Django Bates and the Norrbotten Big Band do the double at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival


DjangoBatesGatesheadYou could argue that it's easier to premier a project than to take it on a successful second outing, particularly when that premier is a wonderfully eccentric tribute to Charlie Parker that left critics salivating and a packed Albert Hall in raptures.

But if revered British pianist Django Bates felt the pressure of a follow up, he didn't let it show, even with the added complications that come from flying in your big band from the wilds of arctic Sweden only to find that their suits and most of their instruments didn't make it beyond Copenhagen airport.

Perhaps the unfamiliarity of borrowed horns played a part because a first set homage to North East pop outfit Prefab Sprout, arranged by Norrbotten's artistic director and Sprout fan Joakim Milder, was a shaky start.

There were some nice moments. In 'God Watch Over You', Milder's Saxophone cleaved through rich voicings and a tumultuous brass backing that rose and fell like a North Sea squall. A mellow trombone feature on 'Oh, The Swiss', set to the backdrop of introspective guitar and washes of cymbal, was similarly effective. But on the whole, the arrangements sat awkwardly with the band. Swirling chromatic lines and gentle grooves quickly became directionless, stab backings cluttered the texture and endings were a little uncomfortable.

Yet when Bates took his seat in the rhythm section for the second half, surrounded by the band and his trio Belovèd, it wasn't long before we were back to the gloriously schizophrenic music of Prom 62. Challenging and meticulously chaotic, the set was a masterclass in compositional technique. Tempos and textures changed on a whim, eddies of squabbling saxophone were contrasted with arhythmic stabs from the brass and freer elements merged seamlessly with through composition.

In the midst of it all were glimpses and distortions of bebop themes. A fragment of Donna Lee's frantic melody appeared in the trumpet section before melting back into the texture, while a riff from Parker favourite 'Star Eyes' became an eerie vamp. Markus Pesonen contributed scrapes and scratches, drawing a tattered bow across the strings of his guitar, while Bates harmonised his scrambling piano lines with those of a detuned synth, creating an effect like the last gasp of an exhausted music box.

'Confirmation', featuring a virtuosic solo from Bates and bewitching interplay from the rhythm section, was another firm favourite. As was a latin rendering of 'Little Suede Shoes' and Bates original 'The Study of Touch', trio led and given room to breathe by a sensitive big band accompaniment.

Bewitching and irreverent, this is music that keeps you guessing and when the tinny sound of a mobile phone erupted from the audience in the final moments of the set it could almost have been a plant. If it was unintentional, it did nothing to spoil the occasion, an assured second UK outing for Bates and his Scandinavian collaborators and a strong start to the 10th Gateshead International Jazz Festival.

– Thomas Rees (@ThomasNRees)
– Photos © Tim Dickeson