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Django Bates: Tenacity

John Kelman By

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Django Bates: Tenacity
It's been a long time since that late May, 2013 week in Luleå, Sweden, where pianist Django Bates and his Belovèd Trio first collaborated with the renowned Norrbotten Big Band. Fully documented in the All About Jazz article Django Bates: From Zero to Sixty in Five Days, Bates, bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun, along with other non-Norrbotteners, including guitarist Markus Pesonen, tubaist Daniel Herskedal and trombonist/vocalist Ashley Slater, made the lengthy trek to this small coastal town, located just 100 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle (and already experiencing 22 hours of daylight), to collaborate with Norrbotten for an appearance at the first edition of Luleå's New Music Festival. The objective was for Bates and his band mates to bring a brand new book of music to life, the pianist largely expanding arrangements of Belovèd's existing repertoire, but also including a commissioned new work from the festival.

The pianist was commissioned to compose what would become "The Study of Touch," but, in order to come up with a full set of music, Bates also adapted music culled from Belovèd Trio's two recordings for the pianist's Lost Marble imprint: 2010's Belovèd Bird and 2012's Confirmation. The trio's albums mixed Bates originals with significantly re-imagined material either written or made popular by the late bebop progenitor, altoist Charlie Parker.

After five days of rehearsal and a premiere performance at the New Music Festival on June 1, 2013, Bates' Belovèd Trio, along with the Norrbotten Big Band and added musicians, went into Studio Acusticum, located in nearby Piteå, to document the music they'd made in the more controlled environment of a recording studio. But it was to take over seven more years before the finished recording would see the light of day as Tenacity.

And it was well worth the wait. But in the meantime, Belovèd Trio ventured into Oslo's renowned Rainbow Studio, recording its ECM Records debut, The Study of Touch (2017), in June, 2016. In addition to being the first recording of Bates' New Music Festival commission, it largely strayed from the trio's previous emphasis on Parker's music, with all but two of its eleven compositions written by Bates. This includes the BBC Radio 3/Cheltenham Jazz Festival commission that was also performed with Norrbotten in Luleå, "We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way."

Not all of the music that Belovèd and Norrbotten performed in Luleå has ended up on Tenacity, though the swirling, near- chaotic "Gorgiantics" did find its way onto The Study of Touch, albeit in a considerably more subdued and spare fashion. But with the exception of Tenacity's opening "Cordial" and closing title track, it's possible to compare and contrast the album's expanded arrangements with the versions on Belovèd's three trio recordings. It's quite remarkable to hear just how different they often are.

There are certain definers that carry across Bates' writing and arranging. Not just mixed meters, but different parts of the group playing different meters concurrently. Not just shifting tempos, but different parts of the group playing different tempos at the same time. It made for challenging rehearsals in Luleå, as Bates sometimes deconstructed a composition, even working on a mere two bars because, as bassist Petter Eldh explained, back in 2013: "When he starts with those two bars, it's often because they're the key to the song. The core of the song. If you get that, you get everything. Much of Django's writing is based on some pretty simple building blocks or continuous building blocks. He plays a lot with time, too, compressed and expanded."

A perfect example of Bates' temporal stretching and compression is in his arrangement of Parker's classic "Donna Lee," a song known to any bassist who has ever tried to navigate its knotty lines as performed by Jaco Pastorius and percussionist Don Alias, on the opening track to the bass phenom's leader debut, Jaco Pastorius (Epic, 1976).

The song, composed by either Parker or trumpeter Miles Davis, depending on whom you ask but certainly made famous by the altoist, who first recorded it in 1947, is complex enough on its own with its intrinsic intricacies. Still, Bates' arrangement is more challenging still. Omitting the rubato 30-second, largely solo piano introduction from Confirmation, Tenacity's "Donna Lee" dives right into the deep end, with head-scratching metric and tempo shifts from different parts of the 17-piece group.

The way I started writing," explained Bates back in 2013, "was that I wrote a bass line, which really has nothing to do with 'Donna Lee' [sings]; it has a built-in slowing-down effect, and it's kind of hard to explain why, since it wasn't derived from the original material in 'Donna Lee' at all. It's almost like a very deliberate way of putting everything in a different context and then seeing what happens. (...) Then I started putting the melody on top of that, and obviously I had to stretch it here and there. And that's when it started to get really fun, because lines that used to be continuous eighth notes with the occasional triplet became very elastic. And I think the way I can justify that, the way I justify everything to myself compositionally, is that it's an attempt to recreate Parker's very floaty, flexible approach to time in his solos."

What's most remarkable about "Donna Lee" is something that has defined Belovèd Trio all along, but is rendered even more dramatic with the addition of saxophones, clarinets, flutes, trumpets, trombones, electric guitar and tuba. The track may only last a little over six minutes, but it's chockablock with interlocking lines, starts and stops, full-on big band sonics and the more reductionist sound of piano, double bass, drums and, at times, Pesonen's more textural work on electric guitar.

That Parker's familiar, serpentine melody doesn't really appear until near the song's end is curious, in and of itself. And even so, the melody is only delivered as repeated fragments played by saxophones and clarinets, peppered by trumpet shots, leading to a passage where it feels like a sticking vinyl recording. The piano trio makes a brief appearance on its own, leading to a momentary chaos that resolves back into time (sort of), as an accelerating fragment from the original composition resolves into a definitive conclusion.

David Raksin's "Laura," originally written for the 1944 film of the same name and first recorded by Parker in 1950, approaches the deeper balladic beauty heard on Belovèd Trio's Belovèd Bird, especially in its opening moments where it's just the trio. But, even as horns reiterate the theme with a greater sense of drama and Bates improvises freely underneath, this brief, three-minute reading begins, once again, to play freely with time.

A brief but memorable—and absolutely, characteristically Bates—moment comes midway through the song. As Eldh and Bruun adopt a slowly moving sense of swing, Bates solos, briefly accompanied only by the bassist and drummer, as the entire trio stops momentarily, with Pesonen injecting three discordant, a cappella harmonics before the trio resumes. With the guitarist contributing even more oblique sonics, Bates turns more idiosyncratic still, with Eldh and Bruun managing to magically remain completely connected with the pianist. Bruun expands and compresses the tempo before a climactic blend of horns, flutes, clarinets and saxophones lead to a concluding section where, in, out and around Bates' mix of form and freedom, various members of Norrbotten repeat a key six-note fragment from Raksin's melody, until a descending series of trills take the tune out.

The song is a reflection of just how symbiotic this trio had become by 2013, with a few years of playing under its collective belt. It's that very mitochondrial connection, shared by Bates, Eldh and Bruun, that allowed Belovèd Trio's collaboration with Norrbotten, Pesonen, Herskedal and Slater to become more than just a "trio with big band" project. Instead, the ensemble evolved, over the course of five days in May, 2013, into something more fully integrated and singularly amalgamated.

It's this very organic fusion of 17 musicians into a decidedly singular entity that breathes together as one, that renders Tenacity such a commanding and compelling recording.

While released first on Bates' ECM debut The Study of Touch, two of its original compositions were first recorded on Tenacity, along with two additional Bates originals that bookend Tenacity.

The opening miniature, "Cordial," commences with the Belovèd Trio in complete freedom for about five seconds. Eldh's double bass pedal tone then introduces a four-note motif, repeated three times over a mere 35 seconds, demonstrative of Bates' ability to draw rich, positively gorgeous textures from the Norrbotten Big Band, as he sets the stage for what's to come.

Bates' brief album-opener acts as a lead-in to a largely swinging, more through-composed look at Parker's "Ah Leu Cha" that, at just three-and-a-half minutes, contrasts significantly to the darker, more atmospheric and impressionistic 19-minute version that closes Belovèd Bird.

Still, Bates' sometimes quirky, occasionally witty and always astutely thought-out reinventions of Parker's music makes his Belovèd Trio and, in particular, its collaboration with Norrbotten, something undeniably special. "Ah Leu Cha" ultimately breaks down from its large ensemble beginning to, halfway through, a gentler, open-ended spot for the Belovèd Trio, as it combines references to Parker's composition with delicate free play. Still, as is true of much of Tenacity, there are more ideas to be found as Bates, Eldh and Bruun's lovely, wordless vocal harmonies, supported only by the pianist's delicate accompaniment, close out the final 40 seconds of this inimitable re-imagining of a Charlie Parker classic.

The album's title track closes out Tenacity. A cacophonous blend that is, at times, driven by Eldh's pedal tone but elsewhere underscored by Bates and Bruun's reckless abandon, "Tenacity" brings in various elements from Norbotten, most notably soprano saxophonist Hakan Brostrom and clarinetist Jan Thelin, who float melodies atop Belovèd's unpredictable foundations, either alone or in harmony. Then, out of the ether, the four-note motif that so defined the album-opening "Cordial" suddenly emerges once again as a repeated, lushly harmonized pattern that, over the course of a touch over 60 seconds, ultimately draws Tenacity full circle.

"We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way" is approximately the same length as the versions found on Confirmation and The Study of Touch. The two trio readings demonstrate the trio's evolution across the span of a few years, but the expanded version on Tenacity takes fuller advantage of the composition's idiosyncratic foundation while, at the same time, allowing for the kind of liberty mixed with fixed arrangement modules that is rarely heard so successfully in a larger ensemble context. Peter Dahlgren takes a freewheeling solo, bolstered by a rhythm section whose tremendous temporal latitude not only challenges the trombonist but, in a clear push and pull of ideas, results in one of Tenacity's most exhilarating moments.

Beginning almost identically to the version on Belovèd's ECM recording, Tenacity's slightly longer look at "The Study of Touch" begins with the trio on its own, before Broström enters a little over two minutes in, doubling a lovely theme with Eldh, as the rest of Norrbotten gradually enters and the composition dissolves into greater freedom, with the saxophonist delivering another of Tenacity's more thrilling passages. Form and freedom intertwine, interweave and interlace as Broström's solo gradually returns to the composition's introduction, and an impressive, unrestrained tenor solo from Karl-Martin Almqvist.

"There are these tempo shifts, which also reflect a new element in Django's music: it's not a metric modulation, it's not a related tempo, it's just picking a new tempo, which is what's going on in Karl-Martin's solo," reflected Eldh about "The Study of Touch" back in 2013, while Almqvist astutely observed that "playing music this loose gets harder the more people there are involved."

Indeed, what's perhaps most remarkable about Tenacity is how, over the space of just five days' rehearsal, Bates managed to bring Belovèd together with Norrbotten, Slater, Herskedal and Pesonen, building a repertoire that is irrefutably some of the most challenging music the Swedish big band had ever played. And yet, recorded in the days following its June 1, 2013 live premiere, it feels as if this collaboration had been ongoing for years.

Stylistically, compositionally, temporally and improvisationally unbound, Tenacity possesses the sense that Bates' original material and arrangements of music played or made famous by Charlie Parker is like a house of cards. Even more accurately, Tenacity feels like its 17 musicians are standing on the precipice, centimetres away from falling into the abyss, even if they never do. And if there are moments when the ensemble feels like it's gone into free fall, one of the musicians or, more often Bates, invariably manages to pull everyone back from the chasm. Bates' many visual cues may be impossible to discern on record, but were readily visible at his New Music Festival performance.

Also impossible to experience on Tenacity are the moments where Bates suddenly, completely unexpectedly leapt from his piano to dance, with complete abandon, around the stage before returning to his piano to conduct the ensemble. But if Bates' utter joy cannot be seen it can absolutely be felt throughout the extraordinary Tenacity, an album that may represent no mean feat to internalize, but which will reward any who accept the challenge.

Track Listing

Cordial; Ah Leu Cha; Donna Lee; Laura; Confirmation; We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Out Way; The Study of Touch; My Little Suede Shoes; Star Eyes; Tenacity.

Personnel

Django Bates: piano; Petter Eldh: bass; Peter Bruun: drums; Hakan Brostrom: saxophone, soprano; Karl-Martin Almqvist: saxophone, tenor; Peter Dahlgren: trombone; Ashley Slater: trombone; Björn Hängsel: trombone; Daniel Herskedal: tuba; Markus Pesonen: guitar, electric.

Django Bates: vox (2); Petter Eldh: vox (2); Peter Bruun: vox (2); Jan Thelin: clarinets; Mats Garberg: flutes; Per Moberg: baritone saxophone; Bo Strandberg: trumpet 1; Magnus Ekholm: trumpet; Dan Johansson: trumpet; Jacek Onuszkiewich: trumpet; Björn Hängsel: bass trombone.

Album information

Title: Tenacity | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Lost Marble

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