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 bluster 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.