April 1998 – album reviews – Django Bates’ ‘Like Life’ (“placing his inquisitive, loopy and flamboyantly complex music in the hands of relative strangers”)

22 Apr

Django Bates: 'Like Life'

Django Bates: ‘Like Life’

When the most wilful, please-yourselves mavericks start winning awards, it ensures that – whether they like it or not – they can never again be quite the young turks they started out as. Whether you dismiss them or embrace them, awards ceremony transmute. They can chuck a bucket of seriousness over the winners, which can either damp them down or inflame them further. Smooth or savage, they’re plucked out of their milieu and put in a position where the loose and buoyant expectations which can hang on an artist will suddenly crystallise and weigh hard.

Django Bates won the Jazzpar Prize – jazz’s Nobel – in 1997. In some ways, dealing with that has been one of his biggest challenges. Bates’ career so far has been notable for his avoidance – mostly – of the company of international names. Instead he’s worked unhindered with his own London-based gang of congenial lunatics.

‘Like Life’ (documenting his Jazzpar performances) is different, placing his inquisitive, loopy and flamboyantly complex music in the hands of relative strangers. Though Bates’ usual quartet Human Chain travelled over with him (forming the core of the Jazzpar version of his Delightful Precipice big band) the remaining personnel were committed Danish jazzers. Fine players, but not in on the joke, if you know what I mean. At the height of Bates’ triumph he could’ve been sunk, had his music proved not to be the sort that can travel outside its own circle.


 
Happily, it works fairly well. This is most evidently when Bates is working with the fatter, more cohesive sound of the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, who’ve toured Gil Evans’ repertoire and lead with a muscular frontline of brash trumpets and an armoury of trombones. The DRJO get to debut most of the new material, displaying a flourishing cabaret flair on the big-Bates favourite Nights At the Circus. They also generally ensure that the album has a more jolly and easygoing tinge to it than was heard on previous Bates bouts.

The aggressive drive that stalks behind the affable cartoonish facade of Bates’ mutant jazz seems to have been mellowed by the experience. By the time he’s leading the big band in convivial pubby chants about tea (on The Importance of Boiling Water), he sounds as if he’s befriended the lot of them personally. This is at its most valuable when he allows his more meditative side to emerge on the reflective, restrained theme of Misplaced Swans. Slow and gawky brass figures emerge in a delightfully vulnerable indigo mood, as a quiet panic attack on guitar sets Bates’ own lyrical, chipped piano solo into sharper focus.



 
However, that quirky inclusive mischief continues to rule the roost. Once a Penguin, Always a Penguin is a rollicking big-band march, full of the blurp of tubas and invigorating yells of high brass egging them on, laced together by Bates’ gurgling fairground organ. It sounds like Charles Mingus laughing his head off on a helium overdose. The joyous, waltzing Like Life itself is equally enjoyable. It’s a cheerful Ellingtonian argument at the peak of a party, which also draws in Bates’ perennial affection for the pride, pomp and community humour of English pit-brass bands.


 
Topping the lot is The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, a twelve-minute Bates epic that pulses along and doubles back like Weather Report fighting over a squid. The real-life Crowhurst faked a round-the-world yacht journey, radio broadcasts and all. Bates was obviously tickled enough by the story to put his own fantastical spin on it. It’s busy and anxious music with a beautifully illustrated edge of self-importance and suppressed hysterical guilt, capturing the grabby energy and sheer panicky hard work that goes into forging. In some respects, it’s an ironic salute from one artist to another; and one which seems appropriate coming from the oddly rootless Bates. Morse-code synths fight the surf; seagulls fly past in chorus; and samples of excited press cameras chop up the earspace.


 
The Danish version of Delightful Precipice have the tougher job on ‘Like Life’. Shriller, emphasising reeds, flute and more of Bates’ subversive synth attack than their British counterpart, they’re dealing with established Bates repertoire and memories, warts-and-all. Although the pragmatic poise of the band is a novelty in Batesworld, their assured race through Tightrope’s tenterhook cascades (swoops, crowds, stops and quivering tensions) suggests they’re up to the job, but they do have a lot to keep under control.



 
At one extreme there’s the manic, beaming Irish jig of Peculiar Terms of Intimacy (recovered from the surrealist theatre score for ‘The Third Policeman’). At the other, there’s The Loneliness of Being Right; one of Bates’ most maddening tunes and dedicated to politicians with closed minds. In the latter, a rising, recurrent, hysterical phrase (buried in a thicket of strident and contradictory pointers) runs around like a rat trying to escape from an ever-shrinking maze of mirrors; and it never resolves except if it’s into yet another trap. Mid-way through, Iain Ballamy‘s soprano sax grapples with the unforgiving music, there’s a noise like a chicken being slaughtered, and you start to question the artistic value of irritation.


 
A warm journey through Armchair March (that catchy riffing tune that makes a virtue out of never getting properly started, but goes to any number of places around the starting blocks) settles things down after the indigestible. But there’s also a run through Bates’ infamously abrasive take on New York, New York. Memories of Sinatra are mugged and buried under an onslaught of cut-up expressionist jazz, hopscotching between melody and cacophony; laden with screaming twisted brass, cartoon sonics, jokes and Bates’ own musing bloke-in-the-shower vocal.



 
And it’s here that there’s a sudden flash of “what am I doing here?” in Bates’ invention: in the midst of the furious playing and the hard-handed humour, he suddenly sounds sheepish, as if he’s realised it’s time to leave this sort of thing behind. Rampant iconoclast and wag he may be, but winning the the Jazzpar sounds as if it has both changed and proved things for him. Perhaps it’s just the impact of the award, or perhaps the passage of time, but ‘Like Life’ sounds like some kind of turning-point for this brilliant jazz hooligan.

Django Bates: ‘Like Life’
Storyville Records, STCD 4221 (7 17101 42212 8)
CD-only album
Released:
20th April 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) get CD from Storyville Records; download from Apple Music and Google Play; stream from Deezer and Spotify.
Django Bates online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music
 

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