“It is essential to mention that Rico enlisted a who’s who of Los Angeles session musicians, who masterfully blended real musicianship skills, time, improvisation and ‘feeling’ with the most modern technology additions and computer programming, always under Rico’s production and guidance. The result is exceptional, inimitable and I personally believe it should be in the essential 2012 listening lists for every musician as well as every bass player.” –Andreas Farmakalidis, Bass Musician, July 1, 2012
Rico Belled accomplished more than just a sophomore follow-up in his ode to cars and modern machinery. His second self-produced album, XR7 (named for the 1973 Mercury Cougar XR7 the musician drives in L.A.), is a modern marvel of man and machine, pulled off on a shoestring budget, with just a little bit of engineering know-how, and lots of jazz strut.
The Rippingtons’ bassist can shred and finesse with the best of them onstage. But he also put to work other sides to his creative genius in this labor of love, as producer, engineer, mixer, composer. He produced the album on cheap but quality equipment — a basic $500 computer jerry-rigged for the occasion, a Sonar X1, a $200 Motu 2408 MKII, and Behringer ADA8000 Mic Preamps — all totaling less than $2,000, did all the heavy lifting out of his apartment (it helps to know a thing or two about engineering), wrote all 10 of the instrumentals, played bass, guitar, and piano, and comprehensively utilized the talents of many great L.A. session players he put to the task of augmenting tracks.
“In the end, unlike [my first album] The Pursuit Of Comfort, which took something crazy like 12 years to complete, XR7 was done quick and dirty!” Belled told me. “The first sessions were in December of 2011, and [in] late May 2012, it was mixed and ready to go. I’m ecstatic with the beautiful musical gifts all the great players gave me for this album and I’ve already started on the next one!”
Despite taking less time — months instead of years — Belled’s second album actually sounds better, more polished, more complete, with several Top 10 hits ready-made for the mainstream listening public. Perhaps it’s because of Belled’s extensive understanding of the basics of engineering, which enabled him to pick and choose the right kinds of machinery to get the job done. Instead of wasting time and a whole lot of money on expensive equipment to get that polished sound, Belled used his time and money wisely and logically to complement his own easy-going, experimental philosophy and to lighten the load so he and his recording crew could get down to the fun of making real music.
“You see, when I talk about this cheap equipment, I’m not just saying it’s as good as the pricey versions; in a way it’s actually superior and here’s why: the more knobs you have, the longer it takes to dial them all in,” Belled explained. “I remember doing sessions where it would take two hours just to get a drum sound. All those fancy compressors and EQs need to be adjusted. I used the Behringer ADA8000, which has only one dial per channel: gain. I can set up my whole recording rig, with four different headphone mixes in 15 minutes.”
“I try to convey as much feeling as possible, to make the music feel as good as possible. It’s important to tell a story, not just play a bunch of notes in a row. I love so many different styles, but there’s gotta be a groove. I always try to find meaning in everything I play, even when it might not be my favorite tune to play.” –Rico Belled, All About Jazz, July 2, 2010
Once Belled took care of the infrastructure, he was free to play with the equipment he had at his disposal, going crazy layering instrumental tracks and fooling with synthesized levels. He jumped into the process like a kid in an electronics candy store. This is a musician who enjoys pushing the envelope, discovering new fusions, hunting down the groove, tearing down barriers, and truly improvising.
Throughout the CD, Belled lavishes an extraordinary amount on electronica. It’s all over “Party Jazz,” “Flexibility,” “Hooka,” and “The Robot Song.” And parts are scattered throughout most of the rest of the soundtrack. The entire album exists, because Belled was able to produce, engineer, mix and master it out of his apartment on equipment he bought and adjusted.
Here’s the danger, though. Albums that go through the electronic phase can sound, electronic; meaning, inhuman. It’s too easy to go crazy with the layering of tracks, going for crazier and crazier sounds that veer from music and soon, from the artistic viewpoint that only a human being can render.
Rico Belled never lets the electronic experimentation go that far. He’s too much of a professional and an artist for that. Instead, he provides the human touch in his fully loaded, machine-driven XR7 every step of the way. This saves and uplifts XR7 from just another piece of repetitious, mind-numbing electronica to the stratosphere of a timeless classic.
In the unusually sensual “Flexibility” (about yoga, yeah right), the prevalent synthesizer and the robotic narrative are cut in the middle with a classical keyboard riff that cascades into a breath-taking, intimate, knotted, and romantic acoustic piano solo — Belled all the way.
The best song on the album — I’m talking instant mega-hit, accept your Grammy now, man — has got to be “Song For Buster.” It started off as a simple melodic piece Belled wrote for percussionist (on this album) Ronnie Gutierrez (on “Like Father, Like Son”), to acknowledge his dog who died. Believe it or not, before Belled finished “Song For Buster” for this album, he caught plenty of ribbing from his fellow musicians about its simplicity. Described Belled: “More than a couple of musicians have made fun of the tune, when I was working on it. Even when we recorded the basic tracks with a rhythm section, I could feel they did not take it seriously; [drummer on the album] Jonathan Dresel has literally made fun of it on more than one occasion! … I decided to not do any cutting and pasting or ‘frankensteining’ on this record, so all that remained was the drums/bass/percussion tracks. I almost didn’t put it on the record, but when I started putting guitars on it, I went crazy with it, and with sheer force (there are more than 10 tracks of guitars on there!), it was done justice! The relatively uninspired drum performance was solid enough to carry it!”
I have personally listened to this much-maligned “simple” “Song For Buster” about 500 times in one sitting, every day for the past two weeks. Everything about the song, from its pleasant décor, calling to mind classical movement and ambient jazz (thanks to fellow Rippingstons star, soprano saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa), to its catchy, lovely, and haunting melody, and that stunning coda midway through, is pop-jazz perfection.
My ear instinctively reaches out for the layers of Belled’s overdubbed guitars and keys at about the 4:13 point when a tendril of the melodic hook changes subtly, revving into a full charge toward the finale that simply makes the hairs on the back of your neck rise. It’s like a converging, tumbling soundtrack to a visual montage of a person’s greatest hits in life: falling in love, summer barbecues, friendship, weddings, holding your firstborn.
Of all the songs on this album, the extremely electronic-friendly “Five Of Eight,” is Belled’s trickiest, most mathematical (4/4, 5/8, 5/4), and pumping (dig that bass-slapping badness). The hardcore intro is a mad conglomeration of percussion and bass, Afro-Cuban, 1970s Shaft funk-rock, and just complete greasy madness (try that on machines!). Again, an acoustic piano thread weaves into the electronic mess to add harmonic jazz dimension to the proceedings.
Belled states the obvious: “Arguably the most complicated song on the album, ‘Five Of Eight’ started with the part in 4/4, which was the usual end of [my] bass-solo with the Rippingtons. Adding sections in 5/8 and then 5/4, but with simple melodies, the point was to make a mathematically complex song that one can still dance to!”
The whole song comes off studio-complete, and yet, it wasn’t, far from it. For example, the drum beats by another Rippingtons band mate, Dave Karasony. “‘Five Of Eight’ was so involved, I let him figure it out. When he gave me his tracks a few days later, initially I didn’t like it. He had not played any of the beats I had programmed for the demo, and it just really wasn’t what I had in mind. In the end, he redid the little part in four, but I learned to love the rest and now it’s some of my favorite stuff on the album! Russ Freeman had neutered us beyond belief for the sessions for ‘Modern Art,’ and I learned you just have to let people play. If you really can’t live with the results, hire someone else!”
There are a lot of hot beats layered into this tune, which required the magnitude of top L.A. musicians: Zappa Plays Zappa’s saxophonist Scheila Gonzalez, The Rippingtons’ Bill Heller on piano and synth, Jimmy Kimmel Live’s Jonathan Dresel on snares, and percussion masters Sergio Gonzalez and Ronnie Gutierrez. Of course Rico Belled stands out doing what he does best, slapping the bass, funking out the guitars and layering those heavenly synths.
Not surprisingly, Rico Belled’s XR7 made it onto CD Baby’s Top Five best-selling jazz-funk albums in late June. Don’t be surprised if it does a lot more.