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Django Bates: Generous Abundance


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When all my school friends were exchanging football cards of football players with bad haircuts, I was a at home mesmerized by Charlie Parker and making little plasticine models of him.
If you love jazz because of its capacity to surprise, amaze, astound, even flabbergast, and leave you without words, then Django Bates is the musician for you. A bird's-eye view [no pun nor reference to Bates' love for the music Charlie Parker intended] of the striking body of work the British pianist has developed over four decades reveals what must be a very generous disposition. His projects and music can range from the subtle, delicate and reassuring to the bombastic, maximalistic and mesmerizing, covering a wide range of human emotions. The career choices he made seem to reveal the generosity of those that devote their efforts to putting together very large ensembles and keeping them alive for years, or to sharing their knowledge and experiences through teaching. This generous abundance can be found not only looking at his entire oeuvre but also inside his compositions, each one replete with so many ideas, motifs or riffs that would fill another musician's whole album.

On the occasion of his North American tour, which will take him to the Jazz Standard in New York (19 and 20 June 2018), the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival 23 June 2018 and the Ottawa International Jazz Festival (25 June 2018), we spoke to Django Bates about his recent return to ECM with The Study of Touch featuring his trio Bèloved, featuring Swedish bassist Petter Eldh and Danish drummer Peter Bruun; the new collaboration with Anouar Brahem; the years with Loose Tubes, the large ensemble that revoluzionizied the London jazz scene in the mid-to-late '80s; playinig the piano; and —more generally —about the opportunities that open up when one has the ability to change his mind.

To listen to music from Django Bates' many projects, as well as to excerpts of this interview, play the archived podcast of Mondo Jazz.

All About Jazz: Adventure and surprise seem to be distinctive characteristics of your music. Is that the natural outcome of a certain way ot looking at life -and therefore at music -from a vantage point that is quite different than most, or are you deliberately and constantly looking for something new and different?

Django Bates: I'm sure that the very wide mix of influences that I was exposed to while growing up have had a big effect on what I think is a sensible version of music. However, when I'm composing music, I'm writing with myself as a listener. So things like, for instance, the structure of a piece is based on what I would like to experience if I were at a concert. The outcome is always different. Sometimes, as a listener, I would like to experience a surprise or an unexpected solution. Other times, I like to just have five and a half minutes of pleasurable experience that doesn't suddenly throw you off a cliff at the end, but just takes you the whole way through in peace. So, in the end, each time I write a piece it feels like a new experience of me in the audience listening to myself.

AAJ: At times you go back to old compositions of yours, like "Little Petherick," "We Are Not Lost We Are Simply Finding Our Way" or "Senza Bitterness" which are on your latest record, The Study of Touch, after having appeared on earlier albums. When you return to your old compositions after many years, having had some distance from them, do they feel almost as if they had been written by someone else?

DB: I don't listen to my own stuff very often. When I do it's always a surprise. It still feels like my voice as it is today, I still relate to everything that I've written in the past. When I went back to "Little Petherick" it felt like opening my diary, reading a page from way back in time and thinking, "Ah, yes, I remember that day very well." I remember the recording and I remember writing the piece, where it was written and everything. I suppose that a lot of my music doesn't need to change that much from its original writing down of it or the original recording version of it. A lot of detail goes in at the opening of a piece and then there is room for evolution. But, the structure of a piece like "Little Petherick" is what it is, and that's what it should be.

As far as playing other people's music is concerned, I might transcribe someone's work from time to time, out of my own interest. Over the years I have deliberately stopped being in other people's bands, until quite recently, when Anouar Brahem asked me to join his band.

AAJ: The first album with your current trio Belovèd Bird focused on the music of Charlie Parker. Why did you start the recording life of this new project with music not written by you?

DB: The start of the Charlie Parker project was a bit of an accident. The early phase with the trio with Petter Eldh and Peter Bruun was very free. I really wanted to play with them, but I did not have any music written for the trio yet. So I said, look, let's just have the first rehearsal. I'll think about the material later. We had a lot of fun playing without any music. I might just say "let's play as quietly as possible for as long as we can sustain the interest or let's play as fast and loud as possible, as long as we can sustain that physical energy." We experimented a lot with the way we would set up physically in the space, things like that.

A year into that process, I got an invitation to be part of an evening celebrating the life and music of Charlie Parker. My answer to the invitation was "yes!," immediately, because Charlie Parker was my first childhood hero. I grew up with his music and then reading tbis biography, which sucked me into the romantic story and the excitement of having a hero. When all my school friends were exchanging football cards of football players with bad haircuts, I was at home mesmerized by Charlie Parker and making little plasticine models of him that I could pretty much worship.

After accepting the invitation, I decided to play Charlie Parker's music my trio. And it was even more fun than I would have imagined. We ended up recording the Charlie Parker project for Belovèd Bird, the first album that we did. Then the trio progressively moved away from it.

AAJ: From what angle do you approach a standard which has a well-established history?

DB: In the case of the Charlie Parker's compositions I knew them very well. So I would give them a quick listen just to check whether there was anything more that I could bring to them... In that process I realized that Charlie Parker was, of course, incredibly creative over everything, all the time, but the rest of the band was quite functional. They were there mostly there to provide a very stable base off of which he would work

That lead me to think that we could change that approach. Noawadays, bass players and drummers have a more prominent role in a trio, they are heard more, they add counterpoint. So I would take a Charlie Parker composition, maybe focus on its riff, but then interpret it in a different way and put an emphasis on the bass. That could change the whole environment of the melody, without the excercises coming out as too intellectual because you still have a very bluesy lick, even if it is being played by the bass at a slower tempo. You know, bop is a very playful music and Charlier Parker put so much ornamentation on it. Playing around with it came easily, it's intuitive language for me because I listened to that so much at a very impressionable age. So, in the end, I was building on material that I knew well, in some ways updating it, including by bringing emphasis on the details added by the other musicians.

Working on a well established repertoire gives you an opportunity to spend some time on it and discover unexpected dimensions. Before working on Charlier Parker, I did an arrangement of "New York, New York" which was quite "different." It was deliberately confrontational, funny on purpose. It was supposed to be a representation of what New York is actually like, rather than this kind of big cabaret, slightly sleazy, song. As I started working on it, I realized that I actually liked it. I liked the original. It's so full of character, it was obviously written with gret care. The same goes for the other Sinatra classic, "My Way," which I also arranged and had great fun with. But yes, those were meant to be cheeky, naughty, arrangements.

AAJ: Did your project dedicated to the Beatles, Saluting Sgt. Pepper, represent another chance for finding out how to infuse new life in a well-established repertoire?

DB: That was another project that started by accident. A couple of Christmases ago, I was asked whether I would be interested in arranging Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Prior to that proposal I had said, in interviews and conversations, that I would never arrange the Beatles. But when I received the invitation I heard myself saying yes immediately. It was almost like my brain quickly went through the possibilities and checked whether there was something imaginative that I could still do with that music even though it's so cleverly arranged. And then very quickly came up with the answer. "Yes!" And I said yes while the offer was still sitting there. And that's often the way it works with me. It has to be a very spontaneous moment even when it's a contradiction of previously stated beliefs.

AAJ: Perhaps one of the greatest limitations of jazz is that it often takes itself too seriously. You approach to jazz is infused with an elegant sense of humor. To parahphrase Frank Zappa, does humour belong in jazz?

DB: The answer to your question comes from my earlier answer about seeing myself as the audience when I'm writing music. Writing music that takes you on the journey I'd like to be taken on. It's interesting, though. Often people talk about me using humor, but if I look at a lot of my pieces, I can't identify where exactly the humor is. Let's take The Study of Touch, there's no single clear deliberate musical joke in it. So, hopefully, a sense of humor is perceived even when it's not written into the music in some forced way. It should just be there at times, perhaps, as a slightly ironic view of the world. Then, of coures, there have been pieces where I did want to make people laugh. But there are also other pieces where I wanted to try and make people cry.

I remember having a dream once, when I was quite young, that I was playing a concert and people were crying. I woke up thinking, that it was a great feeling and I wondered if it was possible to move people with your music. And then I managed that, at least once. It was a rendition of David Bowie's "Life on Mars." I think we just reminded a man of his former girlfriend or something, but it can be done.

People can veer from one emotion to another in real life. And I think that's fine in a piece of music as well. It's not all one thing all the time. Intellectualism is very interesting, but it shuts some people out. All of this is fascinating.

Going back to The Study of Touch, there's a lot to say about this on that album. The first track is called "Sadness All the Way Down." It's based on what is, perhaps, a very banal idea, starting on the very top notes of the piano and finding its way down to the bottom note. It's completely written, and the journey also includes the bass working its way down. Describing this idea in words, it might sound like it's going to be a very childish piece of music. But actually, that's just the starting point for the idea. Then the idea becomes something sad and tender and beautiful about the piano. And then some years later I could think, ah, great, we have an opportunity to record the trio again. Wouldn't it be nice to go up the other way at the end of the album and do "Happiness All the Way Up?." Again, a very banal idea. But something very special emerges from this childish idea. And in a way, even something like that can be seen in humorous terms. The concept is quite funny in a way.

AAJ: Indeed, humor in music does not have to mean "cracking musical jokes." It often goes back to the sense of surprise we were talking about earlier. An unexpected juxtaposition of musical elements may jar you and leave you both dazzled and amused, it can make you smile, or even laugh, while it remains purely musical and keeps the artistic integrity intact. And I would be hard pressed finding someone that does that better than you do...

DB: That's a very good way to put it. Often it is the surprise that makes you smile. And I've had the same feeling listening to someone else's music in a concert, whether it's a free improv band or whatever. Suddenly there's a moment when me and a group of similarly minded people would just burst out laughing at something purely musical for that very reason. It was so unexpected.

AAJ: When we think about our teachers we can very quickly remember the good ones and how they contributed to our development and the bad ones, which perhaps also contributed to our growth, even though in reaction to them. You have a very active teaching career. What are the things that you hope your students will remember having learnt from you?

DB: What I want to do most with students is play music with them, getting to a point where it feels purely like music, ultimately making my classes not like lessons. Through that process, I want them to find a personal voice. And then I want them to develop a power that is beyond just having a personal voice. It's something else that you build with your 10,000 hours of practice. It's for you to decide what to do with that practice, to make you a little bit special, different from other musicians, you know, that's the detail that you can add to what comes out naturally when you play.

My way of teaching probably reflects the fact that I didn't go to a music school and study jazz. When it came to the point where my friends all went to music colleges and started studying in a very serious way, I looked around for a place that had a jazz program and there wasn't one at that time. So from then on it was up to me to work out how to learn what I thought I needed to know. In some ways it was quite a slow process. I probably used more time than I would have had to if I had a good teacher, but it was my time and enjoyed the process thoroughly.

AAJ: Speaking of musical education, did you get to know the members of your current trio as students while you were teaching in Copenhagen at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory?

DB: I was wandering through the corridors of the Rhythmic Music Conservatory having promised myself many times never to have a piano trio. And then I just walked past a room where Petter was playing bass and Peter was playing drums in a large ensemble. I took a step back and took another listen and thought I might have to change my mind about piano trios. The intensity and power with which they were playing at what was actually a quiet volume seemed perfect to play with, as a pianist, because they wouldn't clash with the sound of the piano.

AAJ: One could argue that the way Petter Eld and Peter Brun play is quintessential of how certain Scandinavian musicians appear to be both aware of the history of jazz and yet un-encumbered by it, which seems a perfect match for your creativiy. For years you have been active with musicians from Scandinavia. What do you think of what's going on in the jazz scenes there?

DB: Some authors say that you should write about what you know, play about what you know or write music that's coming from the things that you have experienced in life. My first meaningful trip to Scandinavia came after I got a call from the singer Sidsel Endresen. I didn't really know what it was that I was going there to do. All I knew was that she had left a message on my answering machine and her voice and way of speaking was so peaceful and beautiful that I thought I had to go. When I got there I found out that I would be playing with Jon Christensen on drums and Nils Petter Molvaer on trumpet. They played so quietly during the rehearsals. They would start quiet and get even quieter. I kept thinking "this is never gonna work in a public space, you'll never hear it." And then we did the first gig and the quieter we got the quieter the audience got. We created this incredibly intense quietness and peace. That taught me a huge lesson. I worked with that band for a few years. So in Norway I got my introduction to the Scandinavian scene and their approach to music, jazz and improvised music. Very self-confident. However it's not a monolithic scene; there's a huge variety, but it's all just very self-confident and celebrative of the people creating it.

AAJ: You stated that "What Petter and Peter bring to this music of mine is a refusal to play what I've written." Thinking about how intricate and carefully crafted your work for larger ensemble can be, it sounds like this possibility of letting go must be quite catarthic.

DB: Yes. I just have to accept that what they bring to the music is given with so much inventiveness, love and creativity that it can't be questioned. Playing with them has also had an effect on what I write for them. During the North Amerian tour there will be a new piece, which was written with that in mind.

AAJ: As you mention, you will be bringing this trio to North America. How has the music of The Study of Touch evolved since it was recorded in 2016?

DB: The music evolves all the time. The development is the natural result of what each individual in a band brings each time we play a piece. It's not always the same person who's pushing it in a certain way or trying something new. We share a general understanding that we all have a responsibility to keep the colors changing within the music without having to make dramatic changes because it doesn't really need to be rewritten every time we play. And there's also a new piece which is not on the album, a piece which we haven't had a chance to bring into our sets yet. There's something quite different about that piece, which I won't try and explain. You'll have to come to one of our concerts and find out.

AAJ: The Study of Touch marks your return to the ECM label, after being on it more than 30 years ago as a member of the quartet First House and, later, in Sidsel Endresen's band. What circumstances made this return possible, both with your trio and as guest of Anouar Brahem?

DB: I've been running my own label called Lost Marble for a while. It's like a workshop place to try things out and make sure that I don't remain silent for too long. It allows me to get my ideas out, in order to be able to move on and put those ideas behind so I can create new ideas. After having published two trio albums on Lost Marble, I start wondering what would the next step be... And next step came about through a chance meeting with Manfred Eicher, ECM's producer, that ended up after about 10 minutes of chatting with him saying, "oh, so you're ready to make another trio record then?" And then me hearing myself saying "yes!" again. And off we went into new possibilities. I wrote some new music for that project, showing the trio to Manfred in a studio and documenting the event. It felt like we put on a concert for Manfred. He's a very active listener. Knowing everything he's listened to in the past brought a different meaning to the recording process, a sense of purpose as well as another set of ears, musical thoughts and experience. So that's how we recorded The Study of Touch.

After a couple of weeks, I got a call from Manfred saying that he had played quite the recordings of a few piano players to Anouar Brahem who was working on his next project and he was interested in playing with me. That was a complete surprise. It's funny how sometimes nothing happens for a very long time and then, suddenly, you remind someone of what you do and you become part of a new circle of possibilities.

So I got together with Anouar, just the two of us, trying things out to see if we could find a "pitch understanding." The piano and the oud are instruments that speak very different musical languages. I had to find parts of the piano that didn't interfere with the oud. I also needed to discover how not introduce new modes without contradicting what he was playing. It was a really interesting process. A few weeks later, I found myself in a studio in New York, with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. For someone who has avoided playing in other people's bands it was very exciting to discover what I could put into a project to make it the most rewarding experience for everybody. It felt like the right time to go and play with someone else and work with very different musicians from the ones that I've played with normally.

AAJ: The British scene, London's in particular, has always been very active and bustling with creativity. You played a catalyst role on that scene, including with Loose Tubes the large ensemble that provided the launching pad for many of today's top British jazz players. Do you see any parallels between those times and the new London scene, which is going through another very prolific phase.

DB: There are definitely similarities. When you get enough very young musicians with a passion for the music and for pushing things forward, then you get a very powerful movement. If they happen to come together and play in a large ensemble, that becomes an unstoppable force.That kind of force is in play right now in London. And that's a great thing. My worry would be that there's nowhere for them to let this force out in terms of venues. People always say that you have to create your own venues. That's true to a point, if it's physically possible. I just hope that people will always find a way to do that and other people will always be interested to go and check it out and hear it.

AAJ: Speaking of Loose Tubes, it had a way of approaching jazz, including big band jazz, from a distinctive European perspective...

DB: I'm so involved in music that I find it quite hard to take the musicologists perspective. When Loose Tubes came along, we were embraced by Ronnie Scott. He invited us to play at his club. We performed there for a week. That was a turning point because we could no longer be ignored by journalists, public and musicians. It's funny to think that Ronnie Scott had started that club as a place to celebrate American jazz but I don't think we played a single bar of swing in the whole week. We shared an unwritten understanding that, as much as we loved American jazz, we weren't going to refer to it in that band. It didn't feel that it really belonged to us. And we didn't feel the need to try and match it and replicate, which is what the Ronnie Scott's generation had done. They were really steeped in that tradition. And then we came along, with no feeling that we owed anything to that tradition. Young people can be quite overconfident. I think that's something that you can find also in the young scene now in England, in London.

AAJ: Besides the piano, your other instrument is the peck horn. How do these two instruments integrate or influence each other and your work as a composer?

DB: When I started playing, I was transcribing Charlie Parker lines and playing them on a trumpet which has the same fingering system as the peck horn. When I would go off on a paper round, I would just practice the fingering and singing the phrases I had learnt while on my bike. So the idea of playing a blowing instrument is at the heart of me as a composer, or a musical person. Even though I have not been playing the peck horn recently, since there's no place in the music that requires it, it's just a part of my background. It's funny to have ended up playing so much piano when I think that at some point I had stopped playing piano, because every time I went to a gig the piano was unplayable. That's how I ended up working with keyboards, which opened up a whole other world of sound. But gradually it became possible to play on good pianos and so I was seduced back by this incredible invention, the piano.

AAJ: We've had a long conversation about music. As a composer and a musician, do you find that ultimately —like somebody said —speaking about music is like dancing about architecture?

DB: I think it's good to try. Sometimes I like talking about the process of composing. Maybe it's in quite a simple way. I'll tell you a quick story, and you can tell me whether it's a like dancing about architecture. I was doing a theater piece, writing the music and also acting in this play. At one point the director said, "what we need here is a piece of music that is one and a half minute long, it kind of ascends and is absolutely transcendent and intensely beautiful. Can you do that?." Obviously he didn't understand what a huge thing he was asking for. And then I thought, well what if I just interpreted his request in the childish way in which he asked it, and I literally just write an ascending line and then turn it into something beautiful? So I wrote this piece called "Early Bloomer" and it just went very far [sings the melody] which is actually very unmusical thing to do. And then I gave myself the task of making the harmony not to just go up the steps like the melody does but always have a different solution. That became a really fascinating game for me. The result was a beautiful piece of music which, in a theatrical setting, also worked emotionally.

A few years later I woke up one morning and thought, I'm so sad I can't write "Early Bloomer" because I've written it already, and it was such an enjoyable experience which I can't have again. Then I thought, why not just start from the other end and come back down and end in the same place. Sure enough, that brought a few more days of intense enjoyment, finding new solutions and hitting some of the same tiny events within the original. To record it, I went back to the original and checked the tempo so we could have exactly the same tempo. What I've found is that each bar was kind of one metronome mark slower than the previous bar all the way through. So there was a quasi-mathematical slowing down which happened completely by accident [The composition is "Evening Primrose," from Spring Is Here (Shall We Dance?), Lost Marble, 2008]. These are the kind of fascinating things which I can talk about. They just color-in some of the missing details of what it's like to be a musician or a composer.

Photo credits: Chris Christodoulou.

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