...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?
The lot of the jazz musician in Britain has never been an easy one. But in the face of continued public apathy and record company complacency, the music and the musicians have survived — albeit at a price. Too many jazz musicians have accepted the status quo, and with it the belief that popularity equates with poor quality.
But one group of musicians are currently running riot through the conventions of what jazz 'ought' to be — and insist that their music can gain popular appeal without making sacrifices. Collectively they make up a 21-piece big band called Loose Tubes, whose gigs have consistently garnered rave reviews for their musical eclecticism, highly polished performances, and sheer, vital exuberance.
Prominent among this new generation of musicians is 26-year-old keyboard player and composer Django Bates. Currently he divides his time between Loose Tubes, the Iain Ballamy Quartet, First House, his own band Human Chain, and a new quartet with drummer Bill Bruford. While First House is an all-acoustic quartet, the other bands feature Bates' electronic setup of Prophet 5, DX7 and Mirage keyboard sampler. The Bruford quartet has been set up to operate at the experimental end of hi-tech instrumentation.
'Bill's been using Simmons MIDI'd to a keyboard, playing notes as well as percussive sounds', says Bates. 'He wanted to do something specifically using that setup. The band's still in the early stages, and we're still finding out what works and what doesn't, but we did some gigs in Japan which went really well. We'll be doing a record for EG in October.'
Bates' exposure to music started 'at the age of zero' courtesy of his father's record collection: jazz rubbing shoulders with African and Romanian folk music. He started playing piano on his own at an early age, later taking lessons in piano, trumpet, violin and guitar. While at school he attended the ILEA Centre for Young Musicians in South London, where his training was exclusively classical.
'For a while I thought that classical music was the only way. At the time there seemed to be too much chance in improvised music, too many things to go wrong or just not sound good. Sometimes now I feel a bit the same way; I tend to fluctuate from one to the other. I do like things to be quite organised.'
On leaving school, Bates took a two-year full-time course at Morley College. The course was again devoted to classical music, but Bates was introduced to the more contemporary music of composers like Steve Reich, Charles Ives and Olivier Messiaen by then - resident teacher and composer Dave Smith. It was also at Morley that Bates began playing jazz.
The musician then began a four-year composition course at the Royal College of Music, but left after two weeks, realising that he wanted to play jazz piano rather than learn about Monteverdi operas.
'When I had the choice of either going to the Royal College for four years or just going out and trying to play, that's when I took the decision to go out and play some jazz. I also wanted to teach myself all that I needed to know about composing and improvising.
'For a while I was doing a couple of gigs a week at somewhere like the Tramshed in Woolwich, and washing up in hotels at lunchtimes. I thought that was brilliant, really glamorous — having to wash up to survive.'
There followed a year during 1979-80 as leader of a resident support band at a weekly jazz club at the Waterside Theatre in Rotherhithe. The band played in between the sets of established musicians such as Stan Tracey, Harry Beckett and Dudu Pukwana.
'We never got paid, but it was brilliant — just the experience of playing in front of a lot of people. We started writing our own material, which consisted of ridiculous chord sequences that we really couldn't play over! But we used to get very encouraging comments from the other musicians who played there, people who were our heroes.'
Another residency at the delightfully-named Dizzy's Diner wine bar in Beckenham led to the formation of Bates' own band Humans (later Human Chain) in 1981. He also joined Tim Whitehead's Borderline, which led to his first record, and in 1982 played for a while with reggae band Skank Orchestra. Ever a man to challenge himself with new musical situations, Bates joined Dudu Pukwana's Zila in 1983 to play music which had its roots in the townships of South Africa — music he had been exposed to from an early age.
A BUSY ENOUGH LIFE for most musicians, it might seem, but Bates was also playing what he pointedly terms 'commercial' gigs.
'I'd take any gig that was offered to me, simply because I wanted to play. Some gigs were absolutely dreadful. I'd get there and it would be just a singer and me with my battered Fender Rhodes, no bass or drums. I didn't know any of the tunes and the singer didn't have any music!
'But it was good in one sense, good for my ears. I'd never just give up and accept that it was going to be shit. I'd spend the whole gig struggling to make it not too embarrassing; it was horrible but also good.'
Loose Tubes grew out of a rehearsal band formed by Graham Collier in 1983 to play charts by established British jazz composers. When the musicians started to bring in their own compositions, the band began to take on a musical identity of its own. The band members also decided they wanted to run things their own way, adopting a democratic organisation that ensured all the musicians had a say in the running of the band — hard enough to achieve in a small band, but a minor miracle with a group of 21 musicians.
"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."
Bates' trip to Japan was also disappointing for another reason.
'I just didn't get to hear any Japanese music. All I heard was American music — and the bland stuff, at that.'
A recent trip to Malawi with fellow Loose Tubes musician John Eacott, however, was more successful in discovering the local music — after some effort.
'We went to a school where my mother was teaching. There was one music teacher for the school, and his attitude was that there wasn't much point getting the kids to play anything because it's just impossible to make a living playing music in Malawi. There's only one band, which works in the Longwi Hotel.
'John and I asked if we could sit in on a lesson, and then we spent the whole lesson desperately trying to steer it in the direction of playing some music. In the end we did. We got some of the kids to show us rhythms from their villages. They were really embarrassed at first — in fact, they confessed that when they come to school they pretend they don't know anything about their village life. It took a lot of persuasion for them to show us how they built up their rhythms. The end result was brilliant; the music teacher couldn't believe it either.'
From ancient to modern. Bates' introduction to the synthesiser came about in 1983, through playing in a commercial band.
'I just had a Fender Rhodes at the time, and the leader of one band kept on nagging me to get a synthesiser. Every gig he'd tell me at least 10 times, and eventually I decided to get one just to shut him up.
'I ended up getting a secondhand Prophet 5, purely by chance, and very reluctantly started using it at the gigs. To begin with I thought "I don't like this at all", but gradually I began to see all the possibilities.'
The Prophet is now integral to Bates' music-making, along with his DX7 and Mirage.
'The Prophet is nearly always my frontline instrument. The DX7 I either use on its own for backing sounds, or MIDI'd up to the Mirage for basslines. Sometimes I use the Mirage and the DX to play single-line things, but for me it's very hard to find something that's as good as the Prophet. I want a synth to sound like some strange horn instrument or strings, and the DX doesn't really do that for me at all. In fact, I'm not really sure that I really like digital synths that much. I haven't heard any that make me go: "Wow!".'
It seems that keyboard manufacturers are aiming at a different market to the one I'm in. Maybe that's why I'm using an older keyboard. When I play through the presets on most synths I don't like any of them. Maybe I need a live-in programmer.
'I bought a Prophet T8 a while ago. Touch-sensitivity and a longer keyboard together with those Prophet sounds — I thought it would be the answer to all my problems. When I got it I spent ages trying to get the same sounds that I had on my Prophet 5, but no matter how hard I tried, there was always quite a big difference. In the end I just gave up, and now it's lying at home gathering dust; every time I walk past it I feel guilty.
'I've got what I think would be some brilliant ideas for sampling on the Mirage, but I just don't get time for that side of things. I've done a lot of programming on the Prophet because I really enjoy altering the sounds on that. Rather than be happy to use just preset sounds, I'd rather go out of my way to find my own sounds, or get someone to come up with the sort of sounds I want.
'Having said that, with the DX there's only about four sounds that I use, and they really are useful.'
And how much do sounds encourage musical inspiration in certain directions?
"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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