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theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Django Bates, Part 1 | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Django Bates, Part 1

theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Django Bates, Part 1

The leading jazzer on Loose Tubes, reissues, heading meetings and the importance of making set lists

Setting the agenda: Django BatesMartin Munch

Born in Beckenham, Kent, in 1960, Django Bates is a self-taught composer and founder member of the seminal big band Loose Tubes (1983-1990). As well as leading his own groups, Human Chain and Delightful Precipice, he has composed works for the Brodsky Quartet, Joanna MacGregor, Evelyn Glennie, the Britten Sinfonia and the Dutch Metropole Orchestra, amongst others. In 1997, Bates was awarded the prestigious Jazzpar prize, known as the 'Nobel Prize of Jazz' (previous recipients include Lee Konitz, Roy Haynes and Geri Allen). He currently teaches at Bern University of the Arts and the Royal Academy of Music.

Dancing on Frith StreetFollowing the release of the critically acclaimed Dancing on Frith Street (Jazzwise magazine's Archive Album of the Year in 2010), Bates has recently overseen the release of a second Loose Tubes reissue, Säd Afrika. Both albums date from the band's valedictory residency at Ronnie Scott's in September 1990. I meet Bates at his house in Clapton, East London, where we talk about the Tubes, StoRMChaser and Belovèd Bird over tea and digestive biscuits.

PETER QUINN: Going back to the Loose Tubes material after 20 years, what was your reaction to the music?

DJANGO BATES: After our final week at Ronnie Scott’s I came away with a bunch of cassettes of all the music we played, rough versions, and I remember going through with great detail, making notes. It was quite naïve really, because there was no money left, the band had disintegrated, the administrator had run off to Canada, so the thing had fallen apart. I eventually realised that and put the things in the filing cabinet and forgot all about it. Many years later, I had a conversation with Ashley Slater - there were these tapes knocking around and it would be nice if someone took control of the situation. He didn’t feel he was able to at that time. So I found the tapes in his old place of residence in Elephant and Castle, up in a cupboard full of socks. It was all very random, and very lucky that it was still there, because these things get lost and thrown away and recorded over.

I took it to Konk, the studio owned by Ray Davies, put it on the machine and luckily the engineer there - a very young guy then, but he really knew his stuff - as soon as it went on he said, “You’ve got to stop this. The oxide is all falling off and the tapes need to be baked.” So we took them to this place that specialises in restoring tapes. There was a lot of waiting around before we could actually get to hear it. Took it back to Konk, put it on there, and the same young guy was there, Ben, which was nice because we were able to see the music impacting on someone from a completely different world and generation. And he was just blown away by it immediately, as soon as the first chord came out.

There was something about that band. I don’t know if it was the particular line-up, a lot of low brass instruments, more than you would normally have. Five hefty saxophones right at the front, again with a lot of low baritone, two tenors and then all of the upper range additional instruments we had: clarinets, flutes. Yeah, it just came crashing into the studio and I was overjoyed to hear that it had survived and that it still worked.

The other thing to check was, well, how tight was this band? In a recording situation sometimes one end of the band can’t hear the other. It was a very widely stretched band, as you can imagine. We did so many gigs together that we’d learnt how to deal with all that and the drums were right in the middle of everything, everything gelled around the drums. So the playing was very tight and that was the beginning of realising that it was going to have to be released.

It’s been said that bands make their best records either at the start or at the end of their time together. Would you say that’s true of this material?

Loose TubesI don’t know. I’d have to think about the statement in itself. I think of Miles Davis, you know, different periods, different statements, all the way through his career. Coltrane, the same thing. With Loose Tubes (pictured left, photo courtesy Tim Platt), I suppose, we never got to grips with the recording process, really. Because it’s very hard to document improvised music in a studio. It’s very hard to record large numbers of improvising musicians, which is different from recording an orchestra, because of the way people write for orchestra - large chunks of sound, textures. Whereas the world of improvisation, you really want to hear what everybody’s doing and you never really can get all of that on tape. It feels like that, anyway.

The funny thing about recording a live album at Ronnie Scott’s, it’s notoriously difficult to play at Ronnie Scott’s because it’s very dry, it has a very low ceiling and you blow really hard on the stage and you get nothing back. You feel you’re just blowing into a black hole but, ironically, that’s perfect for recording, because it’s almost like each instrument is recorded in its own separate booth and you can mix everything together and very carefully balance the instruments together. So that’s why: it being our final recording and it being Ronnie Scott’s and the fact that we’ve never sussed out how to recreate the music in the studio - those are the reasons why it actually worked.

Will there be any more material from that final week at Ronnie’s?

There’s one left. During that first session at Konk when we managed to get the tape actually playing without falling apart, I just made some very quick notes: right, there are 21 tunes represented during these three days. Some of them recorded on every night, some of them just recorded once and great – that’s going to be three albums if it all works out. And, surprisingly, it was quite an easy and organic process to find an order for them.

Sad AfrikaThe first album [Dancing on Frith Street] I suppose needed to remind everyone about the band, so that what we thought of as the hits would be there and then the energy and the mixture, and all of the incredible saxophone solos. The second one, Säd Afrika, reflects more of the travel/world music experiments with ethnic music and our influences from musicians from other countries exiled in England. It reflects all that side of things and there were some quite experimental moments in Eddie Parker’s piece “Sosbun Brakk”, for instance. I think that’s the only jazz piece with the cymbal going “ting-ting-ti-ting” that we ever did. And then the third album, the last seven tunes need to tie up the story and I have a plan for how that will work. I’m very tempted to tell you, but I think I should wait.

Could you tell me when you think it will be released?

I would think some time next year. No rush, but it would be nice just to have them all quite close to each other.

What about the other studio albums you mentioned, the two on EG and the debut album. Is there any possibility of them ever being reissued?

They still exist and there’s some doubt about who owns them or who has the right to put them out and that’s a very difficult area because people, the audience, don’t come from that world of copyright, ownership, and so it’s very hard when you give those reasons to people why they’re not available, people just think you’re being a jobsworth. The fact is, there’s a lot of rights and wrongs surrounding all of that and you can’t just put stuff out, without being really sure about what you’re doing.

Django BatesYou often see references to "the short-lived Loose Tubes" but when you consider that the band got together in 1983 and disbanded in 1990, that’s the equivalent of the Mesozoic Era in jazz terms. Was that the right time for the group to disband or was there more that it could have achieved?

No, I’m afraid it was the right time. It could have achieved more, probably, but it wouldn’t have been real from that point. It would have been playing the game, because we’d reached the point where we’d all grown up and become much clearer about what we wanted to do as individuals or as little groups within Loose Tubes. And to kind of glue it all together and carry on for another year, knowing that certain pieces weren’t liked by certain people and the direction was being pulled in lots of different routes, it would have been wrong to carry on.

And was that feeling shared by the entire band?

As I remember it, everybody was aware that something was amiss. The days when it felt as natural as going for a walk in the park had gone. We could still do it and the fact that we knew that was our last week at Ronnie’s, we pulled out all the stops and it was a celebration of what had been.

It’s interesting that you point out that it was pulling in different directions. Säd Afrika has so many reference points: take the traditional slow air “Mo Mhúirnin Bán”, was everyone on board with stuff like that?

As far as I can tell, everyone was. I don’t know why. Just the power of the original melody was so beautiful. Of course, the fact that it has increasing amounts of ornamentation and improvisation around it might have been a struggle for some people, but no, everyone embraced that side of the band. It was more some of the world music area that couldn’t necessarily be agreed on. It’s really hard to pin down because here I am trying to work out what was wrong with the material, it wasn’t really like that and of course I’m just looking at it from my point of view. I would just say that some people had left a lot before that, like Steve Argüelles and Julian Argüelles. Both couldn’t quite believe in it and that’s OK. That happens. Perhaps it was just the variety: I don’t mind if it’s all this or all that, but when we put it all together...

When you were rehearsing things was there ever anything that didn’t make the cut?

Yeah, things came to rehearsals and never got taken up, including some pieces of mine. There was a piece where Ashley Slater, the MC, sang a kind of rock‘n’roll song called “Motor” which was about his car. We performed it a couple of times and then it fell into the kerbside, it got parked. That’s a really interesting question because now I’m starting to think: there was another strange thing. Steve Berry, who was the most prolific composer in the band (Loose Tubes pictured below right, photo courtesy Nick White), a lot of his things would be played a few times and then not taken up again and no one could really put a finger on why. Maybe because he was so prolific it wasn’t such a big event when he turned up with something. But it meant that it was a relief for him eventually to not be in the band and just decide which of his things would be played and when and why.

Loose-Tubes-liveAnd would people take that personally?

It was all so random and ramshackle. OK, we’d get to a gig, we’d set up and then the question would come up, "Who’s doing the set list?" which is crazy. I mean, for me, doing the set list is a crucial part of the gig because of the balance between key relationships from one piece to another, tempos, the energy levels, where is it going to go down? If you get it wrong it can be a gig that doesn’t work. So it was painful to me that it was so random and sometimes people did the set list and got it wrong. And then the question might come up, "Hey, why don’t we ever play this tune?" And then someone would chip in with an opinion on it.

 Dave DeFries, an eccentric trumpet player in the band, said we needed to put a clause into this contract that any member of the band, after their death, could come back and advise on decisions

There wasn’t a policy and I guess there couldn’t be with so many composers. It would be hard to say – maybe I’m thinking of a good solution now – you could just say each composer is going to be represented by a proportion of what they’ve written for the band. But it was a completely democratic band and when we were rehearsing, if we wanted to have a tea break there’d have to be a vote on it. Steve Berry has pointed out that there seemed to be a rule that one person could veto the whole band if one person didn’t agree and that actually meant that everything was impossible.

How did you ever get anything done?

I guess there was a common will and some kind of sensibility kicked in. There were some great stories, like trying to sort out the wording of a contract - maybe the EG contract. Dave DeFries, an eccentric trumpet player in the band, said we needed to put a clause into this contract that any member of the band, after their death, could come back and advise on decisions.

But you mentioned rehearsals. That was of major importance to the band – it was based around regular rehearsals and that’s something that was very rare. Because, for financial reasons, normally, and people’s commitments, if you see a big band touring in England it was probably put together last week and whoever was promoting it managed to scrape together enough money for one or two days' rehearsal. You compare that to a band that met every Friday for a few hours and played through all of the stuff, regardless of whether they knew it or not, just played through it and that’s a fundamental thing to build on.

Your first gig was in 1984 and within three years you were invited to play at the Proms, which must have been a pretty big deal?

Yeah, it was. It felt like we’d done quite a few gigs by the time we’d got to the Proms. I’m not sure of the date of the first gigs, because they would have been in a pub called The Prince of Orange. That was a good place to start because it was near to where we rehearsed and it didn’t matter what happened, it was a place to just let rip and see what happened. And what we found on the first gig, people in that pub were standing on tables. Bizarre to recall that now -  why, I don’t know, maybe there was a flood - but it was at that moment that we just thought, oh, we can do anything with this band.

Did the Proms gig feel like recognition from the mainstream?

I don’t remember thinking that at the time. I probably didn’t think in career terms or where was this going, it was very self-centred in a way. I can’t speak for other people, but I was really wrapped up in the music and my contribution to it as a player and a writer. The Proms just seemed like another gig, but a big one. And probably quite hard to play because of the acoustics there. I never listened back to it. I don’t know what it sounded like, probably OK.

Do you have the tape of that, presumably it was broadcast on Radio 3?

Yeah, it exists. Occasionally people say, "I’ve got this tape, do you want it, you can release it," and I say it’s the BBC’s property, it’s not quite that simple.

Would you like to see it released?

I don’t know. I think a first step would be to hear it, but I’m not someone that goes back to the archives and listens back to what I’ve done. This is one of the few examples where I’ve been drawn to do that, maybe because of the drama of collecting the tapes. I had a sense that it really was something special. But at some point someone will probably tie me down and play me that Proms gig and then we’ll see. I don’t know how it actually works, getting stuff from the Beeb.

Good_EveningYou know I did this orchestral album for Decca Argo [Good Evening ... Here Is the News] and they haven’t done anything with it for years. I’ve got one copy and that’s it. It’s an immense piece of work from everyone’s point of view - there was an orchestra in Air Studios, they played great. I contacted them and said any chance of buying the tape, or licensing it? And their reply was, "Well, we don’t normally do that. Our policy is not to ever do that, actually, but we’ll see. I’ll look into it." So it’s not simple.

I remember Googling 'How to head a meeting' and writing down loads of things about agenda setting that could use up some time

You’re now teaching at the Bern University of the Arts in Switzerland. What precipitated the move from Copenhagen's Rhythmic Music Conservatory?

I’d been there for five years and I had made StoRMChaser [the student big band] the focal point of my work. Then I had to reapply and was accepted after a very long and difficult application process, but accepted on very different terms. The leader wanted me to change my area of work. So I said, "Yeah, OK, we’ll give it a try." I’d never headed meetings before or been involved in curriculum planning. The night before I had to do that for the first time, I remember Googling "How to head a meeting" and writing down loads of things about agenda setting that could use up some time: “Right, who is absent, and why are they absent?” I've got it all down. In a way it was valuable: I learnt that I can do it and I learnt that I don’t want to.

So it wasn’t a decision that you would have taken yourself, it was imposed?

What, to leave?

Yes.

Well, the other thing that happened was during that year I had a visit from the Head of Jazz Line at Bern University and a colleague, Dejan Terzic. They came to a StoRMChaser rehearsal and were just so enthusiastic and said we’d love you to come and do this with our students and worked out how that would happen - which is very complicated, this kind of stuff, it needs real commitment from them. I went and did a little project with their students in 2009 and again in 2010, and in my hanging out in Bern and having chats with them I explained what was going on in Copenhagen and opened the door for perhaps working in Bern in a way that was much more based around me playing with students, making music, creating, composing. Less talking really. As simple as that.

So continuing what you were doing at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory?

Yes, building on that. And they came up with a solution. I remember them saying, "Well, what do you need from a job?" You never get asked that so you don’t have a ready answer. I said my answers would all be ridiculous, you’d just laugh. "Well, try us." I said, well, it would be really good for me, bearing in mind the circumstances of my life - one of which is that I have an autistic daughter who’s nine who lives in England - it would be amazing if I could work in a place like this for two weeks and then not be here for two weeks. And they just said, "Yeah, good idea, let's do that." And a few other teachers there do that as well, it's not unheard of. It spells out that if you want to work with people, if you can make it easy for them, then why not? Because then you get really good work, much better work.

You get into that room and you're there for pretty much three hours reading the music that's going past on the wall. And it drives people mad, in a very good way, including me

What else are you teaching at Bern?

I was asked to take a class on the Minimalists, a big, broad subject which has been really fun. I meet with a lot of composition students and discuss their work. Quite a lot of coaching of ensembles. And I've started a class which is just called "Sight reading improvement". From this laptop, projected onto the wall is a continuous stream of music, with everybody in unison. And week after week it gets more and more complex. You get into that room and you're there for pretty much three hours reading the music that's going past on the wall. And it drives people mad, in a very good way, including me.

Listen to the 'Interval Song' (Django Bates):

 

And will you still have access to that big band sound as well?

Yes, in the future. Not this coming semester but the one after, I think.

What you achieved with StoRMChaser was extraordinary. How did you reach that level of rhythmic sophistication: keeping time one moment, completely free the next?

We rehearsed every Friday for three hours.

That seems to be a bit of a theme.

Yes, it does, exactly. I would have liked a bit more. And when we came across a difficulty in the music, we would unpick it, discuss it, check out what the other side of the band was playing and how we needed to slot in with that. I would quite happily loop a two- or three-bar phrase until the cows come home, I don't mind doing that. This kind of music, whatever we call it - improvised, groove-based with a multitude of influences – it requires that it gets internalised so that it's a physical thing as well as an intellectual thing. Which is why it can be a lot of fun to take a three-bar section and loop it, because you just get more and more understanding about it and more and more into it.

So the learning always came through performance. You didn't analyse music and say, "Look, this is what x does here"?

Sometimes it needed to be explained. And sometimes things came from experiments that I would take into the rehearsal. So I had the piece “Subjective Hooks”, which started as an experiment: me saying if we play this really banal, childish rhythm, which goes dum ... dum... duh-duh-dum, and if the drummer leans forward it's always moved forward by a semiquaver or 16th note, and if he leans back it's moved backwards by a 16th note, and everyone in the band needs to know that and lock into it. And then we have a way of, from the audience's point of view, magically shifting that started as a game. And then I wrote a big piece around it. So those were the kind of processes that were going on.

There are some great musicians - saxophonist Marius Neset, Phronesis drummer Anton Eger – who've come through that band.

Well, it's been a privilege to be involved in their development. They turned up at the school with real intensity, a desire to learn and a lot of skills. I just had fun channelling those skills and challenging them as well.

Beloved_BirdOf the two guys who are on your latest record, Belovèd Bird (Belovèd Bird trio, pictured right), bassist Petter Eldh was in StoRMChaser. Was drummer Peter Brunn at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory as well?

Yes. Funnily enough, he reminded me that we worked together when I visited the RMC many years before I had a job there. It was a big band project, he was very young then. I remember we did “New York, New York”, one of the first times that I'd done that big band arrangement of mine. And he completely understood it: the sudden shifts of tempo and the humorous aspect to it. And then I said, “Yeah, I never saw you after that.” And he said, “After that I was given the choice to go and study somewhere for a year and I went to India and got stoned for a year, and never came back to school.”

It didn't seem to do him any harm.

Listen to Django Bates's arrangement of 'New York, New York':

 

It happened by accident that there was a week when everyone formed into groups, and then at the end of the week they were showing what they'd worked on. And I walked into one room and the guy that I knew, Petter Eldh, was playing acoustic bass with this drummer who I hadn't seen for years, Peter Brunn. And just watching the two of them there, I immediately thought I'd love to get in a room and just play free with those two guys. And they were happy to do that, and that's how it started. We met many times, never with any material - let's just get together and play. And it was a really good way to start a band, actually. Then later on I was asked to play at this celebration of Charlie Parker, and I thought, hmm, this could be a good vehicle for that idea.

You were at the Royal College of Music for just two weeks before you left after seeing the now infamous sign: 'Not to be used for playing jazz'. Do you ever wonder how things would have turned out if you had stayed?

Occasionally I do, because by accident I got a little bit involved in the orchestral world in England and in other countries, for a while. I think that happened because the English orchestras were told by the Arts Council you need to be more all-encompassing and look at your audience and get more people involved in what you're doing. And they looked around, and they could only – at that time – think of me, pretty much, who was coming from the improv world but had a bunch of scores for orchestra and I was quite happy to write more. And that was great for a while. After a while I realised that things were being performed once – they'd be commissioned, they'd take months to write and you'd get them played once. And it seemed a bit silly. You wouldn't get one of these pieces cropping up in a concert somewhere.

To go back to your question, that led me to ask why that is the case. I'm really separate from that world in the way I'm viewed. That world is based around things that I don't know much about, like having a publisher who does a lot of work to get your stuff performed. It's about coming from a certain background – we could call that posh, perhaps. And it's probably about having gone through four years at the Royal College of Music or the Royal Academy of Music, and made those connections. I'm not sitting here thinking I deserve this because I didn't go through that.

I think that in my two weeks there I was talking to other students - I was pretty intimidated by the whole thing, to be honest – and I remember talking to one composition student and he said, ”What kind of music do you listen to?” And I said, “Well, actually”, and I whispered “jazz. I quite like jazz and I play jazz.” And he said, “Oh right. I quite like this guy John Taylor." And I thought that was such an unexpected response. And then years later, looking back, I'm pretty certain that would have been Mark-Anthony Turnage. So I think we started at the same time, and it's amusing for me to look at him now and see another potential version of myself.

The irony is that you're also a visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music. Do you feel that jazz is now taken slightly more seriously as an academic pursuit?

I think it is - it depends where you go. To different degrees it is taken more seriously. I do notice that it's nearly always in the basement, which it is at the Academy. I don't know, in a way you could say that's a coincidence, those rooms are best for loud drums. Or you could say, yeah, that kind of sums it up.

Going back to the concertos you wrote for Evelyn Glennie (Dream Kitchen) and Joanna MacGregor (What It's Like to be Alive). How did the orchestral players respond to the music?

They loved it. It was a very expanded version of the London Sinfonietta, the eccentric and very talented end of the classical session world – like the French horn player, Pip Eastop: just monster soloistic players. But they actually made a point of coming up to me in the first coffee break and saying, "We are really loving this. It's so different from what we've been doing and the groove element of it is fascinating for us." Some time after that I did a few gigs with the Britten Sinfonia. I wrote a piece for them and Human Chain to play together and they were very welcoming and open-minded.

I've got stories of going into orchestras and having a difficult time, so I do know what that's like, but the vast majority of those experiences have been very happy. I think they were surprised as well. I think they might have thought, we're working with a jazzer, that's an idea from the record company to make us hip, the string players are all going to have long notes. I think they were shocked to see that I took it in the extreme other direction of going back to books on orchestration and making sure they were challenged in every bar. I tried out all the things I'd always wanted to try out. And it will happen again, there's just no necessity to push it. There's a lot of stuff for orchestra of mine which has not been recorded.

I did some sums recently, just out of interest. What would it cost to hire an orchestra, get them in a studio for however long it took. And even for one session you realise it's not a home-made project. It never will be. But at some point I think it will just happen when I'm least expecting it, because these things tend to work in that way. The piano concerto, the one you mentioned with Joanna MacGregor, is going to be performed in Luxembourg next year. It's a monstrous piece of work. At some point someone's going to be mad enough... maybe Mark Zuckerberg. He might be desperate for ways to waste money.

  • In part two of my conversation with Django he talks about craftsmanship, confounding expectations, critics and why strumming one chord for a day can be time well spent.

Watch a clip of The Jazzpar Prize Concert:

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