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Django Bates: Generous Abundance

Ludovico Granvassu By

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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.
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