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Firing on all cylinders: The Joe Belmont Experience offers jazz, blues, R&B and more

  • The Joe Belmont Experience is made up of Rudi Weeks on bass, Eliezer Martinez on drums and Belmont on guitar. Image courtesy Joe Belmont

  • Joe Belmont plays a variety of guitar styles and finds a way to combine all those elements in his trio, The Joe Belmont Experience. Image courtesy Joe Belmont

  • Joe Belmont has played a variety of guitar for a number of different groups over the years but says he’s found the perfect combination for all his interests in The Joe Belmont Experience. Photo by Sky Ray Pioggia/courtesy Joe Belmont

  • Joe Belmont plays a variety of guitar styles — classical, jazz, blues and rock — and finds a way to combine all those elements in The Joe Belmont Experience. Image courtesy Joe Belmont

  • Among Belmont’s albums is “Sketches From the Journey Home,” a set of varied guitar instrumentals.



Staff Writer
Thursday, July 18, 2019

As he was recording his newest album earlier this year, Joe Belmont says he was mulling over some possible titles, and he was leaning to calling the new disc “Americana.”

“I was going to use that because of the mix of music [on the album],” the Northampton guitarist said in a recent interview. “To me, it’s what American music is made up of, and I’m trying to take, for me, what I love from it. I floated the idea by a few people and they said, ‘Americana is considered a genre.’ ”

It’s true that Americana, as a musical term, is generally defined as an amalgam of roots-based, primarily acoustic music styles including folk, country, bluegrass, blues and a few other American sounds. But Belmont’s new album — a mix of primarily instrumental jazz, blues, and some creative interpretations of rock and pop songs — also taps into some rich U.S. music traditions.

But to avoid any confusion, the disc is called “The Essential Experience, Vol. 1,” and it’s the work of The Joe Belmont Experience, a trio that Belmont put together a few years ago with two musical friends, drummer Eliezer Martinez and bassist Rudi Weeks, and which has become his main musical calling card after years of playing in a number of different genres and groups.

“I set this up so I have plenty of time to do all this,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is say ‘This is what I do, this is all I do.’ ”

Belmont brings his trio to Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall this Sunday at 7 p.m., where the band will be joined by some of the guest artists from the new album, including singer Wanda Houston.

Belmont is well known in Valley music circles through his work with a number of groups, such as Viva Quetzal, the Andean fusion/world beat band that was especially active in the 1990s and early 2000s.  As well, he and flutist Sarah Swersey play in Duo Fusion, in which the two perform arrangements of music ranging from classical to jazz. Belmont is also a longtime performance faculty member at the Amherst College Music Department, and he directs jazz studies at the Northampton Community Music Center.

But a few years ago, Belmont formed his new trio to give voice to the full range of music he likes to play on guitar: jazz, blues, rock and some classical. Weeks was an old friend he’d gigged with since the 1980s (including with Viva Quetzal), and he met Martinez when the drummer joined Quetzel about six years ago.

“Eliezer is just a phenomenal drummer — anything I play, he finds something to go with it,” Belmont said. “And Rudi is incredibly versatile. Initially I was looking at them as more of a jazz rhythm section — I was kind of searching for something, what the group could be, and then I said ‘C’mon, Joe! We can do all of this!’ ”

He notes that Martinez comes to the trio with a background in gospel and hip hop, while Weeks, like him, has played a variety of music. The guest musicians who have gigged with The Joe Belmont Experience also bring various vibes to the music. Saxophonist Jason Robinson, for instance, “is going to push us more in a jazz direction,” said Belmont.

“The idea that holds the selections together is that we love all of this,” he added.

Into the studio

That love comes through on the new album, recorded in late winter and spring by Warren Amerman of Rotary Records in West Springfield (Belmont says the studio is located in a former church that dates to the 1820s). For one thing, the sound is incredibly crisp and crystaline, with Belmont’s mostly fingerpicked guitar lines almost snapping out of the speakers.

Belmont says Amerman told him the sound quality of CDs has improved in recent years. But beyond that, he credits Amerman’s engineering and the band’s overall musicianship for the good sound; his guitar work, in addition, benefited from new pickups and a new amp he’d bought, a handmade copy of a Fender Tweedy Deluxe from 1954. He says his son, Jules, a guitarist in Nashville, Tennessee, also gave him some pointers on using the new amp.

“I spent a lot of time at my home [studio] experimenting with it,” Belmont said “I stuck my microphone right in front of it, I did a little of this, a little of that. By the time I went to do the recording, I had all these notes on how I might use it for each different song.”

The 11 cuts on the album include four Belmont compositions and arrangements of songs by Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, The Beatles and others. Wanda Houston, the singer, lends her voice to an R&B-type version of “Come Together” by Lennon/McCartney and to a cover of Otis Reading’s famous “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.”

The Joe Belmont Experience had a longtime, regular monthly gig at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, Belmont notes, so “we got a chance to practice for over a year and a half, and we would have a special guest each month, and that’s how we first met Wanda. What she does and what we do just goes together really well.”

Those two vocal cuts and most of the other songs on the album were recorded live, Belmont notes, generally in a few takes; he only overdubbed guitar parts, or recorded them separately, on a few songs, including a very melodic and somewhat jazzy take on another Lennon/McCartney title, “In My Life.” 

On “Softly as a Morning Sunrise” by Romberg/Hammerstein, Jason Robinson adds two long sax solos, while Chris Haynes layers a shimmering Fender Rhodes piano over Chick Corea’s rich and melodic “Sea Journey.” Other guest musicians add organ, trumpet and percussion to selected tracks.

Belmont, meantime, adds some tart guitar lines and chords to his original bluesy composition “Evening’s Empire,” which    dances in some places along that indefinite line where jazz and blues meet. And throughout the album, Martinez and Weeks get their chances to solo, always in a crisp and non-indulgent way.

To help pay for “The Essential Experience,” Belmont, who’d previously recorded most of his albums himself at home, made his first foray into crowd-sourced funding, raising money for the project through Indiegogo and eventually attracting 65 supporters, he says. “I wanted to have someone engineer this, and I wanted to pay everyone for their time. It was a really positive experience — I felt really supported. It took the fear out of [going into another studio].”

And the “Vol. 1” subtitle to the new album is deliberate, he says: “We definitely want to do some more recording.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com

The Joe Belmont Trio plays the Iron Horse in Northampton on Sunday in an album release party beginning at 7 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit iheg.com.