Sketches from the Journey Home
From the Daily Hampshire Gazette Northampton, MA December 04, 2003 Joe Belmont's balancing act To a classical base he adds jazz, funk, folk and rock BY JOHN STIFLER -- GUITARIST Joe Belmont lives intimately with three guitars: a vintage 1924 Martin O-18 steel-string, a Fender Stratocaster, and a custom-made classical guitar from the workshop of local luthier William Cumpiano. The Martin is the gold standard of folk guitars, the Fender it's best electric counterpart, but the classical seems unquestionably the foundation of Belmont's music. Raised in the Astoria/Queens section of New York, Belmont grew up with a normal assortment of rock, funk, Latin and blues sounds around him, and he had those sounds in his head when he started learning the guitar at age 12. Later, however, when he studied music formally in the music department at City University of New York, that training was most definitely classical. Now, when you watch the fingers of Belmont's right hand dance on the strings, and when you listen to the clear notes coming from the sound hole (or from your speakers, if you're playing Belmont's new CD ''Sketches From the Journey Home''), you hear a lot of styles, but classical techniques and compositional theory are the starting point. Think of Bach's Bourree or a chaconne: strings plucked nimbly one or two at a time with the occasional chord. Then hear how the guitar slips out from the baroque/classical form and into Travis-style folk picking, a bent note, a jazz chord, swing. Joe Belmont is hardly the first to play these sounds. A parade of hybrid guitar stylists crossed the stage in the 1970s and '80s, including geniuses like John Renbourn and John Fahey and some Windham Hill types whose music was nice even if it didn't go anywhere. But Belmont, who has developed several styles in the 37 years since he first picked up a guitar, has achieved an exceptionally fine balance among them. They're packaged lovingly in ''Sketches_,'' which, amazingly in view of the fact that he has been playing guitar for Valley audiences since the day in 1980 when he moved here, is his first CD. Explanation: Joe Belmont did start recording his own compositions long ago, on cassettes including one called ''First Edition,'' but a couple of things pre-empted what might have been an earlier solo career. One was that lots of other musicians wanted him to play with them. Belmont was one of the prime movers of Urban Renewal, also sideman to John Coster and Andy May in their bands, also part of the Hamptones. (Some of you, I realize, were not yet born when those bands were playing around here.) More recently, he spent several years as part of Viva Quetzal, helping to create the Latin-Andean-jazz-blues-rock crossover sound of that hugely successful local group. ''That was such a great experience,'' said Belmont last weekend, talking over tea in his studio. ''I got to play on fabulous stages. The Clearwater Festival, Falconridge, huge fine arts centers, across the South and Midwest.'' Along with the band work, the births of Joe and Sarita Belmont's daughter, Ami, and son, Jules, have kept Belmont concentrating on the steady sort of teaching jobs that pay the bills, not the adventures that produce something so speculative as a solo recording. Fortunately he has kept such a goal in sight, and the results are delicious. The homemaking side of Belmont's life could be one reason for calling the disc ''Sketches From the Journey Home.'' The title also connotes Belmont's sense of where his musical home is, not just in terms of styles but also in the sense that guitar composition is where he began. ''When I started playing guitar,'' he said, ''what I liked to do most was make up stuff. This is always what I wanted. Even before I could play well, I was making something. This is my 'home' style. Plus, I left [Viva Quetzal], so I left the traveling.'' What's at home is plenty. Listening to the disc (available at Dynamite Records, Beyond Words or cdbaby.com), you can hear how Belmont progresses from the opening solo (which sounds almost like two guitars, as he plays a bass line and melody simultaneously) to a folk guitar duet, then a tribute to Jerry Garcia, with attractive drum accompaniment by Joe Fitzpatrick, then forays into rock and Spanish guitar, then a complex piece called ''Merlin's Mist.'' ''This piece is really hard to play,'' Belmont commented. ''I almost wish I hadn't made it so hard.'' It begins in a minor-key Celtic vein, then recruits some Travis picking, and then slides into a passage that combines heavy-metal chords with flamenco strumming. ''I'm really aware of style,'' said Belmont, ''but when I write I don't think about it.'' Another of the most conspicuous pieces on the CD is ''Jam at the Piano Factory,'' which Belmont describes in his liner notes as a creation myth about pianos. ''There's an assembly line somewhere in New Jersey where aliens abduct instruments and then extract the strings from real guitars, basses and tiples and put them in pianos.'' Belmont recorded the CD on his own hard-disc recorder, a piece of equipment the size of a regular stereo amplifier, which he and probably a lot of other musicians with their own studios expect will revolutionize the recording industry. He selected the 11 pieces recorded here from nearly 100 originals, plus arrangements of some other work, notably including Erik Satie's unforgettable Gymnopedie #1. Fans of that famous piece will not likely be disappointed by this rendition. Fans of Joe Belmont, fans of Viva Quetzal (which by the way returns to the Iron Horse Dec. 12 at 7 p.m.), and fans of guitar in general owe themselves a visit to the Iron Horse on Sunday, when Belmont celebrates the arrival of ''Sketches From the Journey Home'' with a journey to the stage where he has played so many times as a part of other groups. In order to be able to perform live versions of the multi-guitar pieces on the CD, he'll bring along Andrew Lawrence, a much more recent Valley arrival best known so far as creator/facilitator of the Acoustic Guitar Network, about which you'll hear more. 7 p.m. Biography: Joe was born in New York City in 1954. After dabbling with other less worthy instruments as a youth, he eventually settled in on playing the guitar. He taught himself how to play guitar and began writing songs almost immediately. These interests led to the formation of the long standing and popular NYC band, Charlie Quasar. For this Joe teamed up with his bro, Dave Belmont, bassist Jerry McCord and drummer Ritchie Epstein. Toward the end of the band's tenure, Joe started attending music school, studying at the City University of New York, eventually receiving a BA in 1977. Soon after this Mr. Belmont disappeared into the hinterlands of Western Massachusetts, having fallen off the edge of the flat earth, as defined by the map in New Yorker magazine. Actually he settled in Northampton, MA. Joe immersed himself in the music scene there, playing a dizzying variety of styles, with numerous bands. Memorable were stints in the rhythm and blues band 'The Hamptones', singer-songwriters John Coster and Joel Zoss, and jazz-fusion bands Urban Renewal and Fresh Squeeze. In 1986 he released a cassette(!) of his acoustic guitar compositions entitled 'First Edition', which became a local best-seller. Most importantly to him, he married, and with his wife, Sarita, have two children, Ami born in 1986 and Jules born in 1990. Since 1990 he has taught Jazz guitar as a performance instructor at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. Joe played guitar, arranged and wrote music for the band Quetzal (Viva Quetzal.com) from 1991 thru 2003, recording three CD's and traveling to numerous gigs. Finally in 2003 Joe has begun his solo career, first releasing the CD 'Sketches from the Journey Home.' 'Sketches' is a collection of intimate guitar pieces, each depicting an aspect of Joe's life. Following this CD, Joe has recorded another entitled 'Live at Leeds (Northampton)' to be released in June of 2005.