Django Bates

Quiet Nights

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Django Bates has always been a loose cannon on the Brit jazz scene. Not content like his cohorts Andy Sheppard or Courtney Pine to be merely a savior of the scene, Bates has instead spent his time jamming with the likes of the late Dudu Pakwana and Bill Bruford as well as being an active member of the wild and wooly big band Loose Tubes. So given that a relatively straight-ahead jazz and fusion keyboardist should record an album of mostly classic, low-key numbers for a label identified with loud, skronky avant-garage jazz-rock is not such a stretch is it? Bates puts a twist on things of course, with saxist, hamonicat, and mate Iain Bellamy, bassist Michael Mondesir, percussionist Martin France, and Josefine Cranholm's lovely singing. He takes classic tunes such as Kurt Weill's "Speak Low," a cabaret song, and turns it into a drifting jazz ballad full of twists and turns and a lilting vocal by Cranholm. Bates himself changes up from an electric piano to a synth in the break and moves it seemingly into the space of the surreal before returning to the melody. On Sammy Cahn's "Teach Me Tonight," Bellamy plays ribbons around the melody and Bates shoves waves of sampled feedback and tubular sounds into the chordal structure. Cranholm sings the melody as harmony rather than as melody, and the rhythm shifts and shimmers into a dub tune. One of only two originals on the album, "And the Mermaid Laughs," a group improvisation, is a near ambient sound collage with Bellamy hinting accents to make sure it moves someplace while the hint of a melody has Bates filling space with sounds and splashes while Cranholm and France make percussive noises in the ether. On the title cut, Bates uses his organ to create the exotic backdrop for a samba that is actually played by Bellamy and France. Cranholm is no Astrud Gilberto, but for this strange, otherworldly amalgam of jazz and ambient visions, she's better. In fact, she's perfectly wonderful accenting the poetry in Jobim's tune rather than its musicality -- which she leaves to a band that is faking their way through it. It gets stranger, more peacefully surreal with a carnival reading of "Hilili Hi Lo," a drone version of Ellington's "Solitude," Van Heusen and Burke's funked low and deep "Like Someone in Love" (with a keyboard vamp straight out of PT Barnum), an unforgettable Bates avant ballad called "Is There Anyone up There," where his electric piano skills are revealed to be every bit as innovative as Hancock's or Corea's in their day -- but this is his. To wind it all up, there is gorgeously weird, wonderful take of Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow." If Judy Garland were still alive and 30 she might indeed sound like Cranholm who put her entire heart -- valves and all -- into wringing the emotion and the dreamy yearning from the song. Bates plays the piece like Sun Ra with clustered chords delicately placed over right-hand trills and chromatic runs. For his part, Bellamy plays his best Paul Desmond, carrying the standard melody for the entirety of the tune -- the jazz and the attendant atmospherics happen in between lines and make of an altogether night-like, spaced-out vibe. It's fantastic, really, that Bates has given us an album of puffy dreams filled with just enough shadow to make them seem real. This record will never make a definitive "standards" critic's list but it should. Bates and his band have taken these old warhorses and made them magical again, brought out the starlight and glitter and tossed it about the melodies, stretched the harmonies into cloud shapes, and added enough atmosphere and dimension to make Gil Evans smile from heaven. No matter what else he's done, Quiet Nights is Django Bates' finest moment in jazz.

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