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Django Bates: From Zero to Sixty in Five Days

John Kelman By

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"I was lucky that the first time I had a jazz gig, in 1979, it was in a real jazz club in London on an old wharf, and we were the unpaid support band for a year and a half or something, every Friday night. And the bands we were supporting were people like John Taylor, who I didn't really know at the time, Brian Abrahams, Stan Tracey, Henry Lowther, Harry Beckett. And what I noticed—or gradually the penny dropped—was that all these people were coming here and playing a whole evening of their own music. It wasn't for any other reason other than that their whole purpose for playing jazz was they wanted to play their own music ... and it suddenly made sense. I mean, I was in the support band, and I'd say, 'Let's play "Dolphin Dance"'—a great song with interesting changes, but it wasn't the same thing as, after a few weeks, when I thought maybe I should try and write something for the situation. I wrote a piece that, if I were to look at it now, would be an exercise in playing in a certain key that I thought was horrific, like C# minor.

"When we performed it, it sounded like us trying to play in C# minor [laughs], so it was great, but the idea came from watching people like John Taylor—the music. His writing always challenged the band, and I could see the audience picking up on the excitement and intensity. So, very early on, I was into the idea of writing stuff that wasn't immediately playable but required some rehearsal and some deep understanding. It required me to know what you were playing, for you to know what I was playing and for us to know each other's parts well. That way, we could lock in. That's always been a really enjoyable part of teaching, in fact.

"There was a point when Steve Coleman played at Ronnie Scott's club, and everyone started talking more about rhythm. Around that time, I hired Michael Mondesir to play on a tour of South America. Michael never plays a musical note that isn't about rhythm. I think it's fair to say that—it's infectious, that kind of obsession. By the end of the tour, we were all practicing rhythmical things that he'd showed us, the whole band, and that really changed my writing after that. And now rhythm is much more a part of the bag of tricks, but that sounds terrible. It used to be that when you did a solo, you showed off harmonic knowledge. It was like exploring to the max how far out harmonically you could go. Now you take a guy like Marius Neset [Bates played on the Norwegian saxophonist's critically acclaimed debut, Golden Xplosion (Edition 2011)]; he's played so much with musicians who are obsessed with rhythmic games, and he's right into those games, but he's also into all of the things that a saxophone can do, so that takes it to another level where it's very exciting.

While Bates, Eldh and Bruun got their fair share of solo space in the music—individually and, more importantly, collectively, just as they do on their recordings— there was also some solo space for members of the Norrbotten big band. Both Almqvist and Broström were featured, along with a Norrbotten Big Band regular, trombonist Peter Dahlgren, and as much as it was challenging to bring the written music to life, improvising over it was equally tough, and during the rehearsals some time was allotted to allow the soloists the chance to really internalize the music and to feel how to navigate it; the same opportunity was afforded to Slater, in order get deep into singing "A House is Not a Home."



Since Loose Tubes disbanded—Bates has, in recent years, been keeping its memory alive with archival live releases including 2011's Dancing on Frith Street and 2012's Säd Afrika, both recorded at London's Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club during the group's 1990 swan song and released on Bates' Lost Marble imprint (with a third one currently in the works)—Slater has largely deserted the jazz world, moving from Freak Power (with Norman Cook, later known as Fatboy Slim) to, in recent years, the duo Kitten & The Hip, featuring singer Kitten Quinn, playing music that's been dubbed electro-swing. But in both rehearsals and performance, it was clear that Slater's chops and reading skills haven't diminished one bit; with a song as deep as "A House is Not a Home," Slater's delivery—smooth, but with just the right touch of grit and a perfectly controlled vibrato—was perfect, bringing multiple layers to the simply repeated word "goodnight" that took the tune out on a vamp filled with contrapuntal interplay between various groups of instruments.

There's no doubt that Bates' music swings—at least some of the time— but it also redefines, to some extent, what that term means. "A very interesting area that could be talked about a lot—and it's good that question came up, because so far it hasn't come up much, since a lot of the written parts are either straight eighths, swing eighths or, as on "Confirmation," one piece where there is real swing— it's because it's easy to swing a bar of 4/4, but if you have a bar of 9/8, it's not an even number. So it doesn't seem to work, but then you think, 'I'll swing this bit because I recognize it's from the original tune—and it is Parker.'"

At one point during rehearsals, one of the Norrbotten members asked if a certain passage "should swing. Bates' reply, "A little more Euro swing and not so much American ... In other words, you shouldn't swing," brought a round of laughter from the entire big band.

"I didn't really mean it," Bates explains. "The first comment I meant, and the second comment was flippant and funny. What I meant was this: it's hard to generalize, but if you talk about Steve Coleman, he doesn't play American swinging eighth notes, but he does swing. I think of American swing as [Duke Ellington's] 'Satin Doll'; you just can't swing it too much, whereas Euro swing, I'm thinking about Kenny Wheeler's Gnu High (ECM, 1976). It's obviously the ECM world, and yet they're playing jazz. It's very improvised—they're playing over changes which would normally be something that leads you into a swing environment, but none of them are playing swing. It's strange to call that European swing, of course, keeping in mind that is Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett ... mind you, Dave Holland is English. But essentially, it's the two notes closer together. With Duke Ellington, the second one is lazy, relaxed, sassy—any of those words—while the other one is a bit more uptight [laughs]."



Watching Bates at work was, indeed, a revelation. He is a bandleader who managed to get everything he wanted and more from his ensemble. His approach was undeniably firm and pragmatic—the epitome of benign leadership—and yet he was also completely open to ideas from the band, and not just musically. Sometimes the notes on a page are what they are, but interpreted, for example by an instrumentalist like Pesonen, they come to life through the guitarist's command of color and texture. "I've usually a couple of things to say about the sounds," explains Bates. "Mostly what I say are things like, 'I really like that. Feel free to do more, to go further in that direction.' I think I may have also said, 'Can you be more African' in "Donna Lee," with that little Africo melody. When I had the meeting here, they said, 'We don't have a guitarist in the band as a regular member,' so I was thinking, 'OK, so one option is to not have one.'

"This is new music, after all, so, starting from nothing, there were those kinds of decisions to be made," Bates continues. "But I thought I'd really like to have a guitar on this project. It's funny because, in a way, I'm so worried about overpowering the trio; on the other hand, I was also concerned about not turning the trio into the rhythm section of a big band. I thought the guitar is such a wonderful coloristic thing that can stop a big band from sounding like a traditional big band with just one flip of switch—and especially with Marcus. There were various possibilities to do this gig; I haven't played with Marcus since StoRMChaser in Copenhagen—he was in that band—so I wasn't really sure what he was up to, but I always remembered him as being a very experimental, very open- minded guy. He'd come to class and say, 'Oh, I just read this book by Morton Feldman; it's really amazing. Check out this chapter here.' It's been very nice having him around."



But even as Pesonen began to work with effects pedals, a bow and other extensions of his instrument, the rest of the Norrbotten Big Band was facing its own separate challenges. Between mixed meters and actually mixed tempos, Bates' music was the kind of challenge the band rarely receives. "Petter was talking about freedom in the music, about being flexible enough to make some slight changes in time; all that is really hard for us who are reading everything," says Almqvist, a few days into rehearsals. "It was hard from the beginning, when you're playing a tune that's in 4/4, and you notice it's slowing down. But I feel, now that we've rehearsed for a few days, that we're starting to feel what we heard in the music, so it's getting better and better. Playing music this loose gets harder the more people there are involved.

"I play a lot of different stuff, but it's very seldom that music like this is played, where what you're adding may actually harm something that already existed. Most of the time, you meet, and you're basically on the same level as everyone else. Now we're meeting them [the Beloved Trio], and we are not on the same level in how well we know this music, so it's very different than if everybody gets the music for the first time, and you start reading it and understanding it together at the same time. This is music that Peter and Petter have played for years, and it's totally in their system. We're actually reading it, just trying to figure it out. So there's a very big difference in how we approach the music."

"But then there's the one piece ['The Study of Touch'], where we're all actually on the same level," Eldh adds. "There are these tempo shifts, which also reflect a new element in Django's music: it's not a metric modulation, it's not a related tempo, it's just picking a new tempo, which is what's going on in Karl-Martin's solo. Still, it's really been our challenge to not go into the rehearsal room and play this music, expecting the big band to adapt to us. It's been a challenge to keep open-minded, so that we make one band together: a third sound that's not us playing our thing and Norrbotten playing their thing, and you better fit in with our approach. We have to be open-minded and constantly ready to listen to the new sounds coming from the big band."

"Few bandleaders that I really enjoy have Django's open-mindedness and are prepared to accept something completely different than what they intended with their music," says Bruun. "Very often, people bring their own music and have this idea that it's going to sound exactly how they want it to be, and maybe then something else happens, which is even greater or hipper, but they don't hear it because they're too fixated on what they want it to be. You can see this give and take with Django; it's not just a one-way thing. It's not dictation; it's collaboration.

As rehearsals led inevitably to the concert performance on Saturday, June 1st, it became clear that, even though the group didn't begin to run entire tunes through start to finish until the previous day, it was already beginning to gel, starting to coalesce. Still, there's a big difference between rehearsal room and concert hall, so how this show would turn out was anybody's guess. As the group wrapped up the soundcheck and headed for the dressing room, Bates gave everyone one more piece of advice and curious encouragement: "Tonight, be loud and proud, strong and wrong."

If there was one word to describe Bates' approach to the rehearsals and the performance, it was fun. From the pianist's whoops of delight when the ensemble nailed a particularly difficult passage in rehearsal to, in performance, his sudden and completely unexpected leap from the piano to dance, with abandon, around the stage before returning to his piano to conduct the group and bring a tune to its close, it was clear that, for Bates, while music can mean many very different things and represent a broad cross-section of the emotions that make up the human condition, its performance is something that brings him nothing less than tremendous joy.

The other unmistakable component of Bates' music—whether it was the swirling, near- chaotic lines of his own "Giorgiantics," the ensemble's stretched and compressed version of Parker's "Donna Lee," or Slater's bang-on delivery of "A House is Not a Home"—was risk. Whether it was Bates' own frenetic solo during "Donna Lee" or his more lyrical approach to the episodic "Ah-Leu-Cha," which led to the Beloved Trio's gentle, wordless vocals—just as on Beloved Bird but, in this case, returning to an a cappella piano solo that segued, with absolute inevitability, to "A House is Not a Home"—there was the sense that, as together as the ensemble had become after five days' rehearsal, there was still the possibility of the music collapsing like a house of cards. And Bates wouldn't have it any other way.

If all goes well, Bates' Beloved Trio and the expanded Norrbotten Big Band just might be making a transatlantic trek to North America in 2014. In the meantime, with an upcoming high-profile gig at London, England's renowned Royal Albert Hall, Bates returns to BBC's annual Proms series for the first time since 1987, when Loose Tubes shook the building's foundations. On the basis of his performance at Luleå's New Directions Festival, they'd better fortify the 150-year-old venue's foundation and roof, because when Bates, Beloved Trio and the Norrbotten Big Band hit the stage, it's entirely likely that they'll blow the roof off the joint, to the delight of all who attend.

Photo Credit

Page 1 (Top): Nick White, Courtesy of Django Bates

All Other Photos: John Kelman

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