Review: Django Bates Belovèd and the Norbotten Big Band at the 2014 Gateshead International Jazz Festival

Django Bates Belovèd and the Norbotten Big Band.
(Gateshead International Jazz Festival. The Sage. 4th April 2014. Review by Rob Edgar)

We are Not Lost We are Simply Finding Our Way: It's the name of a of a tune by Django Bates and it is also a handy metaphor for the first night of the Gateshead International Jazz Festival at the Sage which featured two sets: the first from the Norbotten Big Band (exploring the music of Prefab Sprout and Paddy Mcaloon) and the second, which saw them team up with Django Bates' Belovèd for an re-imagining of the music of Charlie Parker, and the North East première of Bates' The Study of Touch.

“We're normally very smart” said leader Joakim Milder as the Norbotten Big Band took to the stage, “but our luggage is stuck at Copenhagen airport.” Despite being hit with setbacks on their journey, everything worked like clockwork: players would leave the desk and wander up to the front of the stage for a solo; they are a full-time salaried group which means they get a lot of preparation time. Only minimal direction was needed from Milder; just a few measured gesticulations. In all things there is a balance to be struck: I found their performance just a little too safe and over-familiar, lacking the sense of danger that can keep an audiences on the edge of its seat.

There were some fantastic moments, however: pianist Adam Forkelid's spotlight solo had a Debussy-esque quality that sounded like a kind of ethereal moto perpetuo, but drummer Lisbeth Diers was the heroine of the set. She used no sticks until the fourth piece (Technique), preferring mallets, brushes and her hands. Her solo was a fine example of precision and finesse down to the finest detail. Cloths were strewn across the Drum-heads softening the pneumatic blows of the mallets before they were cast off and the rims were struck whilst her fingers tapped different areas of the drums with an almost pianistic sensitivity. It was a huge boost for the rest of the group who only really seemed to liven up at the end.

Django Bates' set was an astonishing demonstration of cellular composition. Opener Donna Lee set the tone, with themes and ideas superimposed on top of each other, broken apart and stitched back together in new places. Ah Leu Cha started fairly conservatively , but there was a dissonant, frenetic theme in the flute and piano right hand which gently pierced through the brass. We are Not Lost We are Simply Finding Out Way, a Bates original had pentatonics peering through the chaos, and a a plagal cadence was heard now-and-again, The Study of Touch featured extreme tempo play, and little snippets of melody and thematic material found their way through several pieces.

This complex, highly sophisticated music is difficult to judge on a first hearing. Perhaps it needs to be studied, lived-in and digested. One concert barely seems to give the listener time to scratch the music's surface. The music didn't lose me, but I need more time to find my way, and I look forward to hearing it again.

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