Animation featuring Bob Belden – Machine Language (2015)

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When Bob Belden convened his Animation band with Bill Laswell at Laswell’s Orange Studios last fall to make a technology-themed fusion album, he almost certainly didn’t anticipate that this record would be his last. But the seemingly healthy musician/producer/composer/arranger/author of wide acclaim succumbed to a heart attack just months later in May, a shocking, major loss to the jazz world.

Thus, the September 25, 2015 release of this last Animation project Machine Language (Rare Noise Records) is a bittersweet occasion, and the music will probably always be linked to the mortality of its maker. Although he’s no longer around to tell us so, the theme of Machine Language is clear: a pondering of the notion of whether machines can have the capability to dream as humans do, ultimately ending with the question, “will a machine dream lead to the same destiny as a human dream?”

Ruminations of that depth requires words, and renowned singer Kurt Elling, assuming his best Rod Serling character, provides that via narration that peppers the instrumentals at strategic spots. The music itself is provided by Bob Belden’s Animation group, a young group of crack musicians who play with a lot of imagination themselves: keyboardist Roberto Verastegui, trumpeter Pete Clagett and drummer Matt Young. Replacing Jacob Smith on bass for this endeavor is the eminent Mr. Laswell.

Bob Belden, of course, wrote all of these connected pieces, but gave the musicians an enormous amount of leeway; he must have, because the preponderance of free and unpredictable playing borders on group improv. When Elling does his recitation of the philosophy behind man vs. machine — beginning with the first track “A Child’s Dream” — the band retreats into an ambient backdrop that’s dreamlike, but with just enough techno to hint at the mechanical nature of computer behavior.

Continuing with using Animation as a vehicle for advancing the ideas for put forth by Miles Davis in his early electric period, evoking at some point each of the classic albums from 1969-75 era but carrying forward those concepts to where they might have landed in the present day. For instance, the jerky rhythms of On The Corner has evolved to real loosened drum’n bass pulses, while the dreamy but dark textures of “In A Silent Way” is established nearly everywhere by Verastegui’s keyboard colorations and the suspended, floating and often-muted trumpet of Clagett.

Within this setting, Laswell slides right in with electric bass that bears his unmistakable stamp but falling well within the context of these sessions. His murky bottom is somewhat mathematical on “Machine Language,” a sure sign he understands the idea behind the title, and offers up an interesting contrast against the dissonant, barren synth backdrop. It’s one hell of a groove. He makes a lot of subtle moves for “DisappearAnnihilation,” knowing just where to leave spaces and where to place his notes. He teases us with “The Evolution of Machine Culture” by emitting almost the same bass pulse that commences “Bitches Brew,” the song , a performance that takes off and gallops away when you least expect it to.

Belden’s role as the architect of this rock-jazz opera looms so large, it’s easy to forget that the guy could, well, play. He only shows what he’s got in saxophone playing department on two spots but he makes them count. For “Genesis Code,” he plays his soprano sax with a odd, slightly raspy tone, with intent. He wastes no notes soloing during the loose jam “Dark Matter.”

Bob Belden will surely be remembered as a man who deeply respected the greats and the greatness of music history while pushing forward ambitiously with his own music. His final gift leaves no doubt that while the man is gone, his adventurous spirit lives on. Hopefully, forever.

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