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Virtuoso of the Vaults

Gil Evans disciple Bob Belden is putting his vast knowledge of jazz history to work on reissue projects while writing up-to-date arrangements and compositions.

August 25, 1996|Bill Kohlhaase | Bill Kohlhaase is a regular contributor to Calendar

The floor in Studio C in the basement of Hollywood's historic Capitol Records tower is cluttered with crates, each filled with recording tape boxes and their precious rounds of Mylar-preserved history pulled from the archives of Blue Note Records. These original master tapes, preserving sessions from many of the great names in the history of jazz, sport handwritten labels that give only hints of what's inside: "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," "Live in London" or simply "Ervin."

In the middle of it all one night earlier this month sits Bob Belden, pulling out one tape after another, scrutinizing the contents of each, carefully laying some aside for future use. Belden is working on a reissue project; his job--as producer--is to patch together an album that will satisfy fans of Buddy Rich while introducing a new audience to the drummer's late '60s work.

It's a tedious process but it's nothing new to Belden, who is emerging as one of the central figures in the lucrative reissue revival. His visibility as a producer will increase substantially with the release in early September of "Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings," the long-awaited, often postponed six-CD collection that includes two previously unreleased sessions as well as rehearsals and alternate takes.

The 39-year-old Belden, who's been obsessed with jazz since his college days, is well suited for this sonic archeology. His vast knowledge of recorded jazz history and artists is put to good use as he prepares reissues and suggests future re-releases for several labels. His knowledge of the recording process gives him hands-on abilities in the studio, taking him beyond the role of mere consultant.

Since the advent of the compact disc in the mid-'80s, jazz labels have been mining their vaults for out-of-print albums, forgotten sessions and dates that for one reason or another have never seen the light of day. Properly chosen and prepared, reissues can be profitable for labels already in possession of the master tapes from a session whose recording expenses were covered long ago.

"Not every reissue makes money," says Tom Evered, vice president of marketing at Blue Note. "But because of their longevity, most do over a period of time."

But the reissue process isn't always easy. In the case of the Buddy Rich project, Belden started his work in Dominguez Hills with a search through Blue Note's temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults. He was looking for tapes of Rich's original Pacific Jazz recording sessions.

Once they were found, they were inspected for damage and played to determine sound quality. Masters whose sounds have faded badly are baked at 350 degrees, which re-adheres the magnetic information to the tape for a few precious minutes, enough time for a copy to be made. Luckily, no baking was required on the Rich masters.

Belden works with a fan's enthusiasm as he selects tracks to be included from the half a dozen masters, culling out false starts and bad takes as he and the recording engineer rerecord the music onto new tapes.

When one tune on these masters ends abruptly, Belden runs the song again, this time fading the sound gradually to avoid the abrupt close. Through careful comparison, Belden realizes that some of the Rich takes were not made live as the tape labels indicate but were instead done in the studio. He checks his notes to find out when the songs were recorded.

Finally, everything to be included on the Rich reissue has been recorded onto new masters. Each is carefully labeled. In a few months, CDs will be pressed from the tapes and packaged. Rich's "Time Capsules" will finally be ready to hit the stores.

Reissues are only one side of Belden's music career. Trained as a saxophonist, he's also a respected arranger-composer who has penned charts for a host of jazz projects, including Herbie Hancock's latest album, "The New Standard," and Joe Henderson's forthcoming big-band album set for October release on Verve, "Shade of Jade."

Then there's his role as producer and/or arranger for a number of emerging musicians, trumpeters Marcus Printup and Tim Hagans, pianists Renee Rosnes and Joey Calderazzo among them.

In addition, Belden has produced a number of eclectic recordings under his own name, most recently "Shades of Blue," an album that features tunes off historic Blue Note label releases reinterpreted by the likes of singer Cassandra Wilson, guitarist John Scofield, pianist Jacky Terrasson and others. Belden's own band is heard playing a rendition of pianist Andrew Hill's classic "Siete Ocho." With a trio of synthesizers backing trumpet, saxophone and English horn, it's the most adventurous piece on the album.

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