Part of what we do at LondonJazz News, Sebastian writes, is to give a platform for musicians to write about music and musicians they admire. In my view, a gold standard for this was set by Gareth Lockrane who wrote a profile of saxophonist Dick Oatts to preview an appearance in London in 2016 (link below).
In conversation with Rick Simpson, and with the idea of following up his recent piece in praise of Geri Allen and the Printmakers album, I asked if he could name ten tracks by an artist he admires. This piece, which we hope will be the first in a new series, was his response.
Rick Simpson writes:
When I was asked to write a piece on a musician’s music that I can’t live without, I immediately thought of Django Bates.
Since my introduction to his music at the age of sixteen I’ve been hooked, a genuine fan, attending every concert, buying every record and trying to figure out what’s going on ‘under the hood’. Bates’ music cannot be celebrated enough or his artistic achievements overestimated. I struggle to think of another musician who has maxed out their abilities in piano playing, their rhythmic and harmonic grasp and their compositional abilities, not to mention the huge, idiosyncratic personality on display in their music. No matter what mood I may find myself in, his discography will always have something that fits – whether it be high-wire piano trio playing, mischievous, comedic songs, hymnal large ensemble passages, anthemic celebrations or even, as he delivered on 2004’s You Live and Learn, a ‘pop’ hit. Below are several handpicked tracks I can’t do without and that will serve to give any new listener a glimpse into Bates’ musical vision:
1) You Can’t Have Everything from Winter Truce and Homes Blaze (JMT Records, 1995)
The opening track from Bates’ seminal 1995 album Winter Truce (and Homes Blaze) features a cast of the brightest stars in UK jazz singing a maxim that perhaps Bates had to remind himself of from time to time – you can’t have everything. Martin France provides a marching accompanying snare drum beat whilst the band sings the lyric again and again. The music is genuinely rousing and anthemic, but just when you think you have a handle on it, it takes a sudden left turn and enters a driving backbeat section for Julian Arguelles’ baritone and Roland Bates’ trombone to soar over. The music then moves onto a passage that almost sounds like a National Anthem before collapsing and heading back to where we first began, this time with extra lyrical content. I particularly like the hidden “You can’t accept!” in the choir. Christine Tobin then leads us into flag waving territory, Barak Schmool’s piccolo flute soaring over the top.
Wonderful. (If you really want to dine out on this tune then there’s a reprise at the closing of the album which wrenches every bit of emotional and musical interest out of this piece).
2) Early Bloomer from Winter Truce (and Homes Blaze) (JMT Records, 1995)
A lot of music on this record is complex and occasionally daunting to listen to. Early Bloomer follows the chaos of Bates’ humorous but chaotic arrangement of New York, New York and sits perfectly in the middle of the record. There’s no rhythm section or vocals here, just the woodwind instruments slowly unpacking a gorgeous hymn. Each phrase pulls the listener forwards. What grabbed me upon first listen is the destination: the final breathtaking held chord that feels as though it could go on forever. At just over two minutes this is a beautiful little piece of music that has always been very dear to me.
3) Is There Anyone Up There? from Quiet Nights (Screwgun Records, 1990)
In a small group setting, Bates explores the mysteries of the cosmos and whether we’re here by design or pure luck. As a teenager, experiencing complex music for the first time, the chordal introduction knocked me for six. It’s menacing, dissonant, yet strangely beautiful. As an adult I can now hear how Messiaen’s influence looms large. I love this piece as it fits snugly between heartwrenchingly beautiful and bewilderingly dissonant. It is uniquely Django Bates. Even the piano sound he chose is almost comical. Close enough to sound like a piano but far enough away to sound unique. Bates is well known for his explorations on keyboards, which adds another string to his bow. I always loved the voice over from Josefine Cronholm especially, the description of the ‘lukewarm’ BBC always making me laugh. The music here is both simple and complex, strange but catchy. A Bates trademark.
4) Peculiar Terms of Physical Intimacy from Music For The Third Policeman (Ah Um Records, 1990)
I recently read Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Third Policeman’ after being a fan of this underrated Bates classic for years. This is perhaps the most immediately standout composition on this set of music written for and inspired by O’Brien’s 1939 surrealist masterpiece. It’s remarkable how, again, Bates treads the line perfectly between simple and complex, strange and catchy. What starts off as a kind of Irish sea shanty turns into a classic Bates exercise in adding surprise and musically difficult turns. It doesn’t sound like anything you’d ever expect a jazz musician to write and record and that’s another reason why I love this. The version on the JazzPar prize record Like Life is also fantastic.
5) Three Architects Called Gabrielle: Just What I Expected from Summer Fruits (And Unrest) (JMT Records, 1993)
This is from Summer Truce (and Unrest) – one of the ‘four seasons’ albums which are essential for any fans of Bates’ music. I chose this piece because for its thrilling example of Bates’ world class keyboard playing. This also gives us a rare chance to hear one of Bates’ closest musical partners, Iain Ballamy playing alto saxophone, rather than his usual choice of tenor. If there’s one musician who sounds like Bates’ musical soulmate it’s Ballamy. The pair have appeared on numerous recordings together including six of Bates’ own albums. They seem to share the same musical attributes and mindset: both masters of their instrument, both wonderful composers and both searching for a unique sound-world. Their partnership stretches back into the 1970s with Ballamy’s own ‘Balloon Man’ being one of the first examples of the two musicians in a small group context. It’s hard to believe that Ballamy was just twenty-four at the time of recording. Such is their partnership that anyone familiar with Bates’ musical output will be, by default, intimate with Ballamy’s. They are one of Jazz’s all-time great musical pairings.
The composition itself is a thrilling whirlwind through several themes, some that sound almost like game-show music. Again, another example of music that’s at once complex but insanely catchy. You can’t quite believe that no-one had written the main vocal theme from this before, it sounds so comfortingly familiar. I love this piece for the fierce interaction between Bates and drummer Martin France. Their musical communication and rapport is a thrill to behold, each spurring the other on to new heights. This is Jazz playing at the top echelon and an antidote to the perception that British Jazz is often fairly polite. Mike Mondesir almost steals the show here on electric bass.
6) Ralf’s Trip from Autumn Fires (and Green Shoots) (JMT Records, 1994)
For this record of solo piano, Bates travelled to New York to record in the legendary Electric Lady Studios. The whole of this record is extraordinary but I love this tune as it is a rare example of Bates playing ‘straight ahead’, even stride piano! Here he showcases that his jazz piano credentials are as grounded in the past as they are the present. Even though Bates is playing authentic stride he still sounds exactly like himself, the music containing some thoroughly English ingredients. This is world-class piano playing.
7) Like Life – title track (Storyville, 1998)
The title track of Bates’ JazzPar album recording is another demonstration of his natural ability to write incredibly catchy and melodic music. Bates has always had an amazing knack at finding great hooks. Here you can hear him cut loose on his second instrument, the tenor-horn, before Anders Chico Lindvall takes a storming guitar solo. We’re then off into more playful Bates territory, with a 6/8 shuffle having its rhythm subverted by unexpected accentuation. It’s all so joyous to listen to.
8) Horses in Rain from Good Evening…Here is the News (Decca, 1996)
Bates collaborated with the London Sinfonietta on this record, who lend a previously unheard orchestral element to his music. The highlight is the gorgeous Horses in Rain. Sidsel Endresen sings a melody that stays mostly on one note and it’s how Bates frames the harmony and instrumentation around that note that makes this piece so beautiful.
9) You Live And Learn… (Apparently) – title track (Lost Marble, 2004)
As mentioned previously, this is the furthest towards ‘pop’ that Bates ever dared tread. But even this relatively straight-forward song is full of mischievous moments and angular turns. I’ve sung along to this in my car many, many times. When the ‘bridge’ hits and Martin France settles into a backbeat it is a genuinely glorious moment of music and a great payoff. Jim Mullen’s guitar features throughout and he gets space to blow over Bates’ hypnotic and, again, mischievous outro. If Bates had decided to go into singer-songwriter territory instead of jazz, I have no doubt that the results would have been extraordinary. I wonder if this tune is connected somehow to the earlier You Can’t Have Everything. Are these songs therapy for Django?
10) Alone Again (Naturally) from You Live And Learn… (Apparently) (Lost Marble, 2004)
This is the only piece of music on this list which isn’t a Bates original composition. Nestled at the end of You Live And Learn (Apparently) is this arrangement for long-term Bates collaborator Josefine Lindstrand with The Smith [String] Quartet. I’ve always loved this Gilbert O’Sullivan song but here Bates somehow manages to wrench out even more tragedy than the original. The arrangement is a virtuoso display from Bates, exploring a huge range of textures and harmony. Forgive me for being sycophantic but is there anything he cannot do?
I hope this ten-track list encourages new and old listeners alike to delve into this vast and rich discography by a musician that I don’t think we can celebrate enough. I could have written this article several times over and there are some glaring omissions (if you will: The Study of Touch (Tenacity, 2020), Sheep (Spring is Here…Shall We Dance, 2008), My Girl (Human Chain, 1986), Sweet William (Säd Afrika, 2012) and many, many more). This music has bought me so much pleasure over the years and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
LINKS: Django Bates’ website