Django Bates: From Zero to Sixty in Five Days
“ Then I thought, 'Maybe it's me; maybe it's because I've been working with the Beloved Trio playing this Parker music; maybe it's that I've been invited to a meeting in Luleå, and that was a big commitment.' So I thought, 'Why not. Why NOT?' Django Bates ”
It was especially so when the artist in question was renegade British pianist/horn player/composer Django Bates. Since first gaining national and international attention through his workboth with Britain's legendary large ensemble Loose Tubes and, concurrently, as a member of Bill Bruford's first incarnation of the Earthworks band (which increasingly occupied the progressive/art-rock drummer-turned-jazzer's attention through to his retirement from public performance in 2009) Bates has gone on to become a hugely respected and influential artist in his own right, winning awards including Denmark's renowned Jazzpar prize in 1997.
With a discography that includes a trilogy of cryptically titled and musically challenging sets on then JMT, now Winter&Winter (1993's Summer Fruits (and Unrest), 1994's Autumn Fires (and Green Shoots) and 1995's Winter Truce (and Homes Blaze)), as well as band-member appearances on notable recordings such as Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen's two stellar ECM recordings (1990's So I Write and 1993's Exile), Bates has earned a reputation as a composer for large and small ensembles and as a performer who brings no shortage of wit, wisdom and warmth to any project with which he's associated. This reputation has continued to build over the course of two decades and has led to important educational positions for Bates. A now-completed five-year run in Copenhagen also saw the emergence of his StoRMChaser band, whose recorded debut, Spring is Here (Shall We Dance?) (Lost Marble Recordings, 2008), finally completed his "Four Seasons" series in impressive style, albeit after a 13-year gap.
Bates has recently secured what appears to be an open-ended professorship in Bern, Switzerland that seems tailor made for a musician who needs time to tour and, most importantly, to thinka luxury increasingly less afforded to contemporary jazz musicians who now spend more time traveling to gigs than performing in them, and who normally hve to stretch themselves in order to make ends meet. It's also the kind of position that allows Bates the freedom to accept what was clearly a unique challenge: to take the music played by his current Beloved Trio and, with a newly commissioned piece also part of the project, collaborate with northern Sweden's world-famous Norrbotten Big Band, a fluid large ensemble that's garnered significant international attention for albums such as Worth the Wait (Fuzzy Music, 2008) and The Avatar Sessions (Fuzzy Music, 2010)the latter recorded in New York's legendary Avatar Studio and featuring the music of trumpeter Tim Hagans, who was the big band's Artistic Director and Composer-in- Residence from 1996-2010.
Bates' current trio represents a number of firsts for the pianist. Named after its debut recording, 2011's Beloved Bird (Lost Marble), the trio represents the first time in the pianist's career that he's worked regularly in a conventional piano-trio formatalthough with Bates involved, the only real given is that the word "conventional" belongs in no sentence also sporting the pianist's name. While the group's raison d'être has been to celebrate the music of bebop progenitor saxophonist Charlie Parker, its two recordings to date- -including its most recent, Confirmation (Lost Marble, 2013)reflect a group whose irreverence for the music is as deep as its respect.
The trio actually played completely free for its first year, before any written music was introduced. Swedish-born bassist Petter Eldh recalls, "I met Django for the first time in Trondheim [Norway], where I was part of a one-week project. I was a student at that time, and there were students from different high schools and music conservatories from around the Nordic countries. So we went to Trondheim and played some of Django's music in a big-band setting for the whole week. That was seven years ago and was my first introduction to playing his music."
Danish-born drummer Peter Bruun's introduction was similar, but dates further back: "I was studying at the Copenhagen Conservatory and, in my first year ('98), Django had a workshop there but I didn't see Django after that workshop until he started his professorship at the Conservatory around 2005 or '06. By that time, Petter was studying at the Conservatory and Django was in charge of selecting different teachers to lead these one-week combos. I was invited as a teacher to play some of my music and to improvise a little bit, and Django made sure that Petter was in my combo. I don't know if he made sure that the drummer in the combo was really, really stoned and was only there for the first two days and then felt a little bit low in energy; I don't know if he was paid to do that [laughs]. But anyway, we got to playing a little bit and that was the first time we worked together. And then there's Django's version of the storywell, one of the storiesthat he was outside the door listening."
Bates picks up the story: "It was a really happy coincidence. Normally, you have an idea for a band that comes from a musical concept, and you turn up to the first rehearsal with something. There's the story of Sonny Rollins showing up to record the music for the film Alfie with one scrap of paper with a tune that goes: [sings theme]. The line itself is incredibly repetitive, and then you repeat that repetitive line. That's brave; that's real courage.
"Anyway, I took it one step further and started with nothing at all," Bates continues, "which meant that we built up an internal sound and understanding of each others' playing by trying all sorts of tempos that we might not otherwise have tried had we done set arrangements. Sometimes we'd say, 'Let's just play as fast as possible for as long as we can sustain it,' or 'Let's play as slow as possible for as long as we can sustain it.'"
Eldh interjects, "We would play free and then have a massive hang afterwards, so that was the routineno, not a routine, a ritual."
"I think that's part of the reason that we very quickly decided to memorize all the music [for the Norrbotten project]," concludes Bruun, "because the energy and that feeling that we have we wanted to add naturally to the complexity of Django's written music, combining it and making it a little shady ... even stretching the time. That's a lot easier when you don't have to follow a written timeline."
"So then, when after at least a year, a gig accidentally came along, I was called and asked if I wanted to be part of the celebration of Charlie Parker's life at the Jazzhouse in Copenhagen," Bates continues, returning to the story, "and I thought, 'Yeah, this is time to get more specific with the trio.' So I did some arrangements, took them in, and everything we did in our free playing made it so bloody easy to play the music together."
"We have one element in the trio that's always an option, and that is to just break free from anything written at any time," adds Bruun. "There's always this option of coming back, and it's so easy to come back because we just need two notes, and then we know: OK, we're back on track. That's something that we have a harder time doing with the big band."
This is no real surprise, as Beloved Trio's two recordings not only take Parker tunes such as "Confirmation" and give them plenty of rhythmic twists and turns, and accelerations and decelerations, but also introduce Bates' original compositions: writing that makes total sense side by side with his sometimes knotty, sometimes more straightforward Parker arrangements. Confirmation even includes a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, "A House is Not a Home," sung by ex-Loose Tubes mate, trombonist Ashley Slater, and it also magically fits in as if it were written specifically for the project.
How this commission came to beas a part of Luleå's New Directions Festival, a first-time event that was more predicated on contemporary classical music but also included improvised music from artists like Bates and Greek singer Savina Yannatouis a story in itself. Bates explains, "I've had a few big bands in my life, and I've been in a few after Loose Tubes, when I came to start my own thing. I deliberately removed some of the brass, so I went for a more orchestral, lighter sound with a bit more textural possibilities. So I had a French horn and only two trumpets, trombone, bass trombone, tuba and flutea more orchestral concept.
"I built up this big library of music for StoRMChaser, and what happened, as a result of that, is I would receive invitations to meetings where they'd say, 'We have a big band, we have musicians on salary, and we'd like to do a project.' They'd talk about my music and what the lineup is, and the conversation would always end up with, 'Oh well, maybe not this time then; we'll speak again.' I don't think any of these bands managed to believe that I was so crazy as to turn down these opportunities time after time [laughs].
"One of the reasons I did it was that I deliberately wanted to avoid writing for the traditional big-band lineup, so it kind of suited me that these projects never came off. Occasionally a band would say, 'Yeah, OK, we can get the extra French horn, and we can find the piccolo and a flute,' so it did happen every once in a while, where the StoRMChaser music would be played by another band.
"So, many times that's what happened. But when I came out here for meeting, it was two flights, so there was already a commitment for a meeting, but I already had the conversation in my mind that it was going to go the way it always does. So we had the conversation, and I said, 'Yeah, I've got this music, and it's blah, blah, blah. It requires a singer.' And they went, 'Yeah, but it doesn't really work'the usual conversation.
"But then I thought, 'You know what? There's something different this time.' Maybe it's me, or maybe it's because I've been working with the Beloved Trio playing this Parker music, or maybe it's that I've been invited to a meeting in Luleå, and that was a big commitment already. So I thought, 'Why not. Why not? Let's invent a project right here and now.' So I said, 'OK. I'll write for your band, arrange all this Parker stuff and a few of my things that we do with Beloved for more or less your lineup.' And they said, 'That's great; let's do it.'"
With a set project, a set date and a set commitment, Bates went to work. "I wrote down all the tunes I wanted to arrangea rough plan of which places in those tunes I wanted all these horns and where I wanted to keep the focus on this little trio. So there was a bit of a balancing act to think about," he recalls. "I had a big list on the wall, with these 12 pieces, and it was great to have such a big chunk of work. Because it was arranging existing stuff, I could really just take it onlike being commissioned to write a book where you already have all the facts, and you've been dreaming a bit about it all your life, so it's all in there, and it's like that [snaps his fingers] to turn it on.
"That process [writing the arrangements] lasted three or four months, in between all the other stuff I do, but it was quite easy to get back from the day teaching and go, 'Yeah, that would feel nice to just sit down and wind my way through all this material, and each time I ticked one off, it was a very nice feeling. And then finally they were all ticked off, and I had a few months of waiting and thinking, 'I wonder if it will work?'
"You never really know, because it's a little bit different. We have a very strong individual trio at the heart of it, and if I was insensitive about it and wrote too much for everybody else and arranged everything ... The trio really thrives on silence, in a way. Although we play very dense music, it always comes from a possibility of silence, particularly because of the way Peter [Bruun] plays. There's so much space in his playing; even when he's busy, you notice the cymbals have a very full sound to them but are quite short; they don't ring all over the place."
What has always made Bates' compositions so compelling is the sense that he's not just challenging other musicians with his writing; he's also challenging himself. "Actually, the Parker arrangements that I've done for the trio have a lot going on, on the piano; that's what gives the music its flavor," Bates explains. "I didn't write them at the piano; I wrote them on paper or on a computer, which means that when I go to learn them, I'm faced with questions like, 'That's interesting. How am I going to get from this note to that note and play that chord?' That was the point, really. I didn't want to play something I already knew. If you sit at the piano and write, you'll write things that are easy; but if you don't, you'll write something that hasn't been heard or played beforeat least, more likely.
"So if I take the piano partsthe bass line, sayand assign them to each of the horns, then I've already got the beginning of a big-band arrangement. That isn't enough, though, because you want to use the possibilities that the extreme highs and the extreme lows [of a big band] provide. You might decide that OK, with this little passage here I want some of the sounds of those instruments, but I don't want it to be clouded, so I'll put piccolo on the very top of the bass clarinet on this middle line. It's almost like adding a weird reverb to the trio, adding an emphasis on a certain line at a certain time, and that's really the process. Other times, in a particular part of the music, we'll always take it to the max in terms of volume and intensity, so I'll have everybody playing.
"I really like, in the 'Donna Lee' arrangement, where the horns all stop, and you're left with just the trio, plus the guitar doubling the melody in the way I stretched it. When it goes down to that trio plus guitar, it sounds like an underwater jam session or something, because of the time stretching written into the arrangement."
The guitar Bates refers to belongs to Markus Pesonen, a young Finnish six-stringer who was one of a couple of additions to the Norrbotten big band, which also included Norwegian tubaist Daniel Herskedal and Ashley Slater, who flew in from London to both play second trombone in the big band and sing "A House is Not a Home," which Bates planned to include in the Luleå program.
"It was this lovely big accident that led to this," says Bates of his arrangement of "A House is Not a Home." "First of all, I had this idea. We played this Parker tune, 'A-Leu- Cha,' and the trio sang these very nice-sounding 'Oohs.' We'd already recorded that piece on the first album. When it came to the second album, I was thinking, 'Damn, it's a shame we can't do the singing, because it's a part of the band now,' so I was looking out for a piece where we could do just that and picked up a book of Bacharach songs, flipped to the page of 'A House is Not a Home' and came to the point, halfway through, with the word 'goodnight' and started playing around with that word, with a groove underneath it, and thought that it would be great for the vocal thing.
"So it came from an odd place," Bates continues. "It came from my desire to have the band sing. I did an arrangement of it but had the singing introduced gradually each time that phrase comes around, and then I started thinking, 'Who's going to sing this?' The band used to sit around, every night on tour, listening to singers hundreds of different versions of that song, eventhinking, 'She's good; he's good.' We had some weird people on the list, including the guy who recorded that song originally, Brook Benton, and we were all listening to it and saying, 'Wow, that's really nice. Nobody's heard of this guy; he's going to work for the gig. Good, it's going to work.' I'd also done a gig with him as a kid at some pub somewhere, not knowing who he was. Unfortunately, gone, I'm afraid.
"Sidsel [Endresen] happily agreed to have a look at it and consider it. And so we went into the studio and recorded it with her in mind. I played the melody at the speed that I thought she could sing itjust one note, which you would think would work, but actually I was really just not convinced. Let's say it was a great experiment. So I played the melody on the piano, and we all went in as a trio, played along with melody around it, and then came in, listened to it and went, 'Wow, that's really weird the way we had to speed up there to fit with melody, but I think it'll be OK; would it be OK if we stretch this little bit here?' It just got more and more complicated, but it was nice: a nice complication. I added the celesta and Peter the bowed cymbals and instrumental effects.
"And then, at a certain point, Ashley [Slater]'s name came into my mind, and I listened to a piece that he'd sung called 'Private Sunshine'a lovely track where he sounds like a real crooner, with that [British] accent and growly voice. So I called him, and he said, 'Sure, man, I'd love to give it a try, but I can't sing that high anymore.' And I said, 'It's pretty low.' Later, he told me, 'When you sent me that demo, with you singing along with the studio version, it's the first and only time I've spent hours and hours practicing something and rehearsing and singing something to try and get everything to slot in exactly in place as it is there.' So when he came in and put the voice down, it all started to make sense. Also, he sang one of the later verses in a very kind of lonely and empty way. The last verse is similar to the first; it was a real challenge for him to sing it.
"Then there was all this play-out at the end, with the singing, and I built up a solo over that with this sound that's meant to sound like the live Charlie Parker stuff I used to listen to as a kid on Bird is Free (Charlie Parker Record, 1961), where it was recorded from the toilet of a club, as I read in a bookI don't know if that's true. It's all wobbly and distorted but very emotional and plaintive, and that's how the solo came to sound like thatwhich is why, when I came to arrange that whole adventure for this big band, I had two Harmon-muted trumpets playing a semitone apart, doubling that melody, which creates the effect of the pitch variation you sometimes get with tape. And it worked, but until today, I'd no idea whether it would or not. On paper, you might think it wouldn't, but there you go."
There were so many revelations in watching Bates guide the Norrbotten Big Band through music that, in the case of "A House is Not a Home," may have sounded simple on the surface but under the hood clearly possessed considerably more complexity. Norrbotten is a real rarity these daysa salaried big band (with a few players, such as saxophonists Karl-Martin Almqvist and Håkan Broström, brought in on a contract basis as required)and, no surprise, it includes some heavyweight players who are equally serious readers. Still, despite the band's being a large ensemble capable of tackling just about anything, Bates' music was far from a cakewalkand when your gig is all about learning new material on a regular basis, being hit with really challenging writing makes it all the more enjoyable, more than just another gig.
To perform music like thiswhich is more than just music for a trio expanded for a big band and, rather than being something that sounds like a trio plus a big band, is meant to sound more integrated, more seamless and to contain a larger palette with which Bates could create various musical permutations and combinationsthere needed to be considerable trust among the leader and the musicians. And there was a lot of work to do to establish that trust, what with only five days to rehearse and with Norrbotten's players having seen the music only a couple weeks before, with no prior section rehearsals. But from the moment Bates walked into the rehearsal room, knowing only a few handpicked musiciansBruun and Eldh, of course, and also Pesonen, Herskedal and Slaterhis approach to getting things started was completely unexpected.
It might seem like the logical choice would be to call a tuneperhaps one of the easier ones (if such tunes exist in Bates' repertoire)and start running it down; instead, Bates picked just a couple of bars to establish a great many things. Prior to walking into the rehearsal room at Luleå's Kulturhuset, Bates explained that, rather than introducing himself and telling the band how he worked, how cues were done and other practical matters, he chooses to get the band playing so that they can figure things out for themselves. So, why the bars he chose?
"It's funny that you picked up on that," Bates remarks, chuckling, "because there's no rock rehearsal ever in the history of time that has ever looped one or two bars. The answer is thatsay it's a phrase [sings]I just know that there's no way that we're going to come to that bar in the course of things and get through it and it's all going to be fine. So it makes a lot of sense to say, 'Let's just look at bar 82 and do it slowly [sings], and then, while you're doing that, they're getting around the fingering aspect of it. Then what you can say is, 'OK that's great. What it needs is an accent on every fourth triplet; that's the point of the phrase, actually.'
"Then you work on that, and before you know it, you've got everyone playing together in a room ... really together ... and that's a moment when all sorts of things happen. People start to feel confident that the whole project is going to work, even though you're just looking at two bars. And that may be looking at two bars that they looked at at home and thought, 'Ah, that's a bit unplayable,' and now they've just played it with everyone else. And then I start to feel more confident. That confidence thing is a big part of the whole process; if you don't keep a handle on that, then opposite will be to go in, count off the piece really fast and stand there looking depressed and not saying anything at the end. It's the worst approach [laughs]."
"When he starts with those two bars, it's often because they're the key to the song," explains Eldh. "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. I experienced this the first time I played with him in the big band when I was 18 years oldvery youngand we went through all this stuff. The first time we played, it just sounded wrong for me, but gradually, within that week, you build a relationship to the songs."
It might seem that when a group is presented with a book of music, it's a clear document that simply requires everyone to learn how to play it and how to play it together, but rehearsals reveal far more of the detail that allows the music to leap off the page and become a living, breathing thing. Sometimes a single bar needs to be rehearsed on its own, for musicians to work out the feel and how it should be played; for example, should the notes be long, or should they be played staccato?
But it gets even deeper than that. There are stories of artists such as Charles Lloyd, in an 2004 All About Jazz interview with Anders Jormin, telling the bassist to "Give me some St. Petersburg." Bates may be considerably less oblique, but he's still prone to instructions that evoke an image as much as an actual musical idea. "Play this like a reggae, as if someone tuned into a radio station playing reggae, and the sun is shining," he told the band at one point during rehearsals.
Rehearsals are often done at slower tempos, to allow the musicians the opportunity to work out specifics like fingering and embouchure but also to become more confident that the music will work. Still, with music as challenging as this, Bates also recognized the need to encourage the ensemble, at one point saying, "It seems like the right time to explain something about this whole project. Don't worry about it; the more we play it, the more it will become obvious. The piece feels a little strange at this point, but it's going to work."
And, true to his word, over the course of those five days, the building of a relationship between Norrbotten and Bates' other musical partners was palpable, as everyone gradually began to develop their own relationships with this book of music. "For meand I'm sure for the whole big bandI think it's been both fun and challenging," says Almqvist. "I really feel I learned a lot of stuff I can use, and it doesn't always happen that way. I mean, you always learn something, but here I learned something about odd meters changing so muchreading and listening to the phrases and really learning to count. Also hearing themthough sometimes I make the mistake of thinking that I understand them from the very beginning, and then I realize I don'tonly then do you start to hear the music. This band [Norrbotten] once played with a very famous drummer, Peter Erskine; I wasn't on that gig, but I heard this story about a tune that was in seven, I think, and everything really wasn't working, so he just stopped everything and said to the band, 'Band, stop guessing.' I think that's very funny because it could be true that you're actually guessing instead of counting or getting an understanding so that you hear the music and feel it."
Feeling the music is no mean feat when it's this complex. "You learn as you go," says Bates. "What really helps, for example, was that there was a little thing yesterday with 'A House is Not a Home.' There was a point when the trumpets lost confidence that they had any clue how to come in at the right tempo. I tried to say, 'Even if you're not at the same tempo as the Beloved Trio, I'm going to be totally happy with it.' But it's interesting; I'm not really sure if that actually helped, if that's what they wanted to hear. I think the trumpeters wanted to be in time with us, which is a natural response, but it just meant that I had to think about how we were going to get to that bar and through it without them feeling that it wasn't right."
That Norrbotten received the music just a couple weeks in advance of the rehearsals was surprising, even more so that the band did not conduct any section rehearsals before Bates arrived in the rehearsal room on the morning of Tuesday, May 28th. "Not everyone in this band lives in the city [Luleå]," explains Almqvist. "I don't, for example, so unfortunately there was nothing planned, though everybody checked out the music beforehand. But there was a lot of stuff I was looking at that was really, really hard to play; some stuff you realize is gonna be really, really hard, but there's nothing you can do to practice until you are playing with the rhythm section. Django's music is different because it has a lot of time signatures, and, while there is obviously a pulse going through everything, nobody's necessarily playing it so that you can actually hear it, which makes it quite hard. This is music that feels better and better the more you understand how it works."
"One of the biggest tasks was to find this balance," interjects Bruun, "because this is a very different project, and it's not just about reading the notes in a given time. It is so much about the flexibility that we been working on for the last five years as a trio, and we have to go in and know when to be steady and when to be flexible. Django even has this vision that the horns have their own kind of togetherness, even though we are completely apart: dynamics and flexibility within the group sound; maybe that's the quest."
The idea of material in which different sections seem, at least on paper, to be working against each other is often what gives Bates' material its depth and richness, whether in Bates' arrangements of Parker tunes or his own originals, like "Giorgiantics," that made it into the set list for the ensemble's June 1st performance. "It depends on the piece," says Bates. "'We are Not Lost (We are Simply Finding Our Way)' there's that bit we rehearsed where there are three independent tempos going on. So at that point, it's on purpose for me. For me, I think, the effect is that the audience is thinking, 'I have no idea what's going on, but I'm really excited by this.'
"I think the reason for this excitement is that the human brain likes to analyze and understand things. And if it can't quantize something but can tell there is a certain logic to it, then it goes into overdrive for a lot of people, I guess, and I also like that. If there are any musicians in the audience, they are probably thinking, 'I have no idea' [laughs]. I was lucky that when we rehearsed it, I had these three teams that had to stick together: me and the flute and the guitar was one team; the trombone, the tuba and the bass was another; and the drums was a team on its own. I was lucky that, when we rehearsed it, we came out, 'Bang!' together in the right place, and that meant there was no explanation needed."
What Bates has done, in arranging the Beloved Trio's material for a larger context, is to combine an unmistakable love of the jazz tradition with a vernacular that's clearly from another place. Time is a key factor for Bates, whose interest in going beyond the normal occupations of a pianistmelody and harmonyand into the nether regions of, as Eldh said, "compressing and expanding time," is fundamental to music that may possess a veneer of familiarity but is presented in a context so skewed that that its familiarity often only reveals itself further down the road. One example is "Donna Lee," whose familiar melody is, beyond Parker, known to any electric bassist who has done his/her homework on the late Jaco Pastorius (the bass phenom who not just renewed the tune but made it relevant once again through his staggering duo version with percussionist Don Alias on his 1976, self-titled Epic Records debut). Bates' version is so temporally altered as to be barely recognizable.
"'Donna Lee' was one of the later arrangements," says Bates. "The first ones, which are on the first albumsome of them I wasn't sure what kind of balance I wanted to have between myself and Parker's original compositions. I felt I really had to push the envelope and be really far away from the originals at all times. And that worked fine. It was great; I think people got it because it led to a second album.
"But on the second album, I didn't feel that same need to prove anything with the Parker stuff I wanted to arrange. So I could stick quite closely to it: like 'Confirmation,' where there's a change in the first little phrase, but it's a rhythmical change. Something is stretched, and, in a funny way, just changes everything. And then, with 'Donna Lee,' the way I started writing 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. I guess it's a technique that people use when they're brainstorming, trying to find new ideas or inventing stuff. Change the context, and everything means something else.
"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. That's one of the things that came from bebop and affected all improvised music: the freedom in the soloing. It's almost like I wanted to fit all these notes in, so we all have to play them as fast as possible and head for the exit; that's what Parker did, and that's what you hear John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter doing.
"I was lucky that the first time I had a jazz gig, in 1979, it was in a real jazz club in London on an old wharf, and we were the unpaid support band for a year and a half or something, every Friday night. And the bands we were supporting were people like John Taylor, who I didn't really know at the time, Brian Abrahams, Stan Tracey, Henry Lowther, Harry Beckett. And what I noticedor gradually the penny droppedwas that all these people were coming here and playing a whole evening of their own music. It wasn't for any other reason other than that their whole purpose for playing jazz was they wanted to play their own music ... and it suddenly made sense. I mean, I was in the support band, and I'd say, 'Let's play "Dolphin Dance"'a great song with interesting changes, but it wasn't the same thing as, after a few weeks, when I thought maybe I should try and write something for the situation. I wrote a piece that, if I were to look at it now, would be an exercise in playing in a certain key that I thought was horrific, like C# minor.
"When we performed it, it sounded like us trying to play in C# minor [laughs], so it was great, but the idea came from watching people like John Taylorthe music. His writing always challenged the band, and I could see the audience picking up on the excitement and intensity. So, very early on, I was into the idea of writing stuff that wasn't immediately playable but required some rehearsal and some deep understanding. It required me to know what you were playing, for you to know what I was playing and for us to know each other's parts well. That way, we could lock in. That's always been a really enjoyable part of teaching, in fact.
"There was a point when Steve Coleman played at Ronnie Scott's club, and everyone started talking more about rhythm. Around that time, I hired Michael Mondesir to play on a tour of South America. Michael never plays a musical note that isn't about rhythm. I think it's fair to say thatit's infectious, that kind of obsession. By the end of the tour, we were all practicing rhythmical things that he'd showed us, the whole band, and that really changed my writing after that. And now rhythm is much more a part of the bag of tricks, but that sounds terrible. It used to be that when you did a solo, you showed off harmonic knowledge. It was like exploring to the max how far out harmonically you could go. Now you take a guy like Marius Neset [Bates played on the Norwegian saxophonist's critically acclaimed debut, Golden Xplosion (Edition 2011)]; he's played so much with musicians who are obsessed with rhythmic games, and he's right into those games, but he's also into all of the things that a saxophone can do, so that takes it to another level where it's very exciting.
While Bates, Eldh and Bruun got their fair share of solo space in the musicindividually and, more importantly, collectively, just as they do on their recordings there was also some solo space for members of the Norrbotten big band. Both Almqvist and Broström were featured, along with a Norrbotten Big Band regular, trombonist Peter Dahlgren, and as much as it was challenging to bring the written music to life, improvising over it was equally tough, and during the rehearsals some time was allotted to allow the soloists the chance to really internalize the music and to feel how to navigate it; the same opportunity was afforded to Slater, in order get deep into singing "A House is Not a Home."
Since Loose Tubes disbandedBates has, in recent years, been keeping its memory alive with archival live releases including 2011's Dancing on Frith Street and 2012's Säd Afrika, both recorded at London's Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club during the group's 1990 swan song and released on Bates' Lost Marble imprint (with a third one currently in the works)Slater has largely deserted the jazz world, moving from Freak Power (with Norman Cook, later known as Fatboy Slim) to, in recent years, the duo Kitten & The Hip, featuring singer Kitten Quinn, playing music that's been dubbed electro-swing. But in both rehearsals and performance, it was clear that Slater's chops and reading skills haven't diminished one bit; with a song as deep as "A House is Not a Home," Slater's deliverysmooth, but with just the right touch of grit and a perfectly controlled vibratowas perfect, bringing multiple layers to the simply repeated word "goodnight" that took the tune out on a vamp filled with contrapuntal interplay between various groups of instruments.
There's no doubt that Bates' music swingsat least some of the time but it also redefines, to some extent, what that term means. "A very interesting area that could be talked about a lotand it's good that question came up, because so far it hasn't come up much, since a lot of the written parts are either straight eighths, swing eighths or, as on "Confirmation," one piece where there is real swing it's because it's easy to swing a bar of 4/4, but if you have a bar of 9/8, it's not an even number. So it doesn't seem to work, but then you think, 'I'll swing this bit because I recognize it's from the original tuneand it is Parker.'"
At one point during rehearsals, one of the Norrbotten members asked if a certain passage "should swing. Bates' reply, "A little more Euro swing and not so much American ... In other words, you shouldn't swing," brought a round of laughter from the entire big band.
"I didn't really mean it," Bates explains. "The first comment I meant, and the second comment was flippant and funny. What I meant was this: it's hard to generalize, but if you talk about Steve Coleman, he doesn't play American swinging eighth notes, but he does swing. I think of American swing as [Duke Ellington's] 'Satin Doll'; you just can't swing it too much, whereas Euro swing, I'm thinking about Kenny Wheeler's Gnu High (ECM, 1976). It's obviously the ECM world, and yet they're playing jazz. It's very improvisedthey're playing over changes which would normally be something that leads you into a swing environment, but none of them are playing swing. It's strange to call that European swing, of course, keeping in mind that is Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett ... mind you, Dave Holland is English. But essentially, it's the two notes closer together. With Duke Ellington, the second one is lazy, relaxed, sassyany of those wordswhile the other one is a bit more uptight [laughs]."
Watching Bates at work was, indeed, a revelation. He is a bandleader who managed to get everything he wanted and more from his ensemble. His approach was undeniably firm and pragmaticthe epitome of benign leadershipand yet he was also completely open to ideas from the band, and not just musically. Sometimes the notes on a page are what they are, but interpreted, for example by an instrumentalist like Pesonen, they come to life through the guitarist's command of color and texture. "I've usually a couple of things to say about the sounds," explains Bates. "Mostly what I say are things like, 'I really like that. Feel free to do more, to go further in that direction.' I think I may have also said, 'Can you be more African' in "Donna Lee," with that little Africo melody. When I had the meeting here, they said, 'We don't have a guitarist in the band as a regular member,' so I was thinking, 'OK, so one option is to not have one.'
"This is new music, after all, so, starting from nothing, there were those kinds of decisions to be made," Bates continues. "But I thought I'd really like to have a guitar on this project. It's funny because, in a way, I'm so worried about overpowering the trio; on the other hand, I was also concerned about not turning the trio into the rhythm section of a big band. I thought the guitar is such a wonderful coloristic thing that can stop a big band from sounding like a traditional big band with just one flip of switchand especially with Marcus. There were various possibilities to do this gig; I haven't played with Marcus since StoRMChaser in Copenhagenhe was in that bandso I wasn't really sure what he was up to, but I always remembered him as being a very experimental, very open- minded guy. He'd come to class and say, 'Oh, I just read this book by Morton Feldman; it's really amazing. Check out this chapter here.' It's been very nice having him around."
But even as Pesonen began to work with effects pedals, a bow and other extensions of his instrument, the rest of the Norrbotten Big Band was facing its own separate challenges. Between mixed meters and actually mixed tempos, Bates' music was the kind of challenge the band rarely receives. "Petter was talking about freedom in the music, about being flexible enough to make some slight changes in time; all that is really hard for us who are reading everything," says Almqvist, a few days into rehearsals. "It was hard from the beginning, when you're playing a tune that's in 4/4, and you notice it's slowing down. But I feel, now that we've rehearsed for a few days, that we're starting to feel what we heard in the music, so it's getting better and better. Playing music this loose gets harder the more people there are involved.
"I play a lot of different stuff, but it's very seldom that music like this is played, where what you're adding may actually harm something that already existed. Most of the time, you meet, and you're basically on the same level as everyone else. Now we're meeting them [the Beloved Trio], and we are not on the same level in how well we know this music, so it's very different than if everybody gets the music for the first time, and you start reading it and understanding it together at the same time. This is music that Peter and Petter have played for years, and it's totally in their system. We're actually reading it, just trying to figure it out. So there's a very big difference in how we approach the music."
"But then there's the one piece ['The Study of Touch'], where we're all actually on the same level," Eldh adds. "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. Still, it's really been our challenge to not go into the rehearsal room and play this music, expecting the big band to adapt to us. It's been a challenge to keep open-minded, so that we make one band together: a third sound that's not us playing our thing and Norrbotten playing their thing, and you better fit in with our approach. We have to be open-minded and constantly ready to listen to the new sounds coming from the big band."
"Few bandleaders that I really enjoy have Django's open-mindedness and are prepared to accept something completely different than what they intended with their music," says Bruun. "Very often, people bring their own music and have this idea that it's going to sound exactly how they want it to be, and maybe then something else happens, which is even greater or hipper, but they don't hear it because they're too fixated on what they want it to be. You can see this give and take with Django; it's not just a one-way thing. It's not dictation; it's collaboration.
As rehearsals led inevitably to the concert performance on Saturday, June 1st, it became clear that, even though the group didn't begin to run entire tunes through start to finish until the previous day, it was already beginning to gel, starting to coalesce. Still, there's a big difference between rehearsal room and concert hall, so how this show would turn out was anybody's guess. As the group wrapped up the soundcheck and headed for the dressing room, Bates gave everyone one more piece of advice and curious encouragement: "Tonight, be loud and proud, strong and wrong."
If there was one word to describe Bates' approach to the rehearsals and the performance, it was fun. From the pianist's whoops of delight when the ensemble nailed a particularly difficult passage in rehearsal to, in performance, his sudden and completely unexpected leap from the piano to dance, with abandon, around the stage before returning to his piano to conduct the group and bring a tune to its close, it was clear that, for Bates, while music can mean many very different things and represent a broad cross-section of the emotions that make up the human condition, its performance is something that brings him nothing less than tremendous joy.
The other unmistakable component of Bates' musicwhether it was the swirling, near- chaotic lines of his own "Giorgiantics," the ensemble's stretched and compressed version of Parker's "Donna Lee," or Slater's bang-on delivery of "A House is Not a Home"was risk. Whether it was Bates' own frenetic solo during "Donna Lee" or his more lyrical approach to the episodic "Ah-Leu-Cha," which led to the Beloved Trio's gentle, wordless vocalsjust as on Beloved Bird but, in this case, returning to an a cappella piano solo that segued, with absolute inevitability, to "A House is Not a Home"there was the sense that, as together as the ensemble had become after five days' rehearsal, there was still the possibility of the music collapsing like a house of cards. And Bates wouldn't have it any other way.
If all goes well, Bates' Beloved Trio and the expanded Norrbotten Big Band just might be making a transatlantic trek to North America in 2014. In the meantime, with an upcoming high-profile gig at London, England's renowned Royal Albert Hall, Bates returns to BBC's annual Proms series for the first time since 1987, when Loose Tubes shook the building's foundations. On the basis of his performance at Luleå's New Directions Festival, they'd better fortify the 150-year-old venue's foundation and roof, because when Bates, Beloved Trio and the Norrbotten Big Band hit the stage, it's entirely likely that they'll blow the roof off the joint, to the delight of all who attend.
Page 1 (Top): Nick White, Courtesy of Django Bates
All Other Photos: John Kelman