July, 2008: It's been 13 years since British composer and keyboards/peck horn player Django Bates released the third album in his "four seasons" series, Winter Truce (And Homes Blaze)
(Winter & Winter, 1995). That album followed close behind Autumn Fire (And Green Shoots)
(Winter & Winter, 1994) and Summer Fruits (And Unrest)
(Winter & Winter, 1993).
It has long been Bates's intention to complete the series with a spring-themed album, and in June, 2008 he finally did so with Spring Is Here (Shall We Dance?)
(Lost Marble, 2008). It's made with the 19-piece StoRMChaser, the post-graduate big band at Denmark's Rhythmic Music Conservatory (RMC), where Bates was appointed Professor of Rhythmic Music in 2005. A rich and riotous recalibration of orchestral jazz, in the tradition of Bates's work with Loose Tubes in the 1980s and Delightful Precipice in the 1990s, it's a defining masterpiece in his already distinguished big band discography.
Following the demise of original releasing label JMT, the first three albums in the four seasons series became hard to obtain, but are now available again on Winter & Winter. Not so, sadly, the three discs Bates made with Loose Tubes, of which in particular the first twoLoose Tubes
(Loose Tubes, 1985) and Delightful Precipice
(Loose Tubes, 1986)are worth scouring used vinyl bins and internet auction sites for from here to Saturn and back on the off-chance you might get lucky.
Bates currently spends half his time in Copenhagen at the RMC, and the other half in London. This interview took place in London in late May, 2008, on a spring day during which the rain came down hard without a break for about eight hours. The precipitation reminded Bates of a journey he made to the Balkans as a child in the late 1960s, which he feels had a lasting influence on his music, of which more later.
Despite the weather, it was a sunny meeting, with Bates speaking eloquently about the new album, StoRMChaser, his interest in writing for the human voice, and what he's trying to do with his music.
There was also a lot of laughterwhich hasn't been indicated in the interview because the frequent repetition of (laughter)
would have become tedious.All About Jazz:
It's been a long time since Winter Truce
in 1995. Has Spring Is Here
been in gestation all that time, or was the impetus more recent?Django Bates:
I actually had the basic idea for Spring Is Here
back in 1995, at the Music Meetings festival in Holland, where I was performing with Delightful Precipice.
The band that were on after us were from Cameroon. They were playing these incredible grooves where the detail at the top would stay the same while things at the ground of the music would switch and shift underneath, at the very foundation. It was remarkable and very exciting. When the switches occurred it was like the earth had moved below you and you were trying to work out which way was up and which way was down. We were all standing at the side of the stage with our jaws dropping, thinking, "What's going on?" And I thought, "Great. I've got the concept for the next season, spring." The plan was always to do Spring Is Here
I started writing the music in the months after that and gradually performed it with all sorts of people. Mainly with young bands. I did a youth project in Amiens, France; I did the European Jazz Youth Orchestra, which comes out of Scandinavia and is a great opportunity for young people to get on the road and learn about performance; there were several of these things where different young people got their hands on the music and made their mark on it. All of that fed into the writing. In the meantime though, I made some other albums and it never quite felt like the right time to document it.AAJ:
You had record label issues in the mid-1990s too, didn't you?DB:
Yes. All sorts of other things happened in the year or two after Winter Truce
. One of these was that I lost the record deal with JMT, which became part of Verve and Polydor. Round about Winter Truce
I performed at a music business conference in New York with Human Chain. I was so excited that I arranged "New York New York"the infamous "derangement"and it had the direct effect of losing us our deal with Polygram, because it was so totally not
what they were into.
With the benefit of time, I'm quite pleased that happened, because although it was pretty hard, I had to take control of my own recordings. There were little things that happened along the way which helped me. In 1997, shortly after all that, I won the Jazzpar Prize, and this involved enough money to record Quiet Nights
(Screwgun, 1998). It was a kind of accidental project which grew out of the Jazzpara small band project to contrast with the big, dense music I wrote for the Danish Radio Jazz OrchestraLike Life
(Storyville, 1998)as part of the prize.
Finally, after I'd started at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in 2005, it seemed like I was in the right place at the right time to turn it all into an album. Maybe another reason why I held back for so long was because I knew this would be the end of the four seasons cycle and I was quite enjoying being in the middle of it.AAJ:
So arriving at the RMC and starting StoRMChaser provided the final spur to record Spring Is Here
What I said at my interview was that if I got the job, if I got the chance, I'd form a band with the letters RMC in the name and take it round the world and put the RMC on the map. They looked at me for a moment and then it was kind of, "Go on then, do it."
I thought Spring Is Here
would work with StoRMChaser, because I've worked a lot with young musicians, presenting them with what is in some ways complex music, and it's always been my experience that if you go at it with utter confidence and commitment it's successful. When you start, it's an enormous mountain to climbsometimes we'd rehearse something for a week and then there'd be a gig where we could try it outbut the adrenalin and the excitement that is created by the process kick in and you're swept along with it.AAJ:
There's an irresistible groundswell of enthusiasm coming out of the band.DB:
There is. We meet every Friday and just keep pressing home, playing around, having fun. The RMC set-up means I can experiment. To have a band like this that I can play around with every Fridayit's a real luxury. It's something people like Duke Ellington had. Ellington had his band on a retainer and so he could always call them up when he needed to and say, "Could you come in and play this chord for me?"
It's a wonderful resource to have. I had it back in the days of Loose Tubes. We met up even when there was nothing new to play. It was like a social commitment, a very nice social commitment. It gives the opportunity to try out ideasslow processes, rather than the usual thing where you write all the music and go into the studio and read it, nail it, get it down and that's that.