BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London
Reviewed by Alex Roth
Regarded as one of the world’s greatest music festivals, the BBC Proms has in recent years widened its traditionally classical focus to include a number of intriguing peripheral events. Already this season the first ever Urban Classics Prom featured rappers and soul singers alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra in what the Beeb dubbed “a dynamic meeting of musical cultures”. Such a description could also have applied to an earlier, all-American Prom, in which Nicholas Collon led the Aurora Orchestra through works by Conlon Nancarrow, Philip Glass and Frank Zappa.
Not unlike Zappa’s, the work of British composer-arranger-pianist Django Bates strikes a delicate balance between technical virtuosity and zany humour. His musical world is populated by idiosyncratic melodic and rhythmic gestures that playfully combine and mutate to form complex yet thoroughly engaging landscapes. It is a world in which the line between order and chaos is delightfully blurred.
Having taken part in workshops of Django Bates’s compositions at the Royal Academy of Music, where he is Visiting Professor of Jazz, I can attest to the considerable challenges posed by some of his scores. Long rhythmic cycles, modulating tempos and varying divisions of the pulse are some of the techniques he employs to keep the listener (not to mention the performer) alert. But such is his melodic gift and orchestrational skill that for all this underlying complexity the overriding feeling of much of his music is one of wide-eyed joy.
With the 2013 Proms season now heading towards its grand finale, this late-night concert was a special occasion for several reasons. It marked Bates’s return to the festival after two and a half decades, his only other appearance there having been with the legendary British big band Loose Tubes. It was fitting then that Bates should return with another large group; the Norbotten Big Band is a Swedish ensemble that has garnered an impressive list of collaborators in its twenty-something-year history (incidentally NBB formed shortly after Loose Tubes disbanded).
Bates’s Scandinavian connections are well-known. Even before taking up a professorship at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen in 2005, he had worked with vocalist Sidsel Endresen, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and drummer Jon Christensen. His regular trio, Belovèd, features two of his former students, Swedish bassist Petter Eldh and Danish drummer Peter Bruun. The two albums with this trio present highly imaginative re-workings of music by or associated with one of Bates’s childhood heroes, the pioneering bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker. With Eldh and Bruun installed at the heart of the NBB, the pianist directed his expanded arrangements of this material from the keyboard, impressively juggling conducting duties with exhilarating improvising, and even finding time to climb down into the Prommers’ arena at one point to initiate a bit of dancing.
This didn’t feel like a gimmick – Bates has written about his memories of dancing to Parker’s music as a child, and this sense of exuberant celebration pervaded his arrangements of Parker classics like Confirmation and My Little Suede Shoes. Other well-known themes were taken in more surprising directions; Star Eyes for example, normally a mid-tempo swinger, was here slowed to an airy tone-poem and imbued with a darker edge. Elsewhere, Bates seized on the inherently serpentine melody of Donna Lee, breaking it up and refracting it through the prism of the orchestra.
Compositionally, Bates evidently feels at home in the big band format; as well as Loose Tubes, he founded the 19-piece StoRMChaser while teaching in Denmark, creating a platform for prodigious younger players such as the acclaimed saxophonist Marius Neset. And so characteristic were Bates’s extrapolations of Parker’s repertoire that his own compositions sat quite comfortably alongside them. The Study of Touch, receiving its UK premiere, further demonstrated his rhythmic suppleness and striking textural palette. Here the Norbotten Big Band came into their own, with extended solos from saxophonists Håken Broström and Karl-Martin Almqvist. However, the focus never drifted for too long away from the central trio. The rapport between Bates, Eldh and Bruun is as finely tuned as that of any other current piano trio, with knife-edge interaction as its basis.
In a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Saturday Classics last week, Bates introduced 90 minutes of typically wide-ranging (and at times brilliantly eccentric) music on bird-related themes. During the programme he mentioned an agreement that members of Loose Tubes had made to reunite in 2014 to mark 30 years since the group’s inception. On the basis of tonight’s success, one can only hope Bates does indeed return to the big band format in the near future.
Alex Roth is a guitarist, composer and creative producer. He will himself be playing at the Proms tomorrow with his band Blue-Eyed Hawk. You can find out more about him here.
Categories: Live review