Combining innovative arrangements with popular interpretations of mainstream music, saxophonist Bob Belden explored a new side of jazz in the 1990s and beyond. He has won three Grammys, recorded jazz versions of songs by Sting and Prince, and worked on a set of historic reissues of classic Miles Davis recordings for Columbia Records. "Saxophonist, arranger, producer—you'd have to look a while to find someone who brings as much to the table as Bob Belden," wrote Robin Tolleson in Mix.
Belden was born in Evansville, Illinois, on October 31, 1956, and came of age in Goose Creek, South Carolina. He attempted his first musical performance at the age of three, mimicking his brother and sister who were old enough to take piano lessons. He played saxophone in his junior high school band and later attended the Brevard Music School in North Carolina. At Brevard, Belden performed in an all-state brass section while also remaining active in golf, baseball, track, football, and basketball. At 16 he enrolled at North Texas State University, where he performed with the respected One O'Clock Band. "I got totally excited about jazz when I was at North Texas," Belden told Jazz Weekly. "And it was a great environment. It was just amazing."
After graduating from North Texas, Belden honed his skills as a player by working with a series of well-known band leaders. After a stint at Harrah's Casino in Lake Tahoe, he toured 18 months with Woody Herman's Thundering Herd in 1979-80. Herman's orchestra would greatly influence Belden's later foray into jazz versions of popular songs. "Anytime we played something that was on a pop level," he told Tolleson, "it just went over, no matter if it was abstract." Next, he joined trumpeter Donald Byrd sporadically between 1981 and 1985, and decided to make New York City his home in 1983. For six years he worked in both television and film, arranging music for television movies and the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN). In 1989 he began working as a bandleader, and during his first gig he was offered recording contracts by two labels: Sunnyside and Blue Note.
Belden recorded Treasure Island Suite for Sunnyside in 1989, a six-part suite influenced by the work of arranger Gil Evans. Belden carefully constructed both original and older material to work as a multi-part collection, allowing one composition to flow into the next, both musically and thematically. Joined by trumpeter Tim Hagans, pianist Marc Cohen, alto saxophonist Mike Migliore, and tenor saxophonist Craig Handy, the quintet explored a variety of moods on the 34-minute suite.
The origins of Belden's next project arrived in a burst of inspiration. After attending a Sting concert, he visited the artist backstage and invited him to "sit in" with his current band. Later that night, Belden conceived the idea of recording jazz versions of Sting's compositions. "It was designed to take Sting's music and try to make it sound like Miles [Davis] and Gil [Evans]," he told Jazz Weekly. Straight to the Heart: The Music of Sting (1991) was Belden's second recording as a leader and his first album for the renowned jazz label Blue Note. Three years later, Belden followed with When the Doves Cry: The Music of Prince (1994). The recording featured re-imagined recordings of "Purple Rain," "Nothing Compares 2 U," and "1999."
Besides his work as a musician, Belden earned a solid reputation as a producer, working steadily with Columbia Records to reissue older material. He was nominated for Grammy Awards in 1993 and 1994 respectively, for his work on Turning Point and Journey by the McCoy Tyner Big Band. Belden also oversaw Miles Davis's vault material, and won two Grammys in 1996 for his work on Miles Davis & Gil Evans: Complete Columbia Studio Recordings. "If you have a reputation of being dependable and professional," Belden told Prentiss Findlay in the Charleston, South Carolina, Post and Courier, "then you can work consistently. You can live a lot longer as a producer than as an artist, I think."
In 1996 Blue Note issued Bob Belden Presents: Strawberry Fields, a project featuring reinterpretations of John Lennon and Paul McCartney songs by mostly female artists. The following year he released Tapestry, featuring songs from Carol King's album of the same name. "Belden seems to be among the small (but growing) number of jazzmen who can find gold in the rock generation's song catalogs," wrote Richard S. Ginell in All Music Guide.
In 1999, a month before a live date that would later be issued as Re-Animation: Live in Montreal, Belden was in a serious automobile accident. "I came so close to buying the farm," he told JazzWeekly, "but I didn't need the land." The set was recorded on July 3, 1999, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and released in October of 2000. "It took all my energy to make that gig," he told Findlay. Belden co-led the sextet with trumpeter Tim Hagans. "Overall, Re-Animation: Live is an exhilarating and curiously interesting affair that elevates erstwhile concepts to new and, at times, unearthly heights," wrote Glenn Astarita in All Music Guide.
Belden has continued to work in a number of fields, producing film soundtracks and solo albums and reissuing projects from Columbia's vaults. In 2001 he completed Black Dahlia, a 12-song collection thematically linked to an imaginary film about a famous Hollywood murder case from 1947. As with the earlier Treasure Island Suite, each song is linked together in mood and theme. "Belden observes all the conventions of such music while rising above it by making all its lush orchestrations serve the interests of the jazz improviser rather than a film scene," noted George Kanzler in the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger.
In 2006 Belden released a film soundtrack, Three Days of Rain, on Sunnyside. Written by Belden, the compositions evoke classic jazz from the 1950s and 1960s with the aid of well-known musicians like saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Joe Chambers. "As a soundtrack, I'm sure Three Days of Rain is up to par," noted David Miller in All About Jazz. "As a jazz album, it is worth your attention." Belden also continued to perform live dates with Animation in the spring of 2006, appearing as the headliner in his hometown at the Goose Creek Jazz Festival. As with Belden's other projects, critics held Animation in high esteem. "Critics everywhere say that Animation is among the best at what it does: taking on musical challenges and trying new things," wrote Jack McCray in the Post and Courier.
For the Record …
Born on October 31, 1956, in Evansville, Illinois.
Toured 18 months with Woody Herman's Thundering Herd, 1979-80; worked sporadically with trumpeter Donald Byrd, 1981-85; scored TV movies, 1980s; recorded first album, Treasure Island Suite, 1989; released Straight to the Heart: The Music of Sting, 1991, and When the Doves Cry: The Music of Prince, 1994; released Bob Belden Presents: Strawberry Fields, 1996, and Tapestry, 1997; issued Black Dahlia, 2001, and the film soundtrack Three Days of Rain, 2006.
Awards: Grammy Awards, Best Album Notes, 1996 and 1998, and Best Historical Album, 1996.
Treasure Island Suite, Sunnyside, 1989.
Straight to the Heart: The Music of Sting, Blue Note, 1991.
When the Doves Cry: The Music of Prince, Metro Blue, 1994.
Bob Belden Presents: Strawberry Fields, Blue Note, 1996.
Tapestry, Blue Note, 1997.
Black Dahlia, Blue Note, 2001.
Three Days of Rain, Sunnyside, 2006.
Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), April 1, 2001; April 20, 2006.
Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey), April 1, 2001.
"Bob Belden," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 17, 2007).
"Bob Belden: Jazz Meets Pop," Mix,http://mixonline.com (July 17, 2007).
"A Fireside Chat With Bob Belden," Jazz Weekly,http://www.jazzweekly.com (July 17, 2007).
"Three Days of Rain," All About Jazz,http://www.allaboutjazz.com (July 17, 2007).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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