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Tag: Roberto Verastegui

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.