Monday, June 30, 2008

Drunk on Sunshine and Mirth

Django Bates and Stormchaser – Spring is Here (Shall We Dance?) (Lost Marble, 2008)

With a characteristic tinge of self-importance, Keith Jarrett once declared that his music was ‘the end result of a process that has nothing to do with music’. Whilst he hasn’t abandoned composition completely like Jarrett, one senses that Britain’s great Pianist and Composer Django Bates shares a similar outlook. Most of the pieces on this outstanding album are inspired by concepts and ideas – from the ‘pointlessness’ of borders and boundaries, to the ‘incendiary nature of love’.

From these springboards come arrangements of quite extraordinary dexterity and audacity, full of rhythmic complexity and imaginative harmony. Yet Bates’ great skill as a composer is to make the fiendishly intricate sound effortless, light and entertaining. There are few jazz musicians with such a dry and elaborate sense of humour and fewer still who dare to make that sense of comedy an intrinsic part of their creations.

Common critiques of jazz music from those who find it a closed world open only to scholars and academics suggest that it sometimes seems like a music with a limited emotional and textural range, and that it is often too serious to be considered approachable. Appreciators of the music would of course dismiss this as nonsense – but Bates of course responds with superior intelligence, actually taking the trouble to craft a music that is both intellectually demanding and physically exciting.

If there’s any kind of precedent for this thrilling music, it might be found in George Russell’s superb extended compositions for jazz orchestras or the grand majesty of Keith Tippett’s Centipede but Bates’ irreverence places him squarely in a category of his own. Particularly impressive is his innovative use of voices, which are carefully woven into the detailed tapestry of his music, and treated as instruments in their own right. On ‘The Right to Smile’ (brilliantly dedicated to the Russian man who won the legal right to smile in his passport photo), Bates declares his loathing of nationalism by gleefully deconstructing a string of recognisable national anthems, including our own. The short interlude ‘Early Bloomer’ is essentially a choral work, but with harmonic progressions that play havoc with the conventions of sacred music.

As ever Bates is manically hyperactive, packing as many ideas and layers as possible into dense sound collages. On ‘May Day’, he throws in some short hints at African music. Many find Bates’ constant joviality and mirth irritating, but he has the musicality to make it all compelling. It’s a bold assertion in itself that this form of intensely composed music is mutually exclusive from any sense of immediacy or fun. On ‘Something Less Soothing’, the speech is apparently delivered over something referred to as ‘Django’s Secret Pop Song’, which is in fact performed by some of Britain’s most accomplished jazz musicians (including Martin France and Michael Modesir). Bates even plays with the contested nature of what constitutes musical immediacy with the asymmetric contortions of ‘Subjective Hooks’.

It’s baffling then that British jazz critics, showing a misguided blanket distrust of all whimsy or humour, have reacted so negatively to Bates’ wisecracking. Perhaps this explains why he now bases himself in Copenhagen, at that city’s wonderfully named Conservatory of Rhythmic Music. It now seems customary in this country to attempt to undermine the national success of some of our greatest talents through sheer bloody-minded stubbornness of opinion. One star reviews in The Times and The Independent for this record seem churlish and childish in the extreme. Could these writers compose at this level? This is music that is rich in joy and euphoria – a critique of the ills of the world that also has the imagination and spirit to celebrate what is magical about humanity.

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