REVIEW: ‘Tenacity’ – Django Bates

TRULY A MAVERICK PIANIST, multi-instrumentalist, composer and educator in the world of contemporary jazz (Loose Tubes, Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, etc.), Django Bates has long been turning the traditional concept of ‘piano trio’ on its head in his Belovèd ensemble with bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun – so compelling to watch, in concert. Two superb albums – 2010’s Belovéd Bird and 2012’s Confirmation – demonstrated a continuing breadth of invention; the former, in particular, emphasizing his deep affinity with childhood hero Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker.

For those drawn to numeric tidiness, this year marks Bates’ 60th birthday, his 40th year as a professional musician, and the 100th anniversary of Parker’s birth. So a celebration of the ‘200’ seems entirely appropriate – and new album Tenacity sees the trio joining forces with the astonishingly adept, 14-piece Norrbotten Big Band (NBB). A number of arrangements of tracks from the aforementioned albums are included, interpreted on a grander scale, alongside original compositions such as twelve-minute sensory overload, The Study of Touch (the title track of his 2017 ECM album) which was commissioned by the NBB. The trio “travelled to the Arctic Circle” (Sweden) to record the album with them because, Django declares, “…any band who’s brave enough to ask me to write for them, gets the gig!”

That mutual spirit of adventure, impressively conveyed through Nick White’s detailed ‘craggy summit’ cover imagery, is explored with immense imagination. Bates stops at nothing to achieve a different take on ‘big band’, his studio wizardry manipulating the NBB’s prowess with aplomb; and both Eldh and Bruun maintain their key positions as creative alchemists and rhythm-makers.

The leader’s hallmarks of manically prancing energy, playful rallentandos and accelerandos, plus wonderfully detuned piano/synth, are ever present, and heard in uproarious takes on Parker’s Ah Leu Cha and Donna Lee – the latter, a particular stand-out. David Raksin’s Laura (from the 1940s movie) is both sumptuous and madcap, imbued with close-harmony horns and elegant piano, then unexpected electronic squiggles and squawks. But amidst all of this, the integrity of Bates’ pianism is never in doubt, rolling breathlessly through the intricate transformation of Bird’s Confirmation; and lush Star Eyes, with characteristic upward glissandi and twinkles, is ornamented more subtly by the big band, the electric guitar textures of Markus Pesonen in particular adding to its distant otherworldliness. Throughout, the ability to dramatically scale-up and further colorize previous compositions/reimaginings such as We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way and My Little Suede Shoes is simply magnificent – and applause is due to the NBB for their technique and focus!

Overflowing with invention and verve, Tenacity is an album of continual discovery. Django Bates describes the title (and title track) as a suggestion for his audience: “Please hang on in there, the reward is not a spoonful of honey but it should be profound and lasting”. It’s certainly that, and also has me reaching for those trio albums to try to grasp a little of the thought process behind some of these opulent big band arrangements. “Best of luck with that”, went up the cry!

Released on 2 October 2020 and available from Proper Music.

 

BELOVÈD
Django Bates piano, vox
Petter Eldh double bass, vox
Peter Bruun drums, vox

NORRBOTTEN BIG BAND
Håkan Broström soprano sax
Jan Thelin clarinets
Mats Garberg flutes
Karl-Martin Almqvist tenor sax, clarinet
Per Moberg baritone sax
Bo Strandberg trumpet 1
Magnus Ekholm trumpet
Dan Johansson trumpet
Jacek Onuszkiewich trumpet
Peter Dahlgren trombone 1
Ashley Slater trombone
Björn Hängsel bass trombone
Daniel Herskedal tuba
Markus Pesonen electric guitar

djangobates.co.uk

Lost Marble – LM009 (2020)

‘Let It Be Told’ – Julian Argüelles

LetItBeTold

IT MAY APPEAR an audaciously challenging project to pull off, arranging for big band the vibrant, unrestrained soundscapes of South African jazz. But then, from first-hand experience, saxophonist and composer Julian Argüelles is well placed to reinterpret the music of the townships as translated through the creative hearts and minds of their exiles.

As one who has been greatly influenced by South Africa’s considerable impact on European and British jazz – which had begun back in the ’60s with the Blue Notes’ exodus from the apartheid state – Julian’s early career thrived as a member of expansive, effervescent and much-lauded ’80s collective Loose Tubes (whose reunion debut became a highlight of last year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival). And, along with brother Steve Argüelles and Django Bates (pivotal Loose Tubers who both feature in this recording), his playing and composition became infused with that same joyful abandon and spontaneity, which also included the saxophonist’s five inspiring years with the Brotherhood of Breath big band led by Blue Notes pianist Chris McGregor.

For new release Let It Be Told, drawing on his experiences as both member and collaborator with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, Argüelles was able to write specifically for this line-up. The sumptuous arrangements here include a number of compositions from the original Blue Notes’ personnel, including Dudu Pukwana’s Mra Khali which opens the set in euphoric fashion – crackling with flamboyant percussion, evocative African guitar groove and snappy horn riffs, the leader’s rapid alto improvisations are typically eloquent.

Mama Marimba promenades assuredly, its closely-clustered brass harmonies encouraging adventurous trombone and tenor sax solos. The beautiful simplicity of Miriam Makeba’s Retreat Song ‘takes a left’ midway to produce an attractive syncopated groove featuring Django Bates’ unmistakable pitch-bent synth gyrations; and the lush, restrained orchestration of You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ultimately diverts its modest, folksy tune into an infectious beat which ripples to Bates’ signature ‘steel pan’ keys.

Wide African skies are conjured in a joyous reading of Pukwana’s Diamond Express as its rolls down the tracks to high trumpet (shades of Hugh Masekela) and Argüelles’ marvellously characterful, unpredictable alto (the hypnotic horn ensemble just magnificent). Abdullah Ibrahim’s much-loved The Wedding receives surely one of the most ravishing and emotional arrangements here as Argüelles’ serene, Zawinulesque abstractness precedes its hymn-like wonder; and with the entry of that most memorable of melodies (Bates adding ethereal synth), rapt admiration is the overriding response.

Following Chris McGregor’s Amasi – which, in his own arrangement, dances in glorious celebration – comes a particularly inspired interpretation of Ladysmith Black Mambozo’s Amabutho, which brilliantly captures the idea of cantor and choral response as Argüelles’ alto invites deeply satisfying deep reed harmonies and high brassy declarations – a very firm favourite. And to close, Pukwana’s Come Again parties elatedly to Steve Argüelles’ clattering percussion, ‘smiling’ unison horns, whistles and rocky guitar.

Argüelles says that South African jazz has “always had a wonderful balance between something accessible, melodic and grooving, and something challenging, a little bit crazy.” In his own personal way, he perfectly embodies that spirit in a rich, sunshiny big band recording which is both thrilling and, at times, surprisingly moving. A great Summer groove!

Released 27 April 2015 on Basho Records, Let It Be Told is available from Jazz CDs and all good jazz retailers.

 

Julian Argüelles alto & soprano saxophones
Frankfurt Radio Big Band
featuring

Django Bates piano, keyboards
Steve Argüelles drums, percussion

julianarguelles.com

Basho Records – SRCD 47-2 (2015)