Pianist, composer, and musical mischief maker Django Bates has had a long -- if intermittent -- relationship with ECM. His first appearances in 1986 and 1989 were on par with First House albums. In the '90s, he worked on Sidsel Endresen's So I Write and Exile. In early 2017, he was Anouar Brahem's pianist for the stellar Blue Maqams in a quartet that also featured Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. The Study of Touch, recorded with his provocative piano trio Beloved, is his label debut. Bates has made a career of refusing to be pigoneholed. He has stated on more than one occasion that he would never lead a piano trio because there were too many already. His chance meeting with bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun in 2005 at Copenhagen's Rhythmic Music Academy changed all that. Beloved released two earlier recordings, Beloved Bird -- a set of Charlie Parker tunes (2009) and Confirmation (2012) for his own Lost Marble label. When Bates and his manager approached Manfred Eicher about recording for ECM, the label head and producer suggested the piano trio format. Never say never.
All but one track was written by Bates. A lone Parker miniature entitled "Passport" is a brief and loving sendoff to his profound influence. The rest of the material is either revisioned from earlier Bates' recordings or new. Opener "Sadness All the Way Down" is one of a few from Confirmation and evolves from ballad study to something more poignant. It contrasts with the knottier swing of "Giorgiantics" and the complex humor and focus in "We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way" as they wind around several motifs with syncopation and dynamic interaction. The spacious, balladic charm of "Little Petherick" pre-dates Beloved by more than a decade (from a 1993 JMT album by Human Chain). The set's title track serves as a hinge piece and is its longest cut. Its graceful textures, pinpointed spaces, and slippery time signatures shapeshift from skeletal introspection to elliptical post-bop improvisation to elegant but eccentric swing. "Slippage Street," the first new piece here, underscores the trio's desire to transcend the limits of the trio form as each player takes a turn improvising on the angular, choppy, yet extremely accessible rhythmic and harmonic variations in the head until the tune transforms into a propulsive, actively engaged, and fluid bit of delightful and intensely sophisticated musical mischief. The set ends with "Happiness All the Way Up" which is, until its final moments, actually quite melancholy, presenting a Moebius strip in its reflection on the opening track. Ultimately, Bates' Beloved is a piano trio with attitude. For them, composition and improvisation are interlocutors in a diverse and individual musical language that's meant to "slip" through the cracks whenever purpose -- or desire -- dictate in order to make something new, or at least new again. On The Study of Touch, that shared attitude carves out a new potential space for the jazz piano trio in the 21st century.