Jazz: Django's got a new keyboard

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Ten years of innovations in keyboard technology, and Django Bates's Korg still sounds uncomfortably like John Shuttleworth's Yamaha. A decade ago, with the same band (Human Chain) in the same city (Bristol), Bates was forever swivelling about on his piano stool to feed old-style floppy discs into his BBC computer in order to create new voicings for his synthesiser. Now Django's still swivelling across to his add-on box of tricks (probably, like Shuttleworth, trying to switch from Dolby B to C), but the sounds come direct from the Korg's MIDI interface, not that you can tell the difference. Though these are synth-sounds made to order, and probably programmed by Bates himself, they're remarkably similar to the generations of generic noises we have come to know and love ever since someone in the family got a Casio keyboard for Christmas. You know the type of sounds I mean: factory-tooled by bald men in white coats in dust-free industrial environments, with titles like "Moon Landing", "Squelch Attack", "Tropical Storm", or "Soft Porn Cheesy Organ Ambience".

It's not the general cheesiness of the sounds themselves that is the problem (although admittedly, it doesn't help), but rather that Django just can't leave them alone. He has to try and change the settings not just from tune to tune or even from chorus to chorus, but often during the same note, as if a simple depression of the key isn't complete without a bit of pitch-shifting, envelope-shaping or portamento-abuse. Like a kid forever zapping between channels on the remote control, it all becomes a bit irritating. And he wears orange trousers.

That the music wasn't as all-round wonderful as you wanted it to be was particularly worrying because 10 or more years after becoming the great white hope of British jazz, Bates - who's 37, a bandleader and noted composer as well as a keyboardist - has this year won the nearest thing jazz has to a Nobel Prize, the Danish Jazzpar award. Apart from gifting the winner pounds 30,000 or so, the Jazzpar is an incredible achievement. The winner is selected from the whole wide world of jazz, and Bates is the second British recipient in recent years, after the reeds player Tony Coe. A post-Jazzpar performance from the latest version of his band therefore promised, however unfair the expectation, far more than it eventually delivered.

The quartet began with the kind of supreme confidence rarely seen in British jazz, Django racing ahead from the off with darting keyboard runs answered by unison lines from the superb saxophonist Iain Ballamy. Like an updated version of Weather Report or late-period Miles Davis, it was strong stuff and uncompromisingly electric, given the church acoustics of St George's, Brandon Hill, a regular venue for Radio 3 lunchtime chamber- music concerts. But despite the undoubted brio of the delivery, the sounds themselves were just too much like dodgy Eighties fusion, complete with Seinfeld-style slap-bass from Michael Mondesir and heavy power-drumming from Martin France, who normally excels in quieter, more sensitive settings.

Though occasionally they played a ballad so beautifully that even Django's "Moon Landing" synth-sounds seemed like the future of jazz rather than (as is far more usual) its past, it was often very heavy going. And then there was the "New York, New York" incident. Announcing the next tune as something really horrible but to be given a wonderful new treatment, Django put his lips to the mike and began singing: "Start spreading the news ... " What followed could be called post-modern (as much of Bates's output is), but it was actually just perverse: a Frank Zappa-style deconstruction of a tune that is actually rather inoffensive - at least given what Django tried to do to it. It was here that the trousers really began to get to you. Despite Django's undoubted talent, there can be a kind of terminal whimsy about his compositions, a sort of Betjeman complex whereby everything takes on the same, inevitable, Rupert-checked hue of the English Eccentric. One left the concert humming along to "New York, New York", but in the original Sinatra version.

Mike Westbrook would be a very good candidate for a Jazzpar prize. Over 30 years he has produced a stream of intensely serious compositions that rivals anything in the "straight" music of the times while retaining a social conscience that responds with unfailing intelligence to changing conditions, whether musical or political. And last Sunday night he was playing before 60 or so people in the bar of a Bristol pub, The Albert, in a duo with his wife Kate Westbrook, with a programme devoted to the songs of Friedrich Hollaender, the Weimar-era composer of The Blue Angel. Though Ute Lemper has recently made this material more or less her own, Kate Westbrook's approach is markedly different. She doesn't have a trained voice like Lemper's but she emotes quite superbly all the same, conjuring up the sense of cabaret from little more than looks, smiles and opera gloves, and a quirky series of deeply expressive personae. The highlights of a continuously enthralling evening came not from Hollaender, but from the songs that ended the performance: Bessie Smith's "He's Been A Good Old Wagon", Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain", and William Blake's "London Song". Now if the Westbrooks had deconstructed "New York, New York", that would really be worth hearing.

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