In postwar Los Angeles, where “You can make it there when you can’t make it anywhere else”, as actor Robert Mitchum once said, the infamous murder of Elizabeth Short, a young woman who moved from Massachussets to Hollywood to become an actress, shook the American Dream and stuffed it with nightmares. The Black Dahlia murder case, as the newspapers itchingly named it for the woman’s black hair and dark clothes, wasn’t just a murder: it was a brutal explosion of sadistic violence and homicidal rage. Elizabeth’s body was found in a lot in the central city, on the morning of January 15, 1947: the deranged murderer had surgically bisected it, cleaned up all of her organs and, as finishing touch, depicted on her face an innatural smile cutting her mouth from ear to ear. Elizabeth Short lived her last hours among unspeakable tortures. Although James Ellroy and John Gregory Dunne wrote novels inspired by the Black Dahlia, the murder case remains unsolved.
Like an irregular, raincoat-dressed private-eye, composer, arranger and producer Bob Belden got a look at this murder case; but he didn’t try to solve the mistery: he has collected moods, hopes, moments of being of a would-be Hollywood star and has translated them into music. Using an instrumentation that ranges from solo piano to big band to 62-piece symphony orchestra, and featuring the distinct solo voices of the trumpet players Tim Hagans and Lew Soloff, pianists Marc Copland and Kevin Hayes, and saxophonists Joe Lovano and Lawrence Feldman, Belden shows his own point of view about Black Dahlia.
He wrote a complex score divided into 12 parts, each of which depicts a peculiar topic in Elizabeth Short’s life, starting with a “Genesis” and ending up with an “Elegy”. In the middle, the composer’s ability in using a huge timbral arsenal draws an inquiete and restless picture of Black Dahlia’s innermost feelings.
Belden’s music is always evocative and charming. His sense of formal balance, his structural cleverness, and the sensibility for sound design, make the music fresh, even if some harmonic and rhythmic solutions are ingenuos. The stylistic references are — one would say: of course — Hollywood films noir of the 1950s, and the fertile Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration (some concertante passages, and the dialectic between solo and tutti are a sort of trademark). But this doesn’t diminish, au contraire, Belden’s uncanny ability to build up layers of texture and to polish breathtaking timbric matchings. This is evident on the “Dream World” theme exposition — a sensuous melody played in four-part harmony by three horns and electric bass — or the superb strings carpet which sustains the solo trumpet in the soft ballad “City of Angels”.
Charged with meaning, lush and mighty, moving and mysterious, this record is the best way to remember the broken dream of a Black Dahlia.