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Django Bates: Spring Is Here (A Long Time Coming But Worth The Wait)

Chris May By

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With all my delicate detail, I wanted someone to come in and go 'yeah!' and crank it up, smash it out of the speakers.
Django BatesJuly, 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 two—Loose 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 laughter—which 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 next.

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 Jazzpar—a small band project to contrast with the big, dense music I wrote for the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra—Like 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?

DB: 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 climb—sometimes we'd rehearse something for a week and then there'd be a gig where we could try it out—but 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 Friday—it'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 ideas—slow 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.

AAJ: Let's talk about some of the individual tracks. "The Right To Smile" articulates something at the core of your philosophy—the right to be free and enjoy life, the right to be yourself. The way you weave Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" and those national anthems into it is very effective.

DB: The piece is partly about nationalism and borders, the way border controls keep people within certain areas. I have quite direct experience of this in several ways. One is being in Denmark at the RMC. I'm there about half my time, so I have experience of being a "foreign worker." Of course, it's different to the situation many foreign workers find themselves in, because I'm regarded as coming from an "acceptable" country.

Then I have a friend who's English and his partner's Italian and they had a child in England. They've been living in England all their life together but the child can't get an English passport because they're not married. Little things like this make you realize what a paradoxical world we live in. The more you think about it, the stranger the world seems.

So I had the idea of having some fun by throwing all these nationalistic songs together, to make something basically un-nationalistic out of the blend. When we perform "The Right To Smile" live we start with everyone singing their own personal anthem in their own language. There are quite a few different nationalities at RMC and doing this really destroys the whole idea of nationalism and patriotism because you get this chaos of sound. Then we go into the piece and have some fun with those songs. "Ode To Joy," that's such a special one, because it's the European anthem, and it's also such an incredible, joyful bit of music.

AAJ: As well as your experiences as a foreign worker, you travelled pretty widely as a child, didn't you?

DB: My parents led an unconventional lifestyle and we did a lot of travelling. There was one trip, to the Balkans, that I particularly remember and that I'm pretty sure has had some effect on my music.

My parents woke me up before it was daybreak, which is quite disorientating, and I remember I had to dress myself and I'd never done that before and I got everything in the wrong order. Then we got on a motorbike and sidecar combination, my sister and me in the sidecar and our parents on the bike, and off we went to what were then far flung parts of Europe like Romania and the former Yugoslavia.

It was an amazing journey. The only thing that I remember about Romania was that we got lost and it was dark and it was raining—I think it rained for most of that trip, and nothing was waterproof in those days, they hadn't invented Gortex. We were rescued by real Romanian Gypsies, and they gave me a wooden mug, carved out of single piece of wood, full of milk from a cow, still frothing and warm. I remember drinking that really clearly.

I'm sure there was lots of music around as well. I can't remember them singing and playing but I do know that when I hear that music today it strikes an immediate chord with me. And that's come through in everything I've wanted to write myself, the sound that I want to hear—that beautiful, real, coming from the earth sound.

Django Bates / StoRMChaser Django Bates (center) and members of StoRMChaser

AAJ: Another remarkable track is "Fire Brigade." It's extraordinarily catchy, a hit-in-waiting to set alongside "New York New York." How did that one come about?

DB: "Fire Brigade" was written right at the beginning of this music, directly inspired by that Cameroon experience. My idea was to write some pieces that were each very much in one key—which can give an impression of that very relaxed, happy feeling that we associate with African music. I like these little rules you can have to play around with. The other thing was these strange lengths of phrase running throughout the piece. There's an eleven beat phrase, and the track explores eleven in lots of ways, using different backing figures that are weaving in and out of the eleven beats. It's difficult to explain these things sometimes, but basically it's about having fun with music and numbers—which are closely linked.

"Sheep" was part of that early writing process too, that's why it goes into that long, looping thing with a bass line that's seventeen beats long. That's why the song is about sheep. They seem so similar but when you look at them closely you realize there are subtle differences.

There are lots of repeats, because when you repeat a musical phrase people feel comfortable with it. But if you have lots of things repeating, and they don't quite match up in length, you get this big kaleidoscope—it's like you're turning the wheel, seeing the same colored beads, but they're constantly reforming into different patterns.

It's a development of that Cameroon thing. I was asking myself what I was going to do with the songs to make them fascinating, to play around with the rhythm and the time aspect. In "Spring," for instance, during the first solo, everything is going along steadily and then the ground thing speeds up while everything else stays the same. That's exactly the excitement the Cameroon band had, that I wanted to get.
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