...Is one of Britain's most inventive jazz keyboard players, with a myriad of different strings to his performing bow, and an unusually open-minded approach to new technology. Simon Trask listens to what he has to say.
Talented keyboardist Django Bates is at the forefront of a new wave of British modern jazz musicians - players who are absorbing new technology and new influences to create a brighter, more accessible music. Will it attract a mass following?
"I don't think one sort of music is more likely to he popular than any other. It's just a matter of being able to hear enough of it, and maybe having the music explained."
Not surprisingly, Loose Tubes' eclectic approach to music springs from the varied musical tastes of its members.
'Maybe it's just coincidence but all of us have got into a really wide variety of music', muses Bates. 'The trumpet player Chris Batchelor, for instance, has got loads of records of Irish pipe music and Balkan clarinet music. That sounds really pretentious but it's not; he just really likes that music. And I've always been into Romanian folk music.
'Those are the stranger ones, but there's also a lot of different pop music that people in the band like.'
Popular myth has it that jazz musicians are a notoriously introverted bunch, sticking to the music they know and rarely drifting far afield. Nowadays, though, modern jazz players are more open to working in other areas of music. They've got the facility they've always had, but they've also got the interest, and are now willing to admit they can gain musically from the experience of branching out. The musicians in Sting's band are only the most visible example of this trend, as Bates confirms.
'Yeah. Jazz used to be very much a private club atmosphere. Bebop and stuff went out of its way to be itself and not let anyone else in. But now the whole thing is opening up, which is why I still hold out hope that radio stations might one day give jazz adequate coverage. I don't think one sort of music is more likely to be popular than any other. It's just a matter of being able to hear enough of it, and maybe, maybe, having the music explained. With jazz I think the message is usually pretty clear; whatever the message is, it usually comes over strongly.
'The response to Loose Tubes has always been good. Whatever people have been expecting to hear, they always seem to like us.'
JAZZ MUSIC IN THE UK has a history of dissemination through musician-owned labels. The big-league record companies have never seen jazz as a marketable commodity — conveniently ignoring their own role in defining what is and what isn't marketable.
Loose Tubes Records has so far released the first two Loose Tubes records, and the first disc by Human Chain (currently a duo comprising Bates and drummer Steve Arguelles). Not unexpectedly, Bates is an enthusiastic supporter of the DIY route to getting music out to the people.
'I wish everyone would work like that and bypass the established system. There are so many people in between your music and getting it played on the radio, for instance, who are just there to make money. That really annoys me.
'You can sell records at gigs. The whole operation becomes so scaled down that to some people it might seem pointless, but to me it seems really good — it's like starting up your own little shop.
'With the Human Chain record we paid for everything ourselves, from recording right through to the finished product. We spent thousands of quid just because we wanted to make a record, not because we think we're going to get our money back. We had a thousand printed. There's no way we're going to get our money back even if we sell every copy, but that isn't the point.
'I've been to record companies in Japan with the Loose Tubes and Human Chain records. That was my first experience of hustling with those sort of people, and it was horrible. They knew what they were going to do that year, what they were going to make popular. They weren't interested in putting on a record and saying "God! I've never heard anything like that before", because it didn't matter whether they'd heard it or not.
'In Japan the big thing was reissuing old Blue Note records on Compact Disc, which is great because those are brilliant records, but why spend all that money on something that they missed out on first time around?'
But dealing in nostalgia can be a lot cheaper than investing in what's happening now...
'That's a good point — though CBS have put together a "new jazz" compilation, which includes 'Yellow Hill' off the first Loose Tubes album. But then, would they have paid for Loose Tubes to go and record an album? I don't think they'd have had the nerve.'
"I've got some brilliant ideas for sampling on the Mirage, but I don't get time for that side of things. I've done a lot of programming on the Prophet 5 because I enjoy altering the sounds."
"I had the choice of going to the Royal College for four years or just going out and trying to play, and that's when I decided to go out and play jazz."
'For me quite a lot. If I have to do a gig on those three keyboards and no acoustic piano, it's quite a challenge for me, because I was brought up playing acoustic instruments and to me they're still very important. There's something not quite right about not using them on a gig, but in a way that's good because it challenges me to try and get these instruments to sound human.
'So if I'm getting some material together I can't just sit down at the piano and write a tune. I have to get the sounds and find out what's going to work. Actually, it's not quite that straightforward; the sounds and the musical ideas go together. I've got to bear in mind, when I'm writing for keyboards, that the music's going to have to be playable with a certain set of sounds.
'Some sounds I really like on synthesisers and some I really detest, though I find it hard to explain why. I don't go for hard sounds very often, which is perhaps a reflection of the way I play.
'I suppose I like human sounds, whatever that might mean. I like sounds to be slightly out of tune, and the Prophet's brilliant for that because you can tune each note separately. But it's very hard to play with other people using different tunings; you can't tell the double-bass player to keep playing the third and the fifth sharp and the seventh flat.'
On stage, Bates likes to use a real piano in preference to electronic imitations, feeling that nothing can reproduce the full dynamic and timbral range of the piano.
'Someone has graded 55 different dynamics on one note on the piano, and for each dynamic you get a slightly different tone. And if you play a chord you get a whole lot of different harmonics, which you don't seem to get with digital pianos. To capture all that information digitally is no easy task.
'I bought a Yamaha electric grand at one time, thinking it would solve all my problems. But each note with its pickup seemed to take only the sound of that note; you never got the whole keyboard sound like you do with a piano's sounding board. I tired of the Yamaha's sound really quickly.'
Yet the acoustic piano has given Bates problems which he feels can only be resolved through the adoption of electronic instruments.
'The problem I've found is that you can't do a gig with acoustic piano and drums. It's just so hard to get the two things to work together; somehow the drums seem to block out harmonics on the piano. So you try miking the piano and the piano sound changes, and then some of the drum sound leaks into the piano mic. That's one reason why I started using synths.
'Another reason is that you so rarely find a good piano at a gig. I remember once I went on tour in Finland with First House, which is an acoustic group, and I thought I'd just take a piano pickup and rely on the pianos that I found there. I suppose I wasn't being very realistic. You can't play a terrible piano with that band, though I ended un trying a few times. But some places didn't even have a piano, so we ended up hiring a PF15 in each village and using that. Actually I quite like the PF.'
As for other keyboard players, Bates numbers Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, Bill Evans and Bud Powell among his past influences. Jarrett's influence, in particular, at one time threatened to overwhelm the young musician.
'When I heard Keith Jarrett's music for the first time and was trying to understand what was going on, I just listened to him again and again and again. I started trying to play too much like him, or rather, when I was playing I was always aware that I either wasn't sounding enough like him, or I was sounding too much like him.
'The other thing was that Keith Jarrett's playing was so perfect that I decided nothing could ever be any better, including my own playing. In the end I felt that I had to stop listening to him; the whole situation was so negative. Sometimes I still listen to him and think "that is the ultimate". His playing is a mixture of so much that it almost includes everything I've ever liked. It's not a problem for me any more, though.'
Bates is a musician who knows where he's going and has his priorities firmly fixed. With his own standards of musical excellence, he is scathing of the inferior music which is prevalent nowadays.
'Someone like Herbie Hancock can come along and do something really good, with a lot of thought in it, but it's so easy for millions of other people to turn on a drum machine and overdub some really naff keyboard playing.
'Somewhere along the line, people forget to actually think about what's good and what isn't. It seems that it's possible to get away with just about anything if someone will put enough money into producing, advertising and selling it. That's all you need, which is a shame. But there's good hip hop, there's good rock 'n' roll... there's good in any kind of music.'
Words which neatly sum up the attitude of today's young jazz musicians — and go a long way towards explaining why they're producing some of the most exciting, accessible and relevant music of the moment.
Whether they will break out of the mould and reach the sort of mass audience their music deserves remains to be seen. But with a Loose Tubes tour covering the length and breadth of England in the second half of October, this is your chance to catch them first hand. Open your ears, and be prepared for a real treat.
Interview by Simon Trask
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