Tag Archives: Django Bates

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
 

October 1997 – live reviews – Django Bates’ Human Chain @ The Vortex Jazz Bar, Stoke Newington, London, sometime in 1997 (“joyous, brilliantly constructed bacchanalia”)

13 Oct

Next time I’ll bring my platforms. As per usual with Django Bates gigs, the Vortex is packed out and it’s standing room only. To enable the bar staff to make the perilous weaving journey between the crowded tables, the only place I can park myself and my aching feet is up against a wall, craning my neck to peer over the obligatory taller person in front. Plenty of other people are in the same boat. No one complains.

Well… apart from the couple I speak to afterwards, with their heads full of Parisian Latin Quarter memories and a taste for acid-jazz, looking in to see what a Jazzpar Prize winner plays like. They’ve decided that they hate Django Bates. Can’t stand him, can’t see what the fuss is about, can’t see the point. In their eyes, something’s wrong with the whole thing.

While I completely disagree with them, I can see their point. If you’re coming from an established jazz perspective (certain moves, a certain closet full of set patterns, a certain desire to be pleased in a traditional way), then what do you make of Django Bates? A man of many hats, most of them odd-shaped (tonight’s being a reasonably modest ski-hat which doesn’t even get to make it onstage). A man who’s wearing a faded T-shirt marked “Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian”. Someone who reinvents the sacred New York, New York as a volley of bloody-minded bop, assault and battery (via vicious drums and sound effects – fire-engines, road drills and machine guns). Who then insults the memory of Sinatra by singing as if he’s in the shower; and finally throws in a rapturous applause sample during which the entire band punch the air like Motley Crue?

Or how about Hyphen’s forthright Coltrane-isms scratched into a hypermanic bass walk? Django yelps a string of “yeah!”s in parodic hammy Americanese; yet he later delivers a sprightly piano solo as the piece’s main moment of reflection. It’s peculiar but assured – like Victor Borges hosting the Jazz Club on ‘The Fast Show’. It’s not so much Duke Ellington as Frank Zappa hitting the lounge wall. Hard.

“N.Y., N.Y. – nice, yet nihilistic, yobs. That’s us,” says Django, faux-innocently. “Respect.”

It’s this sort of English ridiculousness that puts the originality and oomph into Bates’ muse, yet simultaneously blights his career. However much people are drawn to the joyous, brilliantly constructed bacchanalia of his music, many of them still struggle to accept the humour.  In another life, Django would have been an eccentric Oxford don setting his callow students another brainteaser. But jazz aristocrats are supposed to be enigmatic, not possessed of an absurdist schoolboy imagination. For all of his enthusiastic following, Bates’ refusal to wear a legend’s weighty clothes (or to deny his own genuinely playful nature), has tended to place him out in the cold within the jazz world, as opposed to in at the heart of the cool.

For this reason alone, it’s good to see that he finally seems to be growing up a bit. There’s a feeling of “less is more” tonight. The once-astronomical note count is down, and some of the exuberance has been pared off to let the expression come through more easily. The Human Chain four-piece has always been the purest conduit for Bates music, anyway. Django’s three lieutenants spar dextrously with his carnival of keyboards and the loopy bonhomie of his peck horn. Michael Mondesir expands his crabbed, funk-impossible groove approach on bass guitar, in partnership with Martin France’s ever-fresh polylingual drumming. Iain Ballamy serves as the moral centre and hidden authority for the group, his frowning bulldog visage set firm as he navigates his saxophones through the convoluted maps of Batesworld.

There’s a lot to find along the way, here in Human Chain’s haphazardly hilly country between Weather Report, Mingus, Naked City and Ivor Cutler. For instance,  the intriguingly sprained prog-rock samba of Three Architects Called Gabrielle; or And A Golden Pear’s long mixture of rhetorical questioning and querulous demand (this time given a Carlos Jobim calypso lilt). On Powder Room Collapse, France and Mondesir smack and swat away at the hidden angles of the rhythm. Bates expounds on his wah-wah’ed horn or squeezes electrified duck calls out of the keyboards. Underfelt slips from mode to mode, like a trapeze artiste on an endless series of loop stunts.

Keeping a single mood – other than an amused giddy elation – is next to impossible, especially while Django is continuing to toy with traditions. “We’d like to change the mood now,” he muses, and pauses a second. “And now we’d like to change it back again.” This continual deflation of expectations has got to be deliberate, a way of disarming and confounding our prejudices, freeing us up so that we can react naturally to the great and mischievous “perhaps” of jazz that Bates spends so much of his life illustrating. Thus, Food For Plankton – always an especially joyful party hop, working around a melody of delirious happiness and zipping soprano sax. Tonight it clicks its shoes to exceptionally pointed accents. It gives way,  during Potato Pickers, to a long and glorious slow flood of horn over wintery electronics.

The same players that sing, straight-faced, a frivolous primer for tea-making called The Importance of Boiling Water will also melt into the detached loneliness of Is There Anyone Up There?, Bates chiming the hours beneath Ballamy’s frayed alto saxophone thread. With incredible delicacy, his piano spills into the solo, becoming tiny notes afloat on a cymbal’s breath, so quiet that you can hear the measured hum of the fridge behind the bar as easily as you can Martin France’s brushes. Backed by the comforting yawn of Ballamy’s alto, Bates croons and mumbles bits of melody into the mike, narrates a story of a young man starved to death by TV, before France breaks it up with a colossal bang on the drums, triggering the final electronic runaway.

Best of all, the band can handle the frail beauty of Further Away with a compressed excitement. While focussing on Ballamy’s powdery-soft, open-hearted melody (echoing over itself), you only just notice how the band have sustained the spartan expectant atmosphere while simultaneously playing the hell out of it; whispering and yelling, dogs on the leash around Ballamy’s delicately determined oasis.

But perhaps, in the end, you genuinely just don’t get it. What the hell… your loss. No pork pie hats; showbiz that’s more ‘Call My Bluff’ than ‘The Cotton Club’. Respect, but not submission, to the black saints; a tendency to move the ground instead of the hips. Perhaps none of the above is your idea of jazz. But whatever you think, Django Bates is continuing to blow the dust off jazz’s spirit of adventure and letting it out to run. Whatever the humour here, there’s absolutely no joke in that.

Django Bates online:
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The Vortex Jazz Bar online:
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