Django Bates: From Zero to Sixty in Five Days
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]."