This was always going to be a tall order, even for the likes of the ever-resourceful Django Bates. But it had to be done. The Beatles masterwork passed its fiftieth birthday this year and is arguably the most influential album of popular music recorded to date. Some of the many anniversary celebrations revealed that Pepper should have included "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" but due to the need for a hit single to tied the band over during the lengthy hiatus recording the album, these two songs were omitted and instead released as a double 'A' side single. Ironically this 45 achieved only second place in the UK charts, the first Beatles non-number 1 for five years. Searching the internet it's easy to find on YouTube truly marvellous footage, filmed at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival in October 2016, of those two numbers and others from the album which Bates arranged with typical verve. It's a shame they were left out of this CD, but perhaps it's because Bates was keen to preserve the integrity of the original track order.
Bates has revealed he first heard the album when he bought it for his sister's eighteenth birthday and gradually became familiar with it "through the closed doors of her bedroom." The project was assembled in conjunction with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and Danish folk/jazz/rock band Eggs Laid By Tigers of whom, Martin Dahl was charged with the unenviable task of singing all the lead vocal parts. Additionally, multi-instrumentalist Stuart Hall, and a long-time associate of Bates, made vital contributions to the album.
The title track stands out for Bates's idiosyncratic arrangement which inserts an extra beat into the piece, sounding disconcerting at first but adding a certain piquancy to the song. As expected Ringo's showpiece "With A Little Help From My Friends" is segued straight in (as do most of the tracks), and Dahl does a good substitution of the slightly dour original, Bates insinuating some of his trademark decorative keyboard motifs.
Dahl manages to exact just the right amount of pathos out of "She's Leaving Home" and "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and "Getting Better" are inflected with more big band jazzy arrangements with noticeable saxophone incursions courtesy of Tony Lakatos on tenor saxophone. "Fixing A Hole" benefits from the excellent stinging guitar work by the redoubtable Martin Scales. "Within You Without You" is afforded just the right dreamy Harrison touch by Hall's measured deployment of violin.
"When I'm Sixty Four" receives a pseudo-trad, clarinet-rich treatment which seems highly appropriate given the subject matter. Dahl even manages to get the right Liverpudlian accent inflection on "Chuck" as in "Chook." By contrast "Lovely Rita" gets a vibrant big band arrangement plus a quirkily eccentric keyboard incursion by Bates. The entrancing version of "A Day In The Life" remains faithful to its predecessor, containing the obligatory upwardly spiralling orchestral crescendo culminating in an ensemble E note and final sustained piano / keyboard chord. Beatles fans of a certain age will not be disappointed by the addition of 40 seconds worth of the bizarre run-out groove cut into the vinyl pressings.
Although this recording takes a little psychological adjustment in respect of the vocals, after a couple of plays it becomes apparent that this is an entirely different suite of music, albeit lovingly based on the Beatles's magnum opus, but able to stand on its own merits. If anything, the original songs are strengthened by their (mostly) subtle alterations. Additionally, this album makes you rush for the original as if better to savour the distinctions between the two. Whilst it would be untrue to say that Bates has taken "a sad song and made it better" he has definitely managed to reveal Sgt Pepper's "Inner Light."
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