Django Bates' Human Chain: Live At The Hackney Empire, London, 24 July 2005

Chris May By

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After twenty-something years subverting and enlivening the UK jazz scene - with Loose Tubes, Delightful Precipice, and Human Chain, amongst myriad other projects - Django Bates has announced he is leaving the country. Tonight's performance was the last London gig before he relocates to Denmark, to become the inaugural Professor at Denmarks's adventurous, and generously state-funded, Rhythmic Music Conservatory. In '97, of course, Bates famously won the Danish Jazzpar prize, only the second non-American and second Briton so to do.

Appropriately, Bates chose to play his final London gig for a while at the East End's Hackney Empire, a Victorian Music Hall and Palace of Varieties with a long, distinguished, and ongoing history of blowing raspberries at the establishment. Clowns, irreverent comics, and musical mavericks have always found a welcome here, and Bates' Human Chain fitted right in amongst them, underneath the mirror-ball which still hangs behind the proscenium arch (and which Bates, naturally, incorporated in his stage presentation).

Human Chain's long established permanent line-up - Bates, keyboards, electonics, tenor horn, vocals; Iain Ballamy, tenor and soprano saxophones; Michael Mondesir, electric bass; and Martin France, drums - was augmented by the young Swedish vocalist and regular collaborator Josefine Lindstrand.

The band opened as they meant to continue by playing "a lovely, lovely old tune," as Bates likes to put it, "in a horrible, horrible new way." The deserving first victim was the junk classic "My Way," assaulted by cod-rap and punk, followed later in the set by "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and "New York, New York," both of them deliciously horriblified. Another much loved tune which got a going over its composer probably hadn't foreseen when he wrote it was David Bowie's "Life On Mars." Originals "You Live And Learn...(Apparently)," "From Chaos Anything Is Possible," and "Food For Plankton In Detail" weren't spared either: Bates' out with the old and in with the new aesthetic applies to his own material too.

The instrumental quartet itself was on top form. Bates' kaleidoscopic series of keyboard sounds and styles - from berserk fairground organ through supercharged mambo piano and all points south - was utterly compelling. Ballamy's rapturous tenor (and soprano on "Plankton"), France's non-flashy but seriously propulsive drums, and Mondesir's funktified bass were all delights too.

A sense of fun is a constant in Bates' music, but so is serious intent. Like George Clinton, who had played elsewhere in town the night before, Bates is a sane-crazy genuis intent on recalibrating his own and the world's cultural antennae. Wherever he lays his hat he'll be a national treasure, and Denmark is lucky to be getting most of him for a while. But part of Bates' brief in Copenhagen is to raise the international profile of the Rhythmic Music Conservatory, through performance and recording - so chances are we'll be seeing him regularly.

Meanwhile, Human Chain play what will almost certainly be their final UK gig this year at Brecon Jazz Festival on 13 August.


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