Michael Bellar - Musician
At its core, the music Michael Bellar & the AS-IS Ensemble makes is ecstatic. It’s wide-open improvisation with earthy, percussion-fueled grooves. It’s funky and weird. It’s expansive and arresting. It will always be in the moment and without apology. Beyond that we don’t know what to call it....
The AS-IS Ensemble is the musical home of keyboardist/composer/producer Michael Bellar and has performed at a wide range of festivals and venues across the country including the Telluride Jazz Festival, NYC Winter Jazz Festival, Brooklyn Bowl, SXSW, the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the Blue Note Jazz Festival NYC, Avery Fischer Hall (for Habitat for Humanity), San Jose Jazz Festival, A Bear’s Picnic, Evolve Fest, JVC Jazz Festival, Rockwood Music Hall and spent a summer as the house band at the world famous Blue Note jazz club in NYC. The group has opened for artists diverse as Robert Randolph & the Family Band, John Scofield, Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers), Medeski Martin & Wood, the Everyone Orchestra, Tea Leaf Green, Greazy Meal, Jolie Holland, Howie Day, Grant Green Jr. and the Ryan Montbleau Band. Performing as a SOLO artist, Michael has opened for the likes of Cory Henry & the Funk Apostles, Raul Midon, Jon Cleary, That 1 Guy, TAUK, the Jeff Sipe Trio, Aqueous, the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra and Carsie Blanton.
As a sideman Michael has recorded/performed/toured the world with some of the greatest voices in music today; Amos Lee, Art Garfunkel, Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers), Fred Wesley, Ryan Montbleau Band, Red Baraat, Chop & Quench - “The Fela! Band," Melissa Reaves, Brooklyn Qawwali Party, Norbert Leo Butz, Jump Little Children, Jay Clifford’s Rosebud, Wheatus, Teddy Geiger, Carsie Blanton, Howie Day and Euro pop star Giorgia. “I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to tour as a sideman with so many great artists. I really do love supporting other musicians who have their own strong identity. It makes you bring different aspects of your own musicianship up from the well that you might not otherwise access in the comfort of your own band. The trick has always been in balancing my careers as a sideman and leader of the AS-IS Ensemble.” Good problems to have indeed. Michael's national TV appearances as a sideman include - The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Good Morning America among others.
Hailed as “GENERATION NEXT” by Billboard Magazine following their first ever NYC show, Michael Bellar & AS-IS Ensemble are known for their joyous, never-the-same-way-twice live musical experiences. Even if they did use a set list - which they don’t - the music and flow of their shows would never be the same. "I love bringing a room full of people along for the ride with us and the greatest shows are always the ones when the band and the crowd become a complete circuit. The most common comment I get from people after shows is, 'it’s so obvious you really love what you do!' And I say at this point if I DIDN’T love what I do, I would truly be insane.”
From the opening moment of Michael Bellar & the AS-IS Ensemble’s latest recording “Oh No Oh Wow,” you hear the band in mid-laughter, which turns out to be a sure sign that it’s called “Oh No Oh Wow,” for a reason. It’s the very best of everything this band has to offer with grinding vintage keyboards, funky drums, exotic percussion and thumping bass. The musical environs that Bellar takes the band through on “Oh No Oh Wow” are many but never are they disparate and the impact on the listener is singular and direct. “I’m interested in creating the largest palette I can with a small group so I’m bringing as many sonic colors and different grooves to the table as possible." The songs on “Oh No Oh Wow” not only exemplify Bellar’s small group/large palette concept but also showcase his many strengths as a composer, improviser and producer with a wide range of musical vibes including the super funky “Gadson” (dedicated to the historic soul drummer James Gadson) and “Little Mike D’s a Big Boy Now,” the hypnotic/bubbling rhythms of the title track “Oh No Oh Wow” and “Yes Please,” the soulful gospel of “Biscuit Baby,” the Pink Floyd meets Bill Frisell expansiveness of “Girl on a String,” and also funky reworkings of 2 classic covers in Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile. “Oh No Oh Wow” features the talents of Bellar’s long time friends and band members - Brad Wentworth on drums (Melissa Ferrick, Aretha Franklin, Howie Day), Rob Jost on bass (Bjork, Imogen Heap, Tony Scherr) and Brook Martinez on percussion (Brooklyn Qawwali Party, Slavic Soul Party). Bellar admits, “It’s been amazing to be able to keep such great collaborators and improvisers together for such a long time. With musicians such as these, there is always something new being tossed around on stage and they all have big enough mitts to catch whatever it may be.”
Along with touring with the AS-IS Ensemble and other artists, in 2013 Michael started to perform in solo settings but not just on acoustic piano. “Look, I have a great love for playing solo piano but with Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau and Sir Roland Hanna having been in the world, I always figured what’s the point? I felt I better find another way to approach the solo thing.” This new approach all started for Michael while listening the Bobby McFerrin’s solo performances. In referring to McFerrin, Bellar states, “To me, he has always represented a form of pure and universal improvisation that can’t be bound by any genre. Underneath all the genius and inventiveness in what he does with his voice is an unrelenting and ridiculously grooving pulse made by him simply beating on his chest. It’s so human and so simple and that beat ties everything together. So I started thinking of how to create my own pulse at the keyboard and it turned into more of a funky southern porch thing than anything else. All live and no looping. No tricks.” Comprising two vintage keyboards and a homemade box drum under each foot, Bellar's solo rig functions as a band. “Having played a lot of dance classes in a past life, I had tried similar setups that never really worked sonically but gave me the coordination to keep it moving forward all these years later.” Being a vintage keyboard nerd led him to his Wurlitzer for the meat of the sound and the underutilized Rhodes bass to hold down the low end. So along with the help of his old friend Chad who is a props master, Bellar put together one box full of rattles, nuts, bolts and bells to fill the high side of things and another one that functions as a bass drum. “The rig consists of 4 basic elements but the goal is to make it feel like one. I’m getting there.”
“My life would be a whole lot easier if I could rattle off some cool buzz words that describe this music but on the other hand I’m really glad that I can’t. It doesn’t fit into any clear genre but I guess that’s just a product of who I am as a person and musician – a rock kid who fell in love with improvisation. All I can be is myself, so if you like the music this band makes, we’ll probably be friends.” It’s just Bellar - he does things a little different. But if you do figure out what to call it, please let him know.
header photo by mike depasquale