Arts: World Music: Let the rhythm take you

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The Independent Culture
THE "MOIRE" in the title of Trevor Watts's mighty septet is a visual metaphor, derived from the complex shapes that result when simple repetitive patterns overlap and shift. You get this result in the systems music of Steve Reich and in African "mbira" (thumb piano) music, but the Drum Orchestra, despite its battery of mbiras, delivers something much more meaty than mere shapes and patterns. Underpinned by Colin McKenzie's post-Pastorious fretless bass and modestly led by Watts's soprano and alto saxophones, the kit drummer and four African percussionists stoked up a fiery performance as part of the London South Bank's fifth annual Rhythm Sticks festival.

Oddly enough, the most striking demonstration of the moire effect (familiar to owners of net curtains and dodgy TV sets) came in the encore performance next door, when Ensemble Bash played a Simon Limbrick version of a Fela Kuti tune, over which Django Bates improvised sensitively on tenor horn. This number, scored for vibraphone, two marimbas and gyil (a Ghanaian xylophone), revealed Ensemble Bash at their best.

At their worst, they are more like the Incredible String Band in shiny three-piece suits, and the much touted collaboration with Bates covered all the extremes of originality and good and bad taste you would expect, including an indescribable version of Hendrix's "Purple Haze" with Bates on fuzzboxed, wah-wahed tenor horn, an embarrassing "Catholic Rap" and an intense reading of Bates's own "Hollyhocks".

Notwithstanding Trevor Watts's triumphs over the perennially bad acoustics of the Purcell Room, some of the most extraordinary moments occurred during Bates's solo set. "Singing in the Rain" for tenor horn was punctuated by dazzling right-hand piano figures and the intermittent pouring of mineral water into the horn's bell so that the sound gurgled and distorted drunkenly. He followed this with "The Importance of Boiling Water", a silly Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band-style number about tea, and "Ralph's Trips", a kind of psychedelic stride piano work-out.

I've heard a few people express the opinion that Bates would be a world- beating musician if he didn't clown about so much, if he made a serious Grammy-winning bid for international jazz stardom, but I think they miss the point. The idea of Django as an undiluted, unsmiling genius would be impossible to swallow. He's the Orson Welles - no, the Marcel Duchamp - of contemporary jazz.

John L Walters

A version of this review appeared in later editions of Friday's paper