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.