(Reprinted from old DTM, originally posted May 2010. Django Bates is someone I admire intensely; in recent years he’s also become a friend. Thanks to Peggy Sutton and Jazz on 3. Nate Dorward did the transcription.)
Ethan Iverson: Django Bates, where did you grow up?
Django Bates: I grew up on the very southern edge of London, in white suburbia. Quite a boring place, really.
EI: Most of us that play jazz that come from white suburbia have had some experiences that showed us some light to say, “This is what I want to do.”
DB: Yeah. Inside my family home there was another world, everything was about the outside edges, the fringes of art. And my father’s record collection was very much about the extreme end of every style.
EI: Was your father a musician?
DB: Nope, just a listener: an avid listener.
EI: For some reason I think of this tradition of the English eccentric, these people that collect this sort of wild stuff. Was your dad like that?
DB: Yeah, my parents were definitely eccentric, but it was very accidental; it wasn’t studied at all. They were kind of hippies before hippies were invented. They grew cabbages in the front garden, and that was not the thing to do in that area, it really upset the neighbors. I mean, you weren’t even allowed to hang nappies on the line when you did your washing.
EI: What were some of the extreme records?
DB: Um, let me think where to start… the Elmo Hope quintet.
EI: You’re kidding! Your dad had an Elmo Hope record?
DB: Yeah. With a… I can’t remember what it’s called, it’s got a trumpet player on it called Freeman Lee, which I think might be Lee Morgan with a made-up name. But that’s a good example of what I mean, because that record is very sophisticated and detailed composing, within the style of bebop or hard bop or whatever you call it, as opposed to the slightly safer options that might have been easier for someone to collect, living in Beckenham.
EI: For sure. Someone like Horace Silver, for example.
EI: Of course, Horace’s music is very detailed. At the same time, it’s quite a bit easier to both acquire and initially understand than Elmo Hope, I would say.
DB: That’s right. Mingus Ah Um was another big one. And, of all of the Charlie Parker records, the one that was played most and most cherished was Bird Is Free, as it was called then—the live concert. It is so different from everything he recorded in a studio, which was quite… sticking to format, in a way, in its length, structure, and everything…
[Bird is Free contains selections from the 1952 Rockland Place performance.]
EI: I think you’re right that the studio records are not always the gateway to understanding how profound his message is. I had a similar experience: the first Charlie Parker record I loved was none of the studio documents but just him going for it live.
DB: And the way the band plays as well; I mean, it’s verging on free music at times. Except it’s not, it’s held together by a common purpose. But time-wise, I mean, it’s really floating in and out of time, in a great way, with real confidence.
EI: I think there must have been a fair amount of non-jazz as well?
DB: Yeah, gypsy music was big—Romanian, scraping violins and cimbaloms, and all of that part of the world.
When I was four, my family woke me up one morning and said, “Quick, get dressed, we’re going on a trip.” We came out of the house and got into a motorbike and sidecar, and set off on a trip that took us, without any warning, to Romania, what was then Yugoslavia, France, Italy, Austria… My clearest memory is of being given milk in a carved wooden cup, warm, straight from the cow, by Romanian gypsies. And there were musical parts to that trip as well; you know, maybe the gypsy music came back with us after that.
And what else was there musically at home…? Occasionally the radio would be moved onto Radio 3, and that was always a real shock to me; I couldn’t identify the instruments I was hearing at all, and the sound of a whole orchestra playing together. I remember saying, “What instrument is that?” not realizing it was 50 instruments in unison. So that wasn’t part of my musical world that was much talked about or understood, I suppose. My dad later on got really into Schnittke and various people, but as a kid growing up, you know, it was more jazz and various folk musics. Bob Dylan. African music, a lot—the first African music we had was a Zulu choir, a beautiful old Decca record; that was probably the only similar thing you could have found in London at that time, and that really sunk in to me. And later on, Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo, those guys, some of that music.
EI: Well, you can hear in your music these references; you can tell how much you care about different kinds of African music, and also a gypsy strain for sure, and the jazz.
That’s one of the interesting things that can happen with those of us that didn’t grow up in a jazz environment or the classic, American jazz culture: there’s this opportunity to not keep anything out, but to allow it all in. Which is I think an interesting and subversive place to occupy. The Bad Plus does some of the same types of things, I think: whatever you grew up with is what you keep in your music. And you are definitely someone who’s done that.
DB: Yeah. And it’s never seemed like a conscious decision, or something that I’ve thought, “Mm, is this a good idea or is this going to be acceptable?” It was very natural to let it out. In some ways when I play music some part of the emotional element of it is to do with nostalgia. I liked my childhood, and so I’m kind of celebrating that when I play.
EI: Was piano your first instrument?
DB: Yeah, because there always was a piano there in the room, and I considered it a toy like any other toy, like a bicycle, something you can have a go on. I tried to copy what I heard, to a fairly naive degree. And then later on, other instruments appeared in the house—guitars, and at some point a trumpet was a possibility… A trumpet arrived and I took a mouthful of sugar and blew it down the trumpet to see what would happen, and then I was barred from playing that instrument for what seemed like about a year [laugh]… and eventually was allowed back to it. A bit of violin; we had a violin. And my mother was very serious about, if you try and do something you have to have a teacher, and you have to take exams, and it’s got to be serious, and you’ve got to practice and—to a really high degree she was like that. And it was a real pain, but on the other hand it was very good discipline.
EI: Did you play the classical repertoire with a teacher—did you go through some Bach and Chopin and Beethoven and stuff?
DB: Yeah, I had piano lessons for a while; I’ve never had years and years of really serious classical piano tuition, it’s been a little kind of stop and start. And a couple of my teachers were really good. Funnily enough, the last piano teacher I had, which would be back in 1978 or something, was not the most creative or he wasn’t really a composing person, he was just a piano teacher, and that was the one that I probably got the most from. But some of the others, they used to tell funny stories around the music that we were playing, and I guess that was a very good way of drawing me into that world of classical piano.
EI: So when did you play your first gig?
DB: Back in the 1960s there was a big scandal involving the government, various criminals, guns, drugs and models: the “Profumo affair.” One of the guys that had been involved in that was called Johnny Edgecombe, and he appeared out of the blue, telling me that he had a club that was on the River Thames in an old wharf, broken-down building, and would I come and do the support act there every Friday to whoever he booked as the main act? And so that was my first gig, because it was real; there was an audience, it was a real venue, and it was a free hand to play whatever I wanted to, musically.
Although I found it quite hard to find musicians at that stage who knew anything about the music or were interested in it or could improvise or anything, I had a few friends of a similar age who were developing a similar interest in this weird area of music. So we started playing there, and we would be supporting people like Stan Tracey, John Stevens, Harry Beckett, John Taylor, Brian Abrahams, Dudu Pukwana—you know, the best, the most creative of what was happening in Britain at that time. And we’d play a bit, for an hour or something, then there’d be a break, then they’d play.
It was very interesting, because I was playing some of the Elmo Hope tunes, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, “Dolphin Dance,” anything that I’d stumbled across. And then these bands would come on, and all of them would do their own thing, all their own tunes, in their own way, with a different sound. And after a few weeks the penny dropped and I thought, “Ah, yeah, I get it. This is where you express yourself; you do your thing.” So that’s also when I started writing pieces. The first pieces I wrote were just exercises tailored to push us into weird keys that we didn’t normally play or some time signature that we hadn’t tried out.
After a while the next stage of that learning was comparing the effect that we had on the audience to the effect that someone like Dudu Pukwana would have on the audience. And I just remember sitting there and saying to someone in the audience, “Wow, how does he do this? I’ve just realized, we make almost no impact!” [both laugh] And here everyone’s dancing and screaming and so happy and smiling and staring at the stage and everything. And just being aware of that: that was the lesson, to be aware that you have the option, to try and engage fully with the audience.
That gig would have been 1979, I should think. And then suddenly the idea of going to the Royal College paled dramatically, and I just didn’t bother; I thought, “This is what I want to do.” I felt it was all very romantic, because I was supporting this life by doing washing-up in a restaurant back in Beckenham. And that seemed like the most you could possibly wish for in life!
EI: The thought of you playing “Dolphin Dance” on an early gig just warms my heart so much! I also played “Dolphin Dance.”
DB: Yeah. Let’s face it, it’s a great chord sequence, and a lovely tune.
EI: How did you learn it?
DB: How did I learn it? Oh… I’m just trying to remember…
EI: Because my generation in America had this thing called The Real Book, but I don’t know if you had the Real Book over here in 1979.
DB: Yeah, I think someone had a copy, and a couple of tunes had been copied from it and they kind of did the rounds.
At that time nearly all the bands I was in were very studious; it was all about learning. And so we’d get together and play things that we couldn’t play, or listen to things that we didn’t understand, and try and work them out. I’ll give you a good example: the drummer came in with the record of Bill Evans with Jack DeJohnette on drums, Live in Montreux, where they do “Someday My Prince Will Come.” He said, “I’ve been listening to this all week, trying to count through it, and I just can’t work out what the hell they’re doing.” So we all sat there and went 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3… and it was fine for the first chorus, and then 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, er, 1?, “What’s happened to the one?” And it was about a week later before we realized that they just went into 4.
The rehearsals were all like that. And we’d invite various more established jazz people, would they please come and play with us? Then we’d give them our music, and they’d be like… “What IS all this? What are you guys trying to do in here? Why is it all so… awkward (in a way)?” But it’s because we were striving to find a voice, I suppose.
EI: I’m guessing that some of these musicians would be some of the same crew that you would begin to be associated with when you sort of broke through in the mid-Eighties into the Nineties. Is that true? Had you met some of those guys yet?
DB: Yeah, that’s about right, yeah. This little rehearsal trio I’m talking about was Steve Berry on bass, who was a founder member of Loose Tubes with me, and some of the other guys involved were, yes, Iain Ballamy and Chris Batchelor. But I mean, this is going back a long way, so Iain Ballamy was at the very beginning of his playing at that time.
EI: Before we get further into talking about how your career has developed, there’s just a couple of names I wouldn’t mind playing free association with. I know very well that when you’re 20 and learning about the music there are these characters you have to deal with. It’s a very intimate relationship you have with these heroes, where you worship them and scorn them all in the same breath, and you’re in there desperately trying to work it out. So… Joe Zawinul.
DB: Yeah… Joe Zawinul, I became aware of him through Steve Berry, who was a massive collector. Zawinul wasn’t someone I’d grown up with or heard from the beginning and when I heard him, it was a lovely refreshing eye-opener. Just his sounds as much as anything else, or more than anything else. It was like seeing things with a few extra colors in the spectrum. And it kind of coincided with the fact that playing in this club, Johnny Edgecombe’s Club, half the time there was no piano in there, and I had to use something. I guess hearing Zawinul made me see that as not a chore or something to put up with, but actually as a big possibility. I really started to enjoy it, once I got hold of a Prophet 5. That opened up the whole thing with Steve Argüelles, for instance: it was all about that instrument really, a lot of what we did; I’d find a weird sound and something interesting you could do with it, and we’d play from that.
EI: That’s what I always felt with Zawinul (as compared to some of his colleagues), is that the keyboards were a natural extension of his imagination. Some of the other guys would just sit there and play the piano parts on the keyboard.
DB: Yeah—you can’t imagine him without those keyboards around him, can you, somehow?
EI: No! [laughter]
DB: And also I’m sure there’s a lot about his way of composing that really struck a chord with me, because I’d grown up with the folk and the gypsy thing, and I suddenly saw someone… I was going to say “blending” that with jazz, but it’s not a blend, it’s more than a blend, it’s right there at the heart of the music. It’s really folk music, but very sophisticated, beyond what can happen when people sit round a fire and strum and sing nursery rhymes that they know. Obviously it’s got all the sophistication and the striving that jazz has; it’s got all that in there as well.
EI: Do you have a favorite Weather Report record for your desert island?
DB: I like Mr. Gone, because it’s the weirdest, and it’s so fascinating and so experimental. I think that might be the one… But it’s probably one of the shorter ones as well; you know if I’m on a desert island I might need something with a few more tracks on it…!
EI: Well, that’s a nice answer. I’ll have to go back and check out Mr. Gone again. Let me try another name on you: Thelonious Monk.
DB: Yeah… Weird, I didn’t really get Thelonious Monk for a long time. I appreciate it now much more. I think the thing is, he’d play the tune and that was great, and then it would often go into this long desert of people trying to solo over his ridiculous changes, and the drummer just going “ting-ting-ti-ting” and the bass plodding away. And that bit didn’t really work for me. But the tunes and Monk’s own playing do work for me.
[Django and I might have different opinions about many of Monk’s bands.]
EI: I had an agenda in bringing him up: he’s someone I’ve offered in my own defense when people have said about The Bad Plus that there’s too much irony or humor in there! Sometimes I like to turn it around and say, “Well, I’m more in the tradition of jazz surrealism, like Thelonious Monk.” I’m always very connected to the way that he’ll turn everything into a private language; and when he plays standards it’s often ironic. But there’s no reason that you needed to have that relationship as well!
DB: But that makes total sense to me. It’s funny how we talk about having to defend what we do, but that’s another conversation, I guess… “Who do you use for your defense?”
EI: Right. Mingus is another one. He’s also someone that utilizes genre—or utilizes looking at the object from the standpoint of dismantling the object—in a way that’s beautiful.
DB: Everything that he does, he turns it into his own language. Also, he gets such great playing from his musicians: that’s another thing of interest for me about Mingus.
EI: That’s true actually, that some of the famous solos on Mingus records are by musicians who don’t seem to be on other records very much.
DB: Exactly, yeah. And the writing is fantastic as well. You’re just so aware of which instrument is playing which line, and who’s together, and how it all fits together. One funny thing about Mingus Ah Um is that the current CD issue is twice as long as the version I grew up with. Teo Macero had done a very radical hatchet job on this album, and what he’d done was great. It didn’t need those extra choruses, really.
EI: I think it’s fine to put out the complete Miles Davis, the complete Mingus, or the complete Monk for the collectors and the specialists, but I also think it’s important to remember that those records became classics issued as is. I think it’s quite hard to get “just the classic record” these days, especially the Columbia stuff with Macero. It’s a shame in a way.
DB: Well, yeah, because it was very carefully crafted to be that. That’s what you bought, that’s what they wanted us to hear. I assume everyone was in agreement: this is the best version. There’s no need for keeping everything if it’s not working.
EI: Right, absolutely.
DB: I do a lot of editing when I record; take things out. But you didn’t mention Keith Jarrett yet.
EI: Oh, Keith Jarrett!
DB: I felt all through that period that he was sitting on my shoulder watching what I was doing, and I was always questioning whether I’d done it quite as well as he would have done it—and the answer was always no! And that was probably another part of me going towards keyboards as well, as a way of really having some time away from Keith on my shoulder.
EI: It’s true, and he’s even very vocal about saying that keyboards are worthless and everything like that. You know that Keith’s already rejected you if you show up with your Prophet 5!
DB: Exactly! Yeah. And we needed that break from each other…
EI: Right. Well, what Keith did you love?
DB: I loved Shades, Survivors’ Suite…
EI: So the stuff with Dewey and Charlie and Paul…
DB: Yeah. I mean the first stuff I heard was My Song. And hearing that for the first time, not having heard anything ECM-ish before that, was another huge epiphany or hugely exciting moment, let’s say. Just because it did sound like it was coming from another planet, the way it was recorded and everything. And the first time you hear Garbarek, and the first time you hear the notes that he chooses, and they don’t remind you of anything else that you’ve heard before—that was exciting.
And then I got to hear the slightly older stuff with Dewey Redman. And I liked the rawness of that and the realness of the piano sound, for instance, and the freedom in it, and the exuberance of the improvs, and just everything. And the writing: great tunes. Keith is such a sensitive accompanist; I miss hearing him in situations where he’s reacting to a soloist like Dewey.
EI: Yeah, I have a theory that many musicians really loved and reacted to the American quartet. The My Song quartet too, sure. But for whoever I might consider my peers (or for those immediately before us like you or Tim Berne), it’s the Keith group with Dewey that was really very influential. More influential than you might know unless you talked to the musicians about it.
DB: Mm. Yeah, because you don’t hear it talked about much.
EI: No, I don’t think so. What about that solo album, Facing You? I really had to deal with that record.
DB: Yeah, yeah, I listened to that very much. It’s beautiful.
EI: Because he’s also playing in a polystylistic way: he can think about stride and think about boogie woogie and think about future music and think about gospel, and it all just sort of comes out as naturally as breathing with him. It’s quite alarming…!
DB: Yeah. It’s very special.
EI: Well, please, who else? So we’ve got Zawinul, Monk, Mingus and Keith on the table; anybody else we need to address? Bill Evans? I read that you saw him play, Bill Evans.
DB: Mm. Well, I mean, who else, there could be lots of people and lots of piano players and lots of composers, but I think we’ve probably covered the main things at that time. I mean, I remember Iain Ballamy called out of the blue and said, “Hey, do you remember me? I’ve got a gig somewhere; do you fancy doing it?” And then he said, “Who are you listening to these days?” And he always tells me this story, that I said: “Myself.” [Laughter]
But I think there’s some truth in that, really.
EI: It’s very important.
DB: Yeah. What he meant by that question was, “How are you playing at the moment? If I book you for this gig what kind of thing am I going to get?” because he was into a certain musical area at the time. And, yeah—it’s strange to remember feeling that confident back then, to say that.
EI: My friend Bill McHenry in Brooklyn—this was years ago, I hope I’m not going to embarrass Bill McHenry in the country of England right now, but… you know, you’re starting out and you make a business card, and maybe it says “Saxophonist, composer, all styles,” or something, right? And he made a business card that said: “Bill McHenry: One Style.”
DB: [laughs] That’s great! Confidence!
EI: Because developing your own voice and developing your own scene and figuring out how you’re going to do it—that’s the most important thing eventually. You’re someone that’s really done that, and it’s gone on to be influential; you’ve gone on to be one of the guys people talk about. Dave King and Craig Taborn talk about seeing you play in Minneapolis at a state fair or something with Bill Bruford—you know, with your keyboards and your E-flat horn, and a life-defining moment.
DB: I always like to remember that! It’s an honor to be a part of a young musician’s early, formative musical experiences. That’s why I teach.
EI: There were a lot of great musicians with you at that moment.
DB: Yeah, I don’t know how that happened, I don’t know where all these people came from. I guess there’s a need for musicians and music students to search each other out, to find new sounds and also to learn together how to become great improvisers.
EI: How did you meet Bill Bruford?
DB: Iain Ballamy lived down the road from him in Guildford (another boring white suburb), and they just bumped into each other somehow. Bill Bruford contacted Iain and said, “Yeah, I heard you on Radio 3 jazz program last night; it sounded really good, do you want to get together and have a play? I don’t know if you know about me; I’m a drummer. Have you heard of King Crimson?”
And Iain said, “No.”
“Have you heard of Yes?”
“No… not really.”
And Bill didn’t mind; he thought that was great. He was really relieved, in a way. So they got together and played. And then Bill got a call from a promoter in Tokyo saying, “We need you to come and do three nights. What’s your band at the moment?” And I guess he didn’t really have one at that particular time, so he just said, “Yeah, it’s Iain Ballamy on saxophones and—just a minute!—” you know, put his hand over the phone: “Iain, who do you suggest?” You know, it was a very random moment. And the next thing I knew, Bill was round at my place with all these drums, making pitched weird sounds on a Simmons kit, saying, “Right, I can do this; what can you guys add to it?” And then we just built this music very quickly and went and played it in Japan, and that’s how the band began.
EI: That’s marvelous.
DB: Mm. But me and Iain in that situation were very clear about what was acceptable for us musically and where we didn’t want it to go musically, so we’d share the writing roles between the three of us. Bill was very happy to come in with a drum and pitch-based form, and me and Ballo would kind of melodically just throw paint at it in a way, just have fun with it. Then we’d tweak the harmony. Bill called us the harmony fascists because we changed his progressions when they didn’t follow our rules!
EI: Right. There’s an awful lot of chaos on those records, in such a nice way. I listened to some of them not too long ago and was struck how well they still hold up. They’re very energetic, very exciting, completely strange and ludicrous. I think as time moves on those records are going to stay around as inspiring documents.
DB: I’ve got to listen to them now you’ve said that! Because within that band there were different pressures, forces pushing in different directions. You know, Bill really wanted a break from what he’d done before. He wanted to play jazz, really. And then there was me and Iain thinking, “Hey, this is a chance to do something really different from jazz.” And so there was a bit of a contradiction there, but a creative contradiction.
EI: And Mick Hutton was on bass.
DB: Yeah. Yeah.
EI: I just saw Mick Hutton last time the Bad Plus played at Ronnie Scott’s, and we actually played at the jam session afterwards together.
DB: Oh good. Great!
EI: And Dave and I had a nice moment of—and Reid too—we’re like, “You’re Mick Hutton!” [laughs]
DB: You must have been happy with that!
EI: Yeah, it was a really nice moment. You make a record and it might change someone’s life, but you don’t always hear about that part, you know.
DB: No, that’s true. But, I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but when I compose something or when I record something or when I put something out as a statement, I always have that as an aim and a dream—that it’s going to change someone or some few people’s life or perception of life. Otherwise why would I bother doing it?
One of my first regular gigs was a wine bar in Beckenham. This was before I had a van so I’d take my keyboard there in a wheelbarrow which I’d hide round the back of the club. One night Mick was booked as a sub. I’d never heard of him but as soon as we started playing I was laughing out loud because I’d never played with a real bassist before, it suddenly felt like I was floating! The band-leader had just picked him from the small ads of a music paper; Mick had been a tube train driver before that, I guess he studied Paul Chambers’s lines whilst driving.
EI: Was Bill Bruford and Earthworks before or after Loose Tubes?
DB: They ran alongside each other, and that was quite difficult in a way. There were clashes and it was difficult to decide whether I wanted to go and play in America for two weeks, or do one big gig in Bristol with a band that I loved, Loose Tubes! And yeah, it was tough. Earthworks taught me loads about touring and playing big stages. Bill would remind us that it was pointless to play loads of fast notes in a room with a 5-second delay but I’m afraid we’d ignore him. I now realize he had a point. When the band finished I wrote to Bill saying I thought it was incredible that he’d managed to take 3 ‘unknown, spotty, English kids’ all over America! But Loose Tubes was where I got really a lot of experience in performing and experimenting in front of an audience and getting their attention.
I learnt a lot from Dudu Pukwana as well. One night he played at the Waterside Theatre, Johnny Edgecombe’s venue, and I was very scared of Dudu because he was a very loud and larger-than-life character. So I waited till the end of the gig and then I sat at the piano and played a few of his tunes. He totally didn’t hear it and was just too busy shouting at people. But his wife heard it and she said, “Dudu, Dudu! Quick, come! There’s a young child playing your music.” And he came over and he sat at the other end of the piano and we played together, and it was so wonderful. I’d grown up listening to his records, and because of the pictures on the front of the record I had thought he was thousands of miles away in South Africa, playing in the townships, and there he was living in Kilburn and playing in this club, and there we were, sitting, playing together.
DB: So I did a lot of gigs with Dudu’s band after that, and that was invaluable experience. Harmonically, obviously quite limited or quite repetitive, and that was a great challenge—what to do with that material and keep it fresh night after night after night. And then we’d get in the van the following morning to drive to the next gig, and we’d listen to the whole gig—really loud—in the van, so you’d get to hear yourself and analyze what you’d done. It was great.
EI: Who was on drums for that?
DB: It was a guy called Churchill Jolobe.
EI: OK. Because did Steve Argüelles then play with you?
DB: Yes, he did, yeah. He took over and he did quite a lot with Dudu, yeah. So we both took a lot from that world, musically. Loose Tubes started when I got a call to come to a big band rehearsal. Up to this point I haven’t really talked about big bands, and that’s because there weren’t any in my life before then. So I got a call to come to this rehearsal, and I said, “Don’t think it’s my kind of thing, really,” which is quite unusual for me to say, and it still is. [laughs] And the guy was quite persuasive; he just said, “This isn’t a normal big band; I think you should at least come and give it a try; what is there to lose?”
So I went to the rehearsal. It was put together by Graham Collier, and the music he’d chosen for this project was very different from anything I had listened to or was interested in. It seemed rather intellectual, especially if I’m comparing it to what I was doing with Dudu at the time. But what I immediately saw was an enormous opportunity to write for that many instruments, and it was a huge band, 21 people, with a tuba, bass trombone, clarinets, flutes, all sorts. So he said, “You interested in coming next week?” I said, “Yeah, I think I will, yeah, thanks”—turned up next week with a piece “Eden Express” written for the band, and the band just took a complete change of direction at that point; it became a workshop for the several young composers within it.
And then we got gigs in pubs and clubs. Every time we played it had a massive impact, I think because of the power of seeing so many young people evolving and discovering things continuously on the gig. Stylistically we were up for anything except the intellectual sound that had been Graham’s original plan for the band. And then we got a gig at Ronnie Scott’s, and the press turned up, and it all took off from there. So it’s impossible for me to trace a path through my career without looking back at that first Tubes week at Ronnie’s, because it was really that moment that the possibility of being noticed came to life. And if you’re not noticed it’s very hard to do anything. I mean, you can do it, but no one’s going to know about it.
EI: What’s your favorite of the Loose Tubes records?
DB: It’s a funny question, that, because when I think about my favorite moments of Loose Tubes, they would be gigs or social hanging-out with the band things. But I recently got hold of recordings of the last week that we ever did in a London club in 1990. That’s three nights recorded on multitrack tape, which I have been mixing. So that’s my favorite album; it’s not out yet, but it will be later this year. It reflects the way the band actually was when it was live.
EI: Oh, great! Well, how wonderful; I can’t wait to hear it.
At the time I was aware of Loose Tubes and more aware of Earthworks, but I didn’t know it as well as Dave or Craig Taborn or even Reid Anderson; they knew more about it. But much later, after I’d become quite over-confident that I knew what was out there, Dave King told me, “You’ve really got to check out these records by Django Bates on JMT.” I got them all and I just couldn’t believe it! I thought they were just so remarkable, in part because the core quartet had such extraordinary qualities. Human Chain, which is your old friend Iain Ballamy and Martin France on drums and Mike Mondesir on bass, whose brother is also a marvelous drummer; I heard Mark Mondesir play with Julian Joseph and Courtney Pine long before I heard the great bass playing of Mike.
DB: Yeah, that was a very nice period, it was an outpouring of notes and rhythms. You know, Tim Berne introduced me to Stefan Winter, and we got organized to do the first CD, and I had these two bands going at the time, one was called Delightful Precipice, it was kind of an offshoot of Loose Tubes really, a lot of what I considered the most powerful players from that band. And, as you say, in the core of that, as the rhythm section, was Human Chain. So I had material for both bands, and Stefan somehow allowed me to pour out all this stuff onto the first album with two different bands, which in a way makes it quite hard to analyze or talk about. I think Human Chain got slightly lost in that context; we didn’t do an “only Human Chain” album until 2004. The middle JMT was a solo piano thing, which was very different, and the third album was yet another outpouring of notes from both bands, the big band and Human Chain.
EI: Right. And that’s Winter Truce (And Homes Blaze), which I think is one of the great records of the decade.
DB: I’m very glad to hear that; that’s lovely. It was a very happy time. I was being asked to record all this music—in fact being told, “Come on!,” you know. [laughs] I don’t know how many, it was like three albums in two years or something like that, it seemed like a very fast turnover of music, and I feel a lot of celebration when I listen to that music. There was a lot of surrealism in the music, the album covers, the titles… We were just really taking it out there! And the 19-piece Delightful Precipice had quite a few gigs so we had the experience of playing that music live to people and choosing to be… well, let’s say it was surprisingly uncompromising. We’d do the most outrageous and complex things in that band as an opener at a festival, and somehow get away with it, I think because everyone knew the music backwards and we really could get it across; the joy and confidence in the band was impossible to ignore.
EI: On Winter Truce there’s a piece that’s a sort of a drum showcase for all these impossible rhythms. And then at the end of the piece the band rattles biscuit tins, which is definitely surreal… and, I don’t know, “The Story of Hard Rhythm,” or something.
I think it’d be interesting to try to talk about this in a little more of a general way: the frankly humorous elements have been once in a while misunderstood. I think all your real fans get where you’re coming from, that it comes from a place of such seriousness. Nonetheless, here the band plays this ridiculous hard music perfectly with a drummer that is improvising stuff that’s never been done before… and then you all shake a biscuit tin!
DB: Yeah. I’m trying to remember the recording process, or the writing process, or organizing process—I don’t remember thinking that that was going to be funny particularly, that biscuit-tin thing. I do remember being really intent on finding new sounds, I guess getting quite a hard sound from the big band, and getting away from a big band sound, as well—all of these things. Maybe I didn’t know how to end that piece or something. But I’ll tell you, it was called “X = Thingys x 3 / MF,” and MF is Martin France; so each thing we played, we played it three times, and then it was divided by Martin, since he’s the drummer.
And I have to admit, now you mention it, it relates to something I’d done with Tim Berne and Herb Robertson for the record Nice View. Herb pulled out a piece called “The Third Rail,” and we rehearsed that. And everyone was playing backings over this Bobby Previte groove, and it got to the end, and I said, “Right, and what happens then? Is that the whole thing, or is there some other element to this?” And he said, “No, that’s it.” And I remember thinking, “That’s really nuts. That’s a piece all about backings. I want to do that!” And actually that’s where “X = Thingys” came from: it’s all about just writing some backings, which are repeated three times each.
But to answer your question about humor: it’s been a thread of conversation and question and consternation running through everything that I’ve done. To me it seems like it’s calmed down a bit or it’s become less of a problem, but maybe that’s just because I’ve got so used to it that I don’t even notice it any more. I think it’s going to be interesting with this Charlie Parker music, because that’s an area where people think they know how it should be done, where they can get very upset and think that the bits they are really struggling with must be an attempt to be funny. And I think that’s a wrong turning, when you think that.
EI: Well, absolutely, yeah.
DB: Sometimes it’s OK just to not understand things and just to be OK with that.
EI: I read somewhere Vladimir Nabokov talking about how irony and sincerity can chase each other up this staircase, with neither catching the other. And to me most major art made since World War II—everything you might consider touched by postmodernism, anyway—deals with that issue on some level: that there’s some way that you look at the object as well as just are the object.
I would just like to caution anyone that thinks that Django Bates is just in it for the joke or something, that it’s really not that; it’s a staircase: wherever you think he’s coming from, there’s probably another magical door to go through and find the real emotion.
DB: Nicely put. I wish I could put it in such beautiful language.
DB: No, I’m serious, I agree; it’s deadly serious.
I had a dream, probably before I’d ever done any real gigs, where I was playing and there was an audience and they were crying. And I remember waking up thinking, “Wow, I’d so love that to be true.” And obviously it doesn’t mean they have to cry; it means any powerful response is something to be treasured.
I’m very choosy about everything, actually, but I’m very choosy about what’s funny. I mean, bad funny music is terrible. But as we said, I grew up listening to—from the genre of early jazz, let’s say—Jelly Roll Morton, the best or the most sophisticated and amazing playing. And that’s very funny music. It’s not because he’s trying to be funny; I think it is because it’s so extreme, and the extremities have to have a response. Sometimes extremities make people laugh, but it doesn’t mean they’re funny; it means people have to make a noise or stamp their feet or do something, just to let it out.
I’ll give you another example. I was listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane live in Paris, and there’s a point in “All of You” where they go around a turnaround and Coltrane finds a two-note multiphonic on the saxophone, which works over the first two bars, and then he finds another one, which works over the second two bars. Then he thinks, “Ah, I really like this, so I’ve got to explore this some more,” so he does it again, changing the rhythm slightly, but it’s still just those two chords, and then it’s almost like he gets stuck on them, but you don’t care, you just want it to go on forever, because it’s just so nuts. And then the audience starts whistling! I don’t hear any booing, but I can imagine with a French audience, sometimes you quite often get two completely opposed sides within the audience. Some of them think it’s fantastic, and the others are thinking it’s complete rubbish. And it’s not until he gets that reaction from the audience that he’s able to move on to the next part of his solo. So I was listening to that on the train, and I was just laughing out loud. And again, it’s not because it was [sings corny vaudeville tag]—“joke!”; it’s because it’s such an extreme celebration of life and the possibilities of the saxophone.
EI: Well, one thing that I think is important about the jazz isn’t just humor, but also being entertaining and putting on a show. All these musicians that you talk about—Jelly Roll or Monk or Mingus or even John Coltrane—have a deliberate and embracing outreach to the audience.
Django, I’m pretty sure that you believe in lighting a fire that will make people go, like, “Oh, wait! This is exciting!”—or alarming, or whatever. In my opinion, in a lot of the jazz I know now, there’s too much treating it like a lecture demonstration. And it’s just not the old jazz tradition to treat it that way! You don’t need to put humor in it but at least you should put some entertainment in it: that’s how I feel about it, anyway.
DB: Well yes, it’s meant to be an event; you’ve left your home to go and see something happen. It would be quite strange to purposefully leave home and go somewhere in order to see nothing happen. Actually, I think I’ll try that some time!
Yeah, I know what you mean. Some performances are deliberately quite cold. It’s important for some people not to be seen as an entertainer. For me, it comes up a lot when I’m composing (or when I’m teaching composition). The idea that everything you write is having an effect on people is quite an amazing thought, but it’s the truth. And again, it seems to me that otherwise you wouldn’t do it, you wouldn’t put pencil on the paper or whatever your method, unless it was going to lead to some change in the mood.
EI: Well, there’s no doubt that you treat your records like they are events. After the JMT records there was Quiet Nights on Screwgun. It’s an album of mostly covers, of jazz pieces and other songs, and I’ll just go on record as saying I think Quiet Nights is a masterwork. Then there were a few years before Human Chain came back with a record again with quite a lot of song on it. It’s on your own label Lost Marble.
DB: Between Quiet Nights and You Live and Learn there was a six-year gap, which I remember quite clearly. The JMT stuff got kind of deleted or sidelined or sold to Polygram or something… anyway, it wasn’t available, and gradually anything else that I’d been involved in became unavailable as well. Stuff that I’d put so much writing work into, like Good Evening… Here Is The News, which was Human Chain playing with London Sinfonietta, just kind of disappeared. And I went through this really horrible period of feeling powerless and unheard (from a recording point of view). It took me six years to get over that; that’s the way I see it. It might also be that I just put out so much in those three JMT albums that I had to stop for a while. But I remember long periods of time where I’d wake up every day and my first thought would be, “Ecch, none of my music’s available.”
Eventually I got the energy back together and the band to record You Live and Learn, and spent a lot of time and money on it—it’s quite elaborate, you know, there’s lots of musicians on there; the Smith Quartet, Josefine Lindstrand… even David Sanborn guesting on “Life on Mars!” Then I thought, “What shall I do with this?” I was having conversations with record companies—almost agreeing to put it out on a label… but then, at the last minute, I was having an argument with a producer about some tiny detail, about the cover or something, and I suddenly thought, “What are you doing? You’re just going back into this situation where you’re giving the music to someone who sees it differently to you and wants to put it out in a different way. The title of the album is You Live and Learn, and you’re just making it clear that you haven’t lived and learned!”
So at that point I said, “No actually, no, this isn’t going to work; I’ll put it out myself”—I put it out on Lost Marble, and that was just a lovely feeling of “right, I’m in charge of my own life now.”
EI: Well, one song on that record should have been a hit—maybe it is a hit? “The Interval Song” is classic Django Bates. Whatever we’re talking about, how emotions work, how you’re looking to take it through some magic door that we don’t know, is demonstrated here. I mean, this piece of music which has kind of some sort of hip Brazilian accompaniment to completely untutored child singers singing, “This is a major second, this is a minor third,” etc.
DB: They go through all of the intervals over all of the bass notes. So, like the first interval, minor second, you get it over [plays a minor-second twiddle over a bass note] but also [plays the same figure as bass goes through the cycle of fifths], even [particularly dissonant harmony], which is a weird one, until you think about [juicy jazz chords], then it’s OK. And so it goes on until it’s covered all the permutations. The idea was to create a very short piece, like 3:40, in which you get to hear all of those possibilities, and my wish was that—well, I’m sure it’s true! If you’ve heard all of those things and sung over them, then your musical brain is expanded and what you can hear and understand is expanded.
DB: And weirdly enough, someone put it on YouTube and it’s had 39,000 people listening to it. I don’t know if that makes it a hit or not, I can’t tell anymore.
EI: It’s on the way, at least.
DB: It’s a very functional piece in a way. It was written to teach music, and that’s quite a strange thing to include on an album, but I had a very clear reason to do it. I think that really helps when I’m writing a piece of music, that there is some clear aim behind it.
EI: A container to fill up with ideas.
DB: Mm. Well, quite often I’ve set myself some kind of challenge in a writing situation: Can I do this? And that’s a good example of it, “The Interval Song”: is it going to be possible to get through all of this information but still end up with a piece of music, not just a technical exercise?
EI: Fortunately it hasn’t been quite so long since we’ve had some more records from you—not six years anyway. First, there was a record that’s with a student ensemble from the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen. How long have you been teaching there?
DB: I started there in 2005. Before that I used to do the occasional bit of teaching or running a band here or there, all over the place; it was quite diffused, really. Then this opportunity came up, to put it all in the same place and make it more focused, so I thought I’d give it a try. And it led to some unique possibilities, really. The idea of having 19 musicians come every Friday to rehearse was something that I hadn’t really found a way of achieving since the days of Loose Tubes.
But that makes all sorts of experiments possible. I can just turn up there and try out the first few bars of an idea or a groove, whatever, or a way of playing. For instance, I wrote a piece called “Subjective Hooks,” and that came from me going to the rehearsal with a two-bar thing, and then getting it so that if the drummer leans forward then it’s displaced a sixteenth note forward; if he leans backwards, it’s displaced a sixteenth note back; and if he’s sitting upright it’s where it should be. And the whole piece grew from that game.
And so, yeah, I think after I’d been there about two years, I put together a recording of that band. It was a nice way to kind of close the three JMT things, which had all been seasons. The first album for Stefan Winter and JMT was Summer Fruits (and Unrest). I liked the rhythm of that title so when I came to do the solo piano one, I called it Autumn Fires (and Green Shoots). And of course I was by that time trapped in the cycle of the seasons! So then came Winter Truce (and Homes Blaze). “Winter,” as well as being the season, it’s also Stefan Winter. I had so many kind of… what do you call them? arguments or discussions?… with Stefan that we made a “truce” in order to make that album.
And then I always thought that I’d be doing Spring Is Here (Shall We Dance?) with Stefan. But the whole situation changed with Polygram and all of that. And so all these years had gone past with me having this Spring music there ready to go, with the idea that it would be all based around some strange kind of dance music that has various grooves going along in different time scales at the same time. That’s how the last album came to be Spring Is Here (Shall We Dance?).
EI: Well, if you know it’s just a college jazz band record, this record seems insane: all those time scales means that it is very complicated music. Also the emotions are very complicated, like on the track “May Day,” which is an appropriation of a carnival atmosphere, singing about “Fat cats are gone and hooray.” Perhaps the very first time you listen to it you might get an incomplete impression of the delicacy of the thought, but so far my it’s my favorite piece on the record, in terms of sheer outlandishness aligned with complex rhythm. It’s sort of like you want to smile and you also want to ask, “Hey, can I call up Django Bates and ask him how he did this?” [both laugh]
DB: Well, like I say I’m very choosy about everything, and especially when it comes to making an album. So we rehearse and we rehearse and we rehearse, and then when we record, with some of the pieces we record and we record and we record, and everyone had to be prepared. Yeah, this student thing, I didn’t really think about it too much at the time, and that’s because it was irrelevant, really; the music had to reach the level that I was looking for, regardless who was doing it.
EI: Well, I don’t mean to overemphasize the student aspect of it, but I do think it’s rare for the institutional process of jazz education to result in a really interesting product that you want to sit around and listen to.
DB: Hm. That’s a good point, yeah. It also makes sense to me that Spring, the season of rebirth, should have been recorded with young music students at the cusp of their careers.
EI: If you’re going to bother with jazz in the academy, the way to do it is to have someone like you with this completely distinctive, courageous vision, and who’s going to make everybody learn this really hard music. At the end of it they’re going to know something. Something to maybe work against, too: I’m sure some of those students aren’t going to go on to make any music that sounds anything like your music. But at least they’ve seen your Spring.
DB: Yeah, that’s right. And they’ve also been part of the process of making something in a very exacting way, and I really think that is part of the education—to see how serious the artistic process is.
EI: The new record seems connected to the RMC too.
DB: When I first got to the RMC, the Rhythmic Music Conservatory, I was moving into different rooms all the time to teach different people, and of course I wasn’t going to drag keyboards around with me. So I’d sit down at the piano to give examples, and very quickly I was reminded what a great instrument it is. Not that I’d ever forgotten, but it just kind of connected me back with the instrument. And then I found Petter Eldh on bass and Peter Bruun on drums, great musicians that I thought would create a different sound, and we just started playing together. Petter is a very percussive bass player, much into polyrhythms, and you know how some drummers just fill up all the frequencies so you can’t hear the piano? Well, Peter Bruun is the opposite of that, even at his most intense!
When we first started, we would just play—book a room, get in there, and play. There was no conversation about material, or why, or anything. And then I got asked to be part of a celebration of Charlie Parker in Copenhagen, with a gig at the Jazz House. And I thought, “Ah, I’ve always wanted to—I’ve always had it sort of halfway down a very long list of things that I’d like to do, that I would like to arrange Parker music and see what I could do with it that would be a little different. This is the opportunity to do that.” So I did that, using the piano trio as a vehicle, and quite purposefully not putting a poor saxophonist in the position of having to either not sound like Charlie Parker or to try and sound like him—both would be quite difficult in that context!
We started rehearsing and then we did that gig, and once that music existed it just came round to the point where it needed to be documented and recorded. There’s a studio at RMC with a nice piano, and it became, in the way we’ve just been talking about, it became part of the education, but also it became 100% my next recorded output. We went into the studio for three days. I wrote some original music as well, unrelated to Parker, and we just made a set-list and just played around and round it, changed the list, played around and round, kept on playing—very close to each other, no headphones, very natural. And I ended up with 800 minutes of music…!
And then… it just gets weirder, this story, actually, because then I started listening to it all and realized, “No, I really want this to be a Parker record, I don’t want to include my own pieces in there. I want to be more focused than I ever have before on what this record is. For instance, the piano: I’m only going to play the keys; I’m not going to play inside the piano or do anything else. I’m not going to whistle, not going to sing.” And the same with the other instruments: it’s quite pure in that way, which is why the cover is black and white, because it reflects a purity, and obviously a keyboard thing too. And so I made the selection from the Parker takes and said, “Right, this is the album; listen to it,” played it to a few people: “Yeah: that’s the album.” And then someone asked, “How long is it?” And I added it up and it was only 32 minutes long! Someone told me that the lengths of the tracks on Beloved Bird are very similar to the original recordings’ lengths, which is kind of odd since the arrangements are completely different!
But, yeah, and so that’s why I arranged “Moose the Mooche” as an extra track, and then did the long “Ah-Leu-Cha” which is really like a bonus track, because it enters a completely different, very restful world. That’s how that came about.
EI: Your command of the instrument is right in there on these beautiful ballads or whatever you’re going for: it really sounds like a piano player’s record. The tracks are short, but they are so full that they seem like they are much longer. While studying the record, time and time again, I look and I’m like, “I can’t believe that was only three minutes!”
DB: Exactly—that’s why we ended up with a 32-minute record, originally.
EI: If you think about Charlie Parker’s version of “Moose the Mooche” versus your version, it’s a completely different algorithm in terms of the amount of information—although I don’t think “Moose” is even the most arranged of the tracks; I think some of the other tracks are even thicker: something like “Chi Chi,” I’d really have to see the score to really understand what’s going on there!
DB: Yeah, that one’s the most far-out, I think I’d agree. “Moose the Mooche” has a bass-line in 28/8, grouped like 3,3,3,2,2,3,3,3,2,2,2, and the band insisted I turn the triplets in the melody into straight bars of 3/8. They were right; it became more interesting. And now I know how Bruford felt having a band of pushy young lions!
EI: Those of us that love jazz know those tunes, so you’re giving us the opportunity to really hear the melodies displaced in a way that no one else could displace them.
DB: It was definitely an interesting process. A couple of times we just tried to play a piece without any arranging. And that was the hardest thing of all.
EI: Well, “Now’s the Time” seems like that on the record.
DB: That’s true; that’s one that’s just played as it was—fast.
EI: Nice repeated notes by the way! I don’t know if I can do that myself…
DB: Two hands!
EI: Oh, you used two hands? All right, OK. I feel a little better now! [both laugh]
DB: But we tried to play “Confirmation.” “Let’s just play this and see what happens,” we said. That was impossible, because it’s such a strong language, that we each just immediately played like someone else. But not sounding as it was played at the time, it became like some kind of meaningless mid-period jazz, where everyone knew bebop but they didn’t know what to do with it. And there’s a lot of recordings that fall into that category, I think. So that’s why it was arranged so much…
I was trying to look again at the role of the bass and the drums. And also trying to put a microscope on each composition in the way that if you’re obsessed by something or if you love somebody you go into massive detail and you exaggerate parts of that thing or that person. And that’s the kind of process in a way. So “Billie’s Bounce” goes [sings a few bars]—so by bar 4 he’s already repeated this kind of bluesy thing three times. And I think, “Parker wants to repeat it, so I’ll go along with that, but I’ll move it into the bass, and the bass will just get stuck on that line, and we’ll reinterpret the line.” It is nine triplets long. If you just change the way you divide that 9 into a more kind of Balkan 9/8 thing, then you haven’t really changed much, but in another way you’ve changed everything because you’ve changed the ground beneath it. So those were some of the games that could be played with the compositions.
Also it was really interesting for me to make an album that I would expect to be filed under jazz, for the first time ever. And I felt very good about that in a way, because I love jazz, and I think that may not always be apparent. I can remember quite a few years—starting from Loose Tubes days, and carrying on—something happened with the word “jazz” which meant that we all avoided it like the plague. It sent out the wrong message for us. At the time of Loose Tubes the word “jazz” was being applied to perfumes and cars and all sorts of things. So we just removed it from our own language, weirdly enough.
But yeah, with Beloved Bird it was very enjoyable to celebrate the most intrinsic parts of jazz like the sound of a stick hitting a cymbal and all of that.
EI: There is some swing on the record, but with the exception of “Now’s the Time” (although even that is pretty deconstructed), the swinging ride cymbal and the walking bass are just quotations that sort of orient it periodically. Almost everything else seems to be very advanced composition/arrangement or free playing. That’s my impression, I don’t know if you think that’s fair.
DB: I think it is probably fair. We played the pieces in many different ways during those three days, and when we came to listen through to them and pick out what we liked, it was quite an interesting process, because there were some wonderful takes which I just considered to be too jazz. And those just didn’t feel enough like a personal statement. They felt a bit more like “Hey, guess what, everybody? I can do this, I just didn’t tell you.” [both laugh]
EI: That’s a very important thing, though, to remember for all of us in these musics: for better or worse, we deal with genre. And so much art we admire is interested in subverting genre as well as honoring genre, whether it’s the movies we watch or the books we read or the music we listen to.
I’m not yet at the point where I would dare to play a rhythmically complex matrix on a bebop tune and then play completely free on the solos! I just got the record three days ago, right? And I keep thinking, “Damn! Here’s Django again, pushing me out of the comfort zone, challenging whatever I think is sacred in really a beautiful way.” I’m going to work on that one, Django! [both laugh] But it certainly works for you. This record is going to make an impression for sure.
DB: Great. Great. It’s funny, I hadn’t thought of it as being bebop followed by free improvisations…
EI: But that’s a fair amount of what happens, isn’t it?—I’m probably being too reductionist…
DB: No no no, it’s good to hear your description of it. We tried to make a seamless join between the themes and the improvs, and of course yeah… That’s another interesting thing about it, which I hadn’t really thought: it’s probably the only thing I’ve done which is full of free improvisations. Yeah. Although they’re quite thematic, I would say.
EI: Oh sure. Absolutely.
DB: But take a tune like “Hot House.” I think we go into the chord sequence after the theme, and then we have a kind of agreement that we’re going to get out of that sequence at some point; otherwise we’ll be trapped there. And then the ‘getting out of it’ is an interesting moment, because in jazz everyone is always pushing each other and challenging and doing strange things; you don’t know whether they’ve actually gone out of the sequence or whether they’re in the sequence but being challenging. And so you get this weird kind of questioning moment which can last for quite a long time, where you’re still in there, or are you? And then suddenly you’re out and you’re free; and then you’ve got to find your way back at some point. So yeah, I suppose that was quite a nice experience, that jumping off.
EI: What you just described there is one of the fundamental aesthetic questions of jazz. Very often we’re trying to be hip and deny the changes or deny the form, while still playing on the changes or form. All of us are guilty of this. But then there’s sort of that other element which is: just make the good music that is there to be made without worrying about keeping the form correct. On this record you’re proposing something new, for sure.
DB: By the way, I’m not proposing that anyone else try this. And I think I’m not going to try it again. [laughs] It’s a one-off! Like I said, we recorded original stuff as well. And that’s going to be interesting; another stage. Something else I’d like to say—when I or anybody else records with a piano trio, it must cross their mind that there exists Bad Plus, Esbjörn Svensson, Brad Mehldau… and what do you do about that? You can’t ignore it, so you have to find your place within it, and that’s another interesting part of the process.
EI: It sure is.
DB: That’s another good reason for focusing on Parker for this record, because no one’s doing that.
EI: Right! It seemed to me that “Laura” was not arranged. Is that true? Is “Laura” more like you simply play it?
EI: But what you do there is you just play it for a chorus. And that’s so important to remember, is just to play the song, not necessarily have to take a second chorus where you improvise and double-time a third chorus, etc., etc., before you play the whole melody again.
DB: Yeah. That’s right; that was what we did a lot on the Quiet Nights album as well. Once the words ran out that was the end.
Bonus track: In Praise of Django Bates, my first ever venture into serious music writing. It was published in DownBeat in 2005. I now find this prose pretty dreadful, but the sentiment is honest.
Few languages in jazz are as instantly identifiable as Django Bates. How delightful to learn that his first CD in six years is out: You Live and Learn…(apparently) is on his own label Lost Marble.
The amount of musical information on a Bates CD is unprecedented in jazz. Countermelodies and colorization come out of unseen corners at every moment, often embellished further by his zany Greek chorus of synthesizers. I have never heard such an endless stream of middle register threading and circling as there is on a Django Bates album, with a wavering lushness that lurks somewhere between the belly and the brain.
Another unique facet to Bates’ output is his humor, which is both refreshing and outrageous. The satire is endless and very English—anybody who thinks that jazz must always sound American, stop reading now! Among Bates’ targets are fundamentalists, bullies, and people who think they are never wrong. (“The Loneliness of Being Right” is a typical Bates title.)
The leader’s keyboard work is virtuosic, but he improvises brilliantly on E-flat horn too. (Just the fact that the man doubles on an obscure brass instrument should indicate how far from Kansas the Django Bates universe really is.) The other main soloist is saxophonist Iain Ballamy, who is a member of the core Bates quartet Human Chain along with electric bassist Michael Mondesir and drummer Martin France. These great players are on all the band albums and are a significant part in their success.
Most American musicians don’t really know Bates’ output. I began collecting his records after hearing his arrangement of “Solitude”: A crippled, out-of-tune piano stammers/rhapsodizes the first sixteen bars of this Ellington chestnut before grinding to a halt at the bridge. Pure-toned vocalist Josephine Cronholm enters in a new key, singing the song “straight” from the top of the tune. Molto rubato bass and brushes enter and exit. A lonely saxophone mourns, a synthesizer ghost yawns, and the solo piano coda is truly bizarre.
“Solitude” has become one of my favorite performances of a standard. It is on the mostly-covers, easily digestible Quiet Nights (Screwgun), which is a good initial acquisition for those new to Bates. Also highly recommended is a remarkable trilogy of mid-90’s JMT releases with similar-sounding titles; they are now re-released on Winter and Winter.
Winter Truce (and Homes Ablaze) (Winter and Winter) is possibly the magnum opus. It is best to hear it in one sitting, for themes appear and reappear, making the album unusually self-reflexive. On several songs, Human Chain becomes Delightful Precipice with the addition of more musicians, giving Bates the opportunity to pull even more rabbits out of hats. Except for an astonishing version of “New York, New York,” the album is comprised of Bates’ compositions. There is a bit of spoken word and an anthem “You Can’t Have Everything” which the whole ensemble sings at the beginning and screams for a very long time at the end. The calculus-level math feature for Martin France “X=Thingys x 3/ MF” ends with the band ferociously rattling biscuit tins as France seems to levitate out of the studio. I don’t know how this piece exists, actually—it should melt the CD or something. An essential record.
Autumn Leaves (and Green Shoots) (Winter and Winter) is an inventive solo piano outing of originals and a couple standards. Bates plays “Giant Steps” really well on it, if some more conservative listeners need proof “that he can play.”
Summer Fruits (and Unrest) (Winter and Winter) has the return of both Human Chain and Delightful Precipice, who once again perform really hard music with passion and good humor. You can whistle “The Armchair March” in canon with your friends, and “Sad Afrika” is lovely.
This and Quiet Nights are among the most vital jazz CDs recorded in the 1990’s. The new one, You Live and Learn (…apparently), is a program of (mostly) Bates’ own songs sung by another excellent vocalist, Josefine Lindstrand. Bates’ magpie harmony continues its mysterious and endless weave, although the memorable title cut shows that he can really write pop when he wants to. “The Interval Song” has this comment in the booklet:
INCREDIBLY, most children in England have no music lessons at school. If your young ones sing along with this tune, they’ll be practicing every possible interval (within 8ve) over every possible bass note. What more could any child want?
It is a bizarre Brazilian number with four children singing, “this is a minor second, and this is a major third,” etc. It is just beautiful. A version of “My Way” is very intense, and Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (naturally)” ends the album with an emotion that Django Bates owns, breathes, and gives to the world in generous servings: surreal tenderness.