In his fiftieth year, Django Bates has hit a purple patch of creativity. He brought his Charlie Parker piano trio project, ‘Belovèd Bird’, to the Brit Jazz festival at Ronnie Scott’s and showed us why so many critics have already earmarked it as a likely album of the year contender.
As one might expect from Bates, his interpretations of Parker classics feature an abundance of off-kilter humour. ‘Billie’s Bounce’ emerged in disjointed fragments, as if the musicians were playing from sheet music that had been put through a shredder and reassembled nearly as it originally was. ‘My Little Suede Shoes’ saw the musicians taking divergent paths, as if playing in different time signatures, but somehow coming together by the end of the head. Very clever stuff. With heavy irony, Bates noted that ‘Moose the Mooche’ was the only number that required no introduction as they had played it “the way it should be played”. This, of course, belied the way in which the trio had pulled the metre of this tune right out of shape.
Yet right from the beginning of the set, Bates quashed any doubt about his credentials as a serious jazz musician with an improvisation on ‘Scrapple from the Apple’ that featured angular, fleet-footed right hand lines as dazzling as those of any pianist currently on the scene. Indeed, the overriding impression from this set was of his remarkable pianism, which ranged from bold Erroll Garner-like block chords on ‘Star Eyes’ to skittering two-handed flurries bringing to mind the New York hipness of Jason Moran. His moving ballad playing on ‘Laura’, the theme delivered in perfectly weighted and dreamily re-harmonised chords, was a highlight of the set.
Completing the trio, the youthful pairing of Peter Bruun on drums and Petter Eldh on double bass was outstanding, providing supple and selfless support throughout. Bruun’s playing was at times reminiscent of ECM stalwart Jon Christensen, as his sensitive work on sticks and brushes considerably enriched the texture of the music and went far beyond merely keeping time. Eldh’s probing approach consistently paid off as he found the perfect countermelodies to dovetail with Bates. It will be fascinating to see what this excellent trio does next, assuming that a follow-up project is part of Bates’s plan.
Scottish quartet Brass Jaw also had a lot of fun reworking the music of Charlie Parker at one point in their opening slot, subjecting ‘Au Privave’ to abrupt accelerations and halts as the group exchanged solos like footballers stopping a ball dead and passing it on. The key feature of Brass Jaw is the lack of any safety net in the form of a rhythm section and this made for some exhilarating moments. In a set with an emphasis on quick-burning hard bop, the line-up of Paul Towndrow on alto sax, Ryan Quigley on trumpet, Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor sax and Allon Beauvoisin on baritone sax adeptly compensated for the absence of bass, piano and drums through their impeccable sense of time and finely wrought arrangements, but with just enough of a rough edge to keep the music engaging throughout.