Bob Belden became well-known during the '90s as an arranger and producer. Black Dahlia is the first full-length release of original music to appear under his name. It is a sweeping, ambitious work, featuring a large ensemble that includes the very finest jazz improvisers. The project was inspired by the true story of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, a shadowy character whose grisly murder in 1947, at age 22, became the subject of novels by James Ellroy and John Gregory Dunne. The killing, which remains unsolved, continues to captivate the public imagination and has gained iconic significance in the history of the Los Angeles underworld of the '30s and '40s. Belden's suite is essentially a tone poem, a musical portrayal of Elizabeth Short's life and death. In his self-penned liner notes, Belden is explicit about his major influences: the Grand Opera tradition of Puccini, Berg, and Henze, and Jerry Goldsmith's score to the 1974 film Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski. The operatic influence is clear in Belden's use of leitmotifs: symbolic and recurring musical gestures such as the "Love Theme," the "Death Chords," and the "Black Dahlia Interval" (a minor third). And the central musical texture used by Goldsmith in Chinatown -- lonely trumpet over a bed of strings, piano, and/or harps -- is, in fact, borrowed quite directly by Belden, on the tracks "Genesis" and "City of Angels."
Although Belden doesn't mention it, one also detects at least a conceptual similarity between Black Dahlia and Paul Simon's ill-fated musical The Capeman. Both set true stories to music, and both seek to dramatize the misdeeds and misfortunes of a social outcast. Black Dahlia features a stunningly good band. Bassist Ira Coleman and drummer Billy Kilson provide the rhythmic foundation. Kevin Hays, Marc Copland, and Scott Kinsey trade off on piano, and Belden himself plays tenor on "Dreamworld" and "Elegy." During the course of the program there are beautiful solo statements from Tim Hagans and Lew Soloff on trumpet, Joe Lovano on tenor sax, Charles Pillow on English horn, Lawrence Feldman and Mike Migliore on alto sax, Lou Marini on alto flute, Conrad Herwig on trombone, and Erik Friedlander on cello. Zach Danziger's bongos provide just the right Latin touch on several tracks. Two glorious subtleties: Bobby Previte's castanets on "Danza d'Amore" and David Dyson's electric bass cameo, paralleling the melody of "Dreamworld" with the woodwinds and brass. In addition to the main soloists, there are four French horns, bass trombone, tuba, two harps, timpani, 21 violins, four violas, four cellos, and two double basses. Belden is going for maximum effect, and at times the music sounds more like a movie soundtrack than a jazz album. It's very pretty stuff, if a bit dark and heavy, and because of the story aspect, it demands a beginning to end listen, more so than most albums. The main attraction for jazz buffs will be the distinctive instrumental voices of the fine players that Belden hired for the session.