Review: Prom 62: Django Bates – A Celebration of Charlie Parker

Django Bates. BBC Proms 2013. Photo Credit BBC/ Chris Christodoulou
Prom 62: Django Bates: A Celebration of Charlie Parker. 
(BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, 28th August. Review by Alyn Shipton)

On the surface, this concert had about as much to do with Charlie Parker as Ross Russell’s idealised and highly inaccurate book about the saxophonist, which was Django Bates’ teenage inspiration for first exploring Parker’s music. There were snatches of Parker themes, and some repertoire associated with his recordings, but little connection to the blues that lay at the heart of his every note, and seldom any direct representation of the saxophonist’s free-ranging improvisational playing.

That said, as with most of Django Bates’s music, deeper currents were swirling through the evening than the surface eddies and whirlpools of the collaboration between his trio Belovèd and the Norrbotten Big Band. The way in which Bates has teased Parker’s body of work into new life in a piano trio setting over the last few years has been highly intriguing. It has been marvellous to witness Belovèd ’s collective growth from concert to concert and from first to second album. The spirited interaction between his increasingly virtuosic piano and the playing of bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun is the link to Parker’s extemporary genius. Whereas Parker mainly experimented with fast flowing melodic lines that delved nonchalantly into passing and unusual chords, playing across, inside and outside the four-square rhythms of his time, Bates’s experiments plot such ideas on a broader canvas, with far more rhythmic flexibility and a less metronomic concept of time.

Prom 62. Photo credit: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou

Sensibly, the trio — with its well-developed intuitive interplay —remained the core of the concert, and particularly in the early part of the evening the textures and tones brought in by the Norrbotten players often remained just that. As the piano, bass and drums delved deeply into David Raksin’s melody “Laura”, the big band’s sustained notes and occasional choppy phrases complemented the trio’s playing, with Finnish guitarist Markus Pesonen adding scratches and crunches to the tonal palette. As they moved on to the next, more uptempo segment of the concert, Bates really went for it as a soloist, somehow managing to be energetic and outgoing, yet introspective at the same time, and his big band writing, with densely textured reeds and punchy brass interjections, was thrilling.

The UK premiere of Bates’s own “The Study of Touch” (originally inspired not so much by Parker as the Incredible String Band) was, ironically the piece that Parker himself might have recognised as closest to his own work with large jazz orchestras. Emerging from a simple five-note left hand piano motif, passages from reeds and brass gradually coalesced into a powerful whole. Both the soprano saxophonist Håken Broström and tenorist Karl-Martin Almqvist then took lengthy solos, the former punching his way over the ensemble, the latter interacting more closely with his reed section colleagues.

Django Bates. BBC Proms 2013. Photo credit BBC/ Chris Christodoulou
Bacharach’s “A House Is Not a Home, with Ashley Slater as vocalist led to a momentary draining of momentum, but the concert took flight again with a rousing “My Little Suede Shoes”. As with many of Bates’s reworkings of well-known melodies, the tune popped out slightly unexpectedly over a rhythmic backdrop that was floating rather than firmly anchored, and the band — trio and section players working as one — then swaggered into its stride, before Bates jumped down off the stage to dance among the standing Promenaders.

The best was saved until last: a dense, thorough and affectionate interpretation of “Star Eyes”. Overall, the expansion of the trio’s repertoire to encompass Europe’s most Northerly professional big band was a great success, with some striking and interesting writing from Bates. Parker, on the eve of what would have been his 83rd birthday, and wearing the hat that loved musical innovation and adventure, would no doubt have loved it.

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. I very much agree with this review. Except for Ashley Slater´s performance as a singer, that to me was the weak spot of the evening.

    A singer who holds the text with his left hand while his right partly remains in his trouser pocket might be fine in a recording studio, but not in a place like the Royal Albert Hall.

    Michael Rüsenberg

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