Animation – Machine Language
(Rare Noise Records RNR055 – CD, Double LP & digital formats. Review by John L Walters)
Machine Language is a suite of connected pieces that evoke the thrilling moods Miles Davis conjured from his early 1970s bands and records. There are long solos for trumpet and leader Bob Belden’s soprano sax, linear, spacey grooves, and layered textures for keyboards, notably the distinctive Rhodes electric piano of Roberto Verastegui. Bill Laswell plays bass guitar as if the Miles Davis gig was the one he always wanted – he even quotes ‘Ife’ (from Davis’s Big Fun) at one moment. The album scores high on atmosphere, and it sounds as if the five players who made up Animation, completed by drummer Matt Young and trumpeter Pete Clagett, had a lot of fun devising the twelve tracks. Sadly the project has acquired an extra gravitas, for it is the last album Bob Belden completed before his untimely death in May 2015 at the age of 58.
Belden’s previous achievements include jazz albums based on the music of The Beatles and Sting, on The Black Dahlia murder case and the wonderful Miles From India (REVIEWED) . He also helped compile and annotate Columbia’s extraordinarily obsessive series of ‘Complete Recordings’ (REVIEWED).
A Bob Belden production is never just a bunch of guys jamming in a room. There is always a high concept. The underlying theme of Machine Language, indicated by titles such as ‘Soul of a Machine’ and ‘Genesis Code’, is the uneasy relationship between people and computers.
So Machine Language is full of good stuff, if a little less than the sum of its parts. If you hear a fragment, say, on Mike Chadwick’s JazzFM show, its detail – the grain of the sound Belden and his colleagues achieve – promises a listening experience that’s not fully realised when you listen all the way through. The most perfect track may be ‘Constant Imperfection’, which recalls the Bitches Brew sessions in feel – long lines for sax and trumpet underpinned by a choppy rhythm section, with lashings of ring modulation on the Rhodes piano.
For my taste, there is a problem in the lengthy spoken-word passages read out by Kurt Elling in his best ‘Twilight Zone’ tones. I yield to no one in my admiration for Elling’s vocal timbres (LINK TO REVIEW), but there are too many words.
A point of comparison is perhaps in the final moments of ‘Yesternow’ on Davis’s Jack Johnson, when the relentless jazz-rock gives way to a fragment of jazz orchestra. Brock Peters, speaking the words of black boxer Jack Johnson, grabs our attention in the last sixteen seconds. This creates instant drama, but it also works on repeated listening. Machine Language’s spoken segments, by contrast, interrupt the flow just a little too often.
Yet in other ways Belden learned an awful lot from his extensive studies of Davis’s music, and the best moments in the album evoke his thrilling interweaving of background and foreground, of live performance and studio magic. The legacy of Davis’s early 1970s music still casts its spell over musicians who weren’t even born when he stopped playing this music, and whose technology is (in theory) several generations more advanced.
Belden’s own legacy is that of an organiser, a ringmaster, and a highly original backstage person who only occasionally stepped up front. Happily there are sax solos on Machine Language – on ‘Genesis Code’ and ‘Dark Matter’ – that remind us he was also a fine player in an idiom that’s still worth exploring.
John L. Walters is on Twitter @JohnLW