Django Bates & Frankfurt Radio Big Band — Celebrating Charlie Parker
(Alte Oper, Frankfurt, 28 October 2020. Reviewed from livestream by AJ Dehany)
2020 is many things, not least the centenary of one of the architects of bebop (and by extension modern jazz itself) Charlie Parker. The immortal Bird died tragically in 1955, aged thirty-four in such a physical state that the coroner mistook his body to be between 50 to 60 years of age. 2020 is many things, and some of them are actually happy, and one of the actually happy things about 2020 is the 60th birthday of composing pianist and British jazz legend Django Bates, a creative sprite with the energy and rude health of a 34-year old: as evidenced in this streamed live concert performing with his Beloved Trio and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band celebrating, as he has for the past decade, the music of Charlie Parker.
The production of the streamed concert is impressive and immersive. At times the on screen image is varied with an overlay of orange monochromes for art’s sake. You don’t see the audience but are aware of their presence from Django Bates’ effusions of gratitude to be in a room with people, having not played a gig since March when they played Moods in Zurich, where they knew it would be the last one for a while at least. The same lugubrious foreknowledge suffuses this concert. “Can I swear? No, it’s live radio, but it’s English. I’m bloody amazed that you’re here. I’m so grateful! Fantastic. We had a plan a long time ago to celebrate Charlie Parker’s hundredth birthday year and that’s why we’re here and that’s why you’re here.”
The sound is close-miked and so immediate that on good headphones the detail can have a physical punch and trick you into thinking a percussive rasp or orchestral flourish is someone scratching outside at the window. The music itself is as impressive as ever: teasingly and tirelessly complex, but suffused with passion and energy. Bates has described the process in the recent interview with Kevin LeGendre. In concert opener Donna Lee “the melody is draped over something from another world”, stretched and compressed, distorted, some phrases dragged out and given new meaning, put under a microscope. It gives the music a collage effect, or even a mosaic. In Scrapple From The Apple, the phrases of the tune are so well-worn as to be almost licks. They use them more like punctuation to round off improvisations that stretch out tempo and harmony before being pulled back like a bungee.
Ah-Leu Cha is less elastically realized, but even as Parker wrote it, the piece is already a contrafact of “Honeysuckle Rose” with a bridge based on the rhythm changes. The mischievous transmogrifications of Django Bates are an extension of techniques already employed by Parker. Musical and literary modernism deploys quotation as a framework for situating the present in a mythically structured past. In Bates’s postmodernism, the perpetual present of the music integrates original material with previously composed and quoted ideas with such a degree of virtuosity that it veers close to the mindset of freely improvised music.
There’s a dizzying sense of spontaneity when it’s just the Beloved Trio of Django Bates on piano, bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun. At Ronnie Scott’s a few years ago this was a great opportunity for a deep dive into how it all works and fits together, complete with disguised wordplays on the name Django: REVIEW. The albums Beloved Bird (2010) and The Study of Touch (2017) document this terrifying group in its early stages, but since 2013 they have been working with Sweden’s Norrbotten Big Band. There was a BBC Prom concert in 2013 and this year sees the release of Tenacity, which has been well-reviewed.
The Frankfurt album launch on 28 October was actually performed with a different group, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, who certainly hold their own against the Swedes, with a loud and exuberant jazz feeling from this omnicompetent set of musicians. At times Bates gets up and conducts them. During the ribald rhumba reimagining of My Little Suede Shoes there are effects that are harder to play than they sound. The latin riff is hammered home with a climactic instance of what students of Steve Reich would call ‘phasing’ an echo (almost a round here) where two or more sets of musicians play the same parts but one beat out from each other: the sound swells up head-spinningly.
Django Bates tells the story of how he came to Parker. “When I was at school, boys need heroes. They used to choose football players. Cards; I couldn’t get into this. My father lent me the book Bird Lives and he became my hero. I took some plasticine and made a model of his face. It had a peaceful quality. He became like a zen figure. That was Charlie Parker and that’s why we’re here celebrating the beautiful wonderful man and the beautiful wonderful music.”
AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk