Django Bates’ obsession with saxophonist Charlie Parker began when, aged 12, his father lent him the Ross Russell biography Bird Lives – a Plasticine mini-Parker was the first tangible result; a grounding in jazz essentials had a more lasting impact.
Bates soon moved on, and by the time he helped found the pioneering big band Loose Tubes, the pianist had absorbed the ideas of free jazz, fallen in love with fusion and dabbled in world music. When the band played the first ever jazz Prom, in 1987, the maelstrom of odd juxtapositions and dazzling ensemble pieces that Bates had concocted made the virtuoso solos and repeated choruses of his original inspiration seem a distant echo.
When Bates returned to the music of Charlie Parker in 2005, he applied the same linear methods and group ethic to his piano trio. Bates, drummer Peter Bruun and Petter Eldh on double bass reconstructed Parker’s repertoire into a close-knit patchwork of cross-cultural references, dense improvisation and time-bending fantasies. Two CDs and countless gigs on, their idiosyncrasies have lost none of their sparkle.
This celebration had Bates’ trio at its core, but enhanced it with the 13-piece Norrbotten Big Band. Mood, tempo and style still changed as if by whim, but were supported by big-band textures – flutey-impressionism, hints of big-band orthodoxy and catchy riffs were the order of the day – or developed into rumbling slabs of trombone, oddly spaced stabs surrounded by silence or, at the end of “Donna Lee”, a breakdown into cacophony.
The concert began with the trio burying Parker’s “Confirmation” under a welter of invention – a snippet of theme was the only clue – and ended with Bates dancing with the audience while the band looped the insidious riff of “Star Eyes”. The encore was a sultry Latin take on “Little Suede Shoes” while “Laura” juxtaposed lush piano with a guitar made scratchy by a violin bow. Bates’ “The Study of Touch” showcased the big band – awkward timings, lots of trickery and a brace of warm-toned saxophone solos – and “A House Is Not a Home” delivered an unexpected highlight. It began as a straight-ish Ashley Slater vocal, but ended with bits of Parker theme swirling out of a mist of gently sashaying rhythm.