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Django Bates: From Zero to Sixty in Five Days

John Kelman By

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Then I thought, 'Maybe it's me; maybe it's because I've been working with the Beloved Trio playing this Parker music; maybe it's that I've been invited to a meeting in Luleå, and that was a big commitment.' So I thought, 'Why not. Why NOT?' —Django Bates
It's rare enough to get to catch the premiere of a brand new work in a location as removed as Luleå, Sweden—just 100 kilometers south of the Arctic circle and in late May already experiencing 22-hour days and temperatures between 20 and 25 Celsius. But to get to experience the birth of a commission and to arrive on the same day as the artist and enter the rehearsal room at the same time? An unexpected pleasure. The chance to follow an artist and a group of musicians (many of whom were meeting each other for the very first time) through a series of rehearsals for a new book of music (during which the music sometimes was broken down into the nittiest of gritties) and, five days later, the delivery of a cohesive and compelling performance that sounded as though they'd been playing it for years? Nothing short of illuminating and inspiring.

It was especially so when the artist in question was renegade British pianist/horn player/composer Django Bates. Since first gaining national and international attention through his work—both with Britain's legendary large ensemble Loose Tubes and, concurrently, as a member of Bill Bruford's first incarnation of the Earthworks band (which increasingly occupied the progressive/art-rock drummer-turned-jazzer's attention through to his retirement from public performance in 2009) Bates has gone on to become a hugely respected and influential artist in his own right, winning awards including Denmark's renowned Jazzpar prize in 1997.

With a discography that includes a trilogy of cryptically titled and musically challenging sets on then JMT, now Winter&Winter (1993's Summer Fruits (and Unrest), 1994's Autumn Fires (and Green Shoots) and 1995's Winter Truce (and Homes Blaze)), as well as band-member appearances on notable recordings such as Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen's two stellar ECM recordings (1990's So I Write and 1993's Exile), Bates has earned a reputation as a composer for large and small ensembles and as a performer who brings no shortage of wit, wisdom and warmth to any project with which he's associated. This reputation has continued to build over the course of two decades and has led to important educational positions for Bates. A now-completed five-year run in Copenhagen also saw the emergence of his StoRMChaser band, whose recorded debut, Spring is Here (Shall We Dance?) (Lost Marble Recordings, 2008), finally completed his "Four Seasons" series in impressive style, albeit after a 13-year gap.

Bates has recently secured what appears to be an open-ended professorship in Bern, Switzerland that seems tailor made for a musician who needs time to tour and, most importantly, to think—a luxury increasingly less afforded to contemporary jazz musicians who now spend more time traveling to gigs than performing in them, and who normally hve to stretch themselves in order to make ends meet. It's also the kind of position that allows Bates the freedom to accept what was clearly a unique challenge: to take the music played by his current Beloved Trio and, with a newly commissioned piece also part of the project, collaborate with northern Sweden's world-famous Norrbotten Big Band, a fluid large ensemble that's garnered significant international attention for albums such as Worth the Wait (Fuzzy Music, 2008) and The Avatar Sessions (Fuzzy Music, 2010)—the latter recorded in New York's legendary Avatar Studio and featuring the music of trumpeter Tim Hagans, who was the big band's Artistic Director and Composer-in- Residence from 1996-2010.

Bates' current trio represents a number of firsts for the pianist. Named after its debut recording, 2011's Beloved Bird (Lost Marble), the trio represents the first time in the pianist's career that he's worked regularly in a conventional piano-trio format—although with Bates involved, the only real given is that the word "conventional" belongs in no sentence also sporting the pianist's name. While the group's raison d'être has been to celebrate the music of bebop progenitor saxophonist Charlie Parker, its two recordings to date- -including its most recent, Confirmation (Lost Marble, 2013)—reflect a group whose irreverence for the music is as deep as its respect.

The trio actually played completely free for its first year, before any written music was introduced. Swedish-born bassist Petter Eldh recalls, "I met Django for the first time in Trondheim [Norway], where I was part of a one-week project. I was a student at that time, and there were students from different high schools and music conservatories from around the Nordic countries. So we went to Trondheim and played some of Django's music in a big-band setting for the whole week. That was seven years ago and was my first introduction to playing his music."


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