-factly strolling gospel tune, more or less. After that, she developed a conversation for two or maybe even three voices, calm and resolute versus more agitated: Eric Dolphy and Coltrane together came to mind.

Although she has daunting extended technique and can squall with the best of them, the singing quality of her tone (which critics would have called cantabile in her days as a classical musician) along with her gentle melismatics told stories of hope and resilience rather than terror. In between numbers, sometimes mid-song, she talked to the crowd with a similarly intimate matter-of-factness. A shout-out to Bernie Sanders met with stony silence – this was a $20 ticket, after all, and beyond the means of a lot of 99-percenters – but by the end of the set, she’d won over everyone. “I don’t think Trump has four years in him,” she mused, which met with a roar of applause.

Roberts explained that for her dad, D.L. Roberts – whom she recently lost – music was an inspiration for political engagement. Her most recent solo album – streaming at Bandcamp – is dedicated to the activists at Standing Rock and has a subtle American Indian influence.

As she wound up her tantalizingly brief set, short of forty minutes onstage, she engaged the crowd, directing them to sing a single, rhythmic tone and then played judicious, sometimes stark phrases around it. In between riffs, she commented on how surreal the months since the election have been, fretted about touring internationally because she’s worried about what kind of trouble’s in store for her as an American, and pondered what it would take to bring a racist to New York to kill a random, innocent stranger. “I don’t think you know either, because we’re all in this together,” she said, unassumingly voicing the shock and horror of millions of New Yorkers – and Americans as well.

When Supersilent finally hit the stage for their second-ever New York concert, their first in thirteen years, the blend of Arve Henriksen’s desolate trumpet against the stygian, almost subsonic ambience of Ståle Storløkken’s vintage keyboards seemed like a perfect segue. Electronic music legend Helge Sten a.k.a. Deathprod (who has a show at around 9 tonight at Issue Project Room in downtown Brooklyn) mixed the brooding soundscape into a plaintive noir tableau with artful use of loops, reverb and delay, bringing to mind Bob Belden’s brilliant late-career soundtracks.

Then Storløkken hit a sudden, bunker-buster low-register chord that blasted through the club, following with one bone-crushing wave after another. The effect was visceral, and was loud to the point where Henriksen was pretty much lost in the mix. It was impossible to turn away from: pure bliss for fans of dark sonics.

That’s where the strobes began to flicker, and frantically shredded fragments of dialogue began to flit through the mix in tandem with a spastic, seemingly random rhythm. Was this fast-forward horror show a metaphor for how technology jerks us, and jerks us, and jerks us, and jerks us…? You get the picture. If that was Supersilent’s message, they made their point. But after thirty seconds, it was overkill. This may not be Aleppo, but in a different way we’ve also been tortured, and were being tortured as the PA continued to squawk and sputter. There’s no shame in assaulting an audience to get a point across, but a respite would have packed a mighty impact at that point. Matana Roberts knows a little something about that.

The Explosive New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories

The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.

The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.

With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.

The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.

Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.

Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.

In Memoriam: Bob Belden

Visionary saxophonist, composer, Miles Davis scholar and videographer Bob Belden died suddenly on Tuesday night after suffering a heart attack in his Upper West Side apartment. He was 58.

Belden’s often turbulent career encompassed just about everything an individual can do in music. He was a distinctive composer, a talented saxophonist, arranger, conductor, producer and music executive. His brief tenure as head of A&R at Blue Note Records in the late 90s ended after less than a year in a disagreement over the direction of the label: Belden wanted to promote new music while his corporate colleagues wanted to focus on easy-listening and more retro styles. Since then, he had led the cinematic instrumental band Animation, with whom he had just played earlier this year in Iran, the first American musician to perform there since the 1970s.

Born in Illinois, raised in South Carolina and educated in Texas, Belden came to New York in the late 70s and quickly found a home on the Upper West Side. The diverse, multi-ethnic character of the neighborhood – and the dangers lurking there after dark – had a profound impact on his worldview and his music. Belden’s vividly cinematic compositions are rich with history and political overtones, global in scope, often imbued with a noir sensibility. Much of his work draws heavily on classical and Indian music. While his best-known album is the 2001 orchestral jazz suite The Black Dahlia – a moody, 1950s style crime jazz score inspired by the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short – his most powerful album was his final one, Animation’s sweeping, anguished 2012 release Transparent Heart, a bitter look back at the aftermath of 9/11 in New York

Belden was also one of the world’s foremost Miles Davis scholars. He found considerable irony in winning three Grammies, but not for his music: those were for liner notes and post-production work on Miles Davis compilations and reissues. An acerbic writer with a sardonic sense of humor, Belden didn’t suffer fools gladly. As he saw it, other musicians failed to address contemporary concerns and were unable to put their work in the context of our times, something that Belden himself never failed to do.

His progressive politics mirrored the qualities in his music. He was always looking to draw attention to injustice, especially as it affected his adopted New York home. Although he could be cynical and blunt to the point of confrontation – something he relished – he tempered that with a self-effacing sense of humor. And he dedicated himself to passing his legacy to the next generation of musicians: his bandmates in the final edition of Animation were all about half his age.

Beyond music, Belden had considerable talent as a photographer and videographer, inspired by the film noir that he loved so much. This blog reviewed Belden’s final New York concert – at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center last month, he and Animation reinvented a suite of Miles Davis songs to the point of unrecognizability, giving them a persistent, propulsive, restlessly enveloping sweep reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s 1970s film scores. The concert was performed to projections of Belden’s own symbolically-charged, Sam Fuller-inspired black-and-white video, which he’d taken on a blustery night last summer, from Times Square to the lower reaches of Harlem.

In an interview onstage before the show, Belden reveled in reliving his experiences in Iran and was looking forward to returning there: he leaves a wealth of plans unfinished along with a deep body of work. Sincerest sympathies to his family and many, many friends.

The Spirit of Miles Davis Returns Via Bob Belden’s Noir Nightscapes

Friday night at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center at the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s sonically immaculate auditorium, reedman and Miles Davis scholar Bob Belden’s quintet, Animation, revisited the lingering unease of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, reinventing the music as a sort of update on Morricone 70s crime jazz, playing along to a chillingly here-and-now series of black-and-white video pieces. Shot by Belden himself on a blustery night last summer, the restless flutter of black leaves against neon glare or distantly flickering streetlights vividly evoked the same urban angst that permeated Davis’ original. Belden’s point was that this era’s juxtaposition of real estate bubble luxe against crushing poverty and burgeoning racism mirrors similar struggles and stress experienced by everyday New Yorkers during the era of Robert Moses and Joe McCarthy. The group – Belden on soprano sax and flute, Nord Electro keyboardist Roberto Verástegui, bassist Jair-Rohm Parker Wells, trumpeter Pete Clagett and drummer Matt Young – drove that point home, hard.

The original Miles themes were transient to the point of being practically illusory: from the git-go, it was obvious that Belden had reimagined this music as a suite. During a pre-concert Q&A with organizer Willard Jenkins, Belden more than hinted that this music would be intense. Relentless is more like it. Young’s deftly machinegunning rhythms, sometimes morphing on a dime from one odd meter to the next, other times evoking a more aggressive, less pointillistic John Hollenbeck, underpinned these long, purposefully stalking midnight strolls. Verastegui subtly varied his timbres from a eerie, vintage Rhodes echo to outer-space warp on an absolutely unrecognizable, twistedly futuristic take of Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid, aptly set against the bombardment of Times Square advertising images. It seemed to ask, is this all we have to show for sixty years of ostensible progress?

Wells interestingly got the eeriest moments of the night with his stately horror-film tritones and nonchalantly menacing chromatic walks during a long solo. Both Belden and Clagett ran their horns through a raw wee-hours mist of reverb, evoking the same kind of primitive processing – as on the Escalier Pour L’Echafaud soundtrack – that  made Davis’ music the essence of late 50s noir. Belden alternated between aching, sustained lines and anxiously clusters of bop, from the vamping bustle of the opening number, Move, through the only number where the band really made any attempt to match the trad, blues-based melodicism of the originals, Boplicity. Clagett got plenty of choice moments to evoke and revel in Miles-style nocturnal resonance. In between, they switched between white-knuckle Taxi Driver soundtrack intensity, chrome-chill 90s trip-hop and occasional echoes of In a Silent Way-era early electric Miles, through long, warily exploratory versions of Darn That Dream, Why Do I Love You and Budo (which Belden introduced, appropriately, as “Hallucination”). The highlight of the night came early in the second set, with a plaintively rapturous, considerably slower and more expansive take of Godchild.

Belden, like Davis and Duke Ellington has talent for visuals, in his case film. Anyone who’s spent time walking along Central Park West in the wee hours – especially in the pre-bubble decades – will resonate to Belden’s apprehensive shots of open windows, subway staircases and deserted streets lined by iron fences which offer no way out in case of trouble. It appears the concert was recorded: what a great DVD it would make!

Some backstory: Belden and the band were especially amped in the wake of being the first American band to play in Iran since the late 70s. As he told it, there’s actually an audience for jazz there (German label ECM Records has an Ikanian affiliate who record and release a small handful of jazz acts there), and Belden’s final night there, a concert in Teheran, received thunderous ovations. “And we did the same thing over there that we do here,” he noted dryly, also taking care to relate that the Iranians he encountered are in so many respects indistinguishable from Americans. They suffer through traffic jams, have close-knit families and seem eager to interact with westerners. And they love jazz. Not to beat a point into the ground, but these are the people who would be displaced or killed should the Obama accords get pushed off the board by the rightwing lunatic fringe.

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.