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Reviewers: Glyn Pursglove, Jonathan Woolf

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Django Bates’ Belovèd

The Study of Touch

ECM 2534 [56:23]

 

Sadness All The Way Down (Bates)

Giorgiantics (Bates)

Little Petherick (Bates)

Senza Bitterness (Bates)

We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way (Bates)

This World (Iain Ballamy)

The Study of Touch (Bates)

Passport (Charlie Parker)

Slippage Street (Bates)

Peonies As Promised (Bates)

Happiness All The Way Up

Django Bates (piano)

Petter Eldh (bass)

Peter Bruun (drums)

rec. Rainbow Studio, Oslo, June 2016

Born in 1960, the young Django Bates spent some time (1971-77) as a part-time student of the Centre for Young Musicians, in London, before progressing to Morley College (1977-78). The planned study of Composition at the Royal College of Music lasted only two weeks before Bates walked out! (He was to return to the RCM, in 2010 as Visiting Professor of Jazz). He soon came to prominence as one of the mainsprings of the unique big band ‘Loose Tubes’. Increasingly, too, he worked on the continent. As well as being a working musician he has held professorships in Copenhagen and Bern, often leading groups which included some of his former students. The young Bates was prodigiously inventive and musically mischievous; few, I suspect, would have anticipated the path he has followed. Academia has certainly not inhibited his inventiveness nor his need to be involved with many different musical projects. Still, that he should have become what one might call a Euro-pianist, recording for Manfred Eicher’s ECM label still feels oddly surprising.

The trio known as ‘Django Bates’ Belovèd’, involving bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun (who both studied with Bates in Copenhagen), first came to international attention with their album Belovèd Bird, recorded 2008-9 and released by Lost Marble The frequently whimsical games of Bates’ early work had vanished in this tribute to Charlie Parker and his compositions, but there was still a slightly playful quirkiness to the pianist’s playing and vision, a fondness for the unexpected approach, as in the trio’s intimate, introverted reading of the normally up-beat ‘Ah-leu-cha’. The trio made a second album Confirmation (Lost Marble, 2011) – its title continuing the connection with Parker. This, then, is the ensemble’s third album and, being on the ECM label, will surely attract yet more attention than its two predecessors.

Parker remains a presence on this latest album, with a version of his composition ‘Passport’, interpreted with characteristic intelligence and playfulness and confirming once more that Bates has a sure-fingered command of the bop idiom. Elsewhere, the masters one sometimes thinks of – apart from the earlier Bates himself – are Keith Jarrett and possibly Bill Evans (especially harmonically). Yet, as ever, Bates remains himself, a true individual.

For all his air of mischief and humour Bates, even in his early work, was always fully serious (though never solemn!) about his music-making. It is no surprise to find that this album is beautifully structured, so that it should, ideally, be listened to as a sequence, not simply dipped into. The titles of the first and last pieces, ‘Sadness All The Way Down’ and ‘Happiness All The Way Up’ indicate their complementary natures and how they frame the album, with their contrasting melodic shapes. In between there is a rich musical variety, which early on includes ‘Giorgiantics’, which contrasts boppish measures (reminding us, again, of Parker) with some gentler, more reflective passages. Bates’ characteristic wit is there in some of his titles – notably ‘Senza Bitterness’, for example, which one might read as ‘sense o’ bitterness’ or ‘without – Italian senza – bitterness’. Either way, or both ways, Bates’ playing is particularly beautiful on this track, well supported by both Eldh and (specially) Bruun. Euro-pianist he may be, but Bates retains a distinctive, almost nostalgic, ‘Englishness’ in some of his work. ‘Little Petherick’ is an attractive rural village in Cornwall, which is surely remembered in Bates’ beautiful tune of that name, and in its lyrical interpretation here. Elsewhere there is work which engages with later ‘freer’ styles of jazz. ‘We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way’ is a lucidly self-explanatory title, well- befitting a piece in which the illusion of musicians getting lost in a complex score is, in truth, the shared exploration of movements towards and away from an inherently joyful ‘song’. On this piece, commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, and premiered in 2011, one hears the more or less intuitive interplay between three musicians who know one another’s minds and ways of playing very well indeed. For all its unorthodox elements this piece might stand as an exemplar of one of the major qualities one wants from a top-class jazz piano trio. Later in the album, ‘Slippage Street’ is full of rhythmic twists and turns, and some startling inventions by Bates, superbly supported (and prompted) by both bassist and drummer.

There isn’t a remotely dull track on this album. Indeed, I’m not sure that Django Bates could be dull even if he set out to be so. The characteristic clarity and sense of space achieved by recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug in Oslo’s Rainbow Studio adds much to one’s listening pleasure.

Glyn Pursglove

 


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