“None of us have any idea what Parker would have been playing by now: he died 50 years ago. As an optimist I like to think he would have evolved,” Django Bates writes in the programme for Prom 62, remembering a critic’s harsh words regarding a previous Parker-centric performance with a slightly nervous defensiveness. But there’s more in that than there might first appear.

Django Bates performs at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Django Bates performs at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Jazz is a music that moves, twists and shifts constantly, belonging to no-one forever and always ready to be picked up and re-imagined by someone new at any moment. When you consider we’re talking about the man who pioneered bebop, whose name is half of the four words Miles Davis felt were sufficient to relate the history of jazz, an “optimistic hope” that Charlie Parker would have evolved seems an understatement.

Django Bates, returning to the Royal Albert Hall with his trio Belovèd 26 years after he last appeared there with Loose Tubes, is determinedly inventive, well-versed in reconsidering Charlie Parker’s work. What he presented at Prom 62 was not a Charlie Parker recital. It was a Django Bates re-imagining. And much more a “celebration” of Charlie Parker for it.

As Laura rolls into motion, Bates’ piano languishing in the melancholy stylishness of the song’s film-noir setting, climbing and falling against the shuffle of the drums, the audience is pulled into the movement of the music. Brighter than the sombre strings of Parker’s own rendition with Bates’ twinkling piano replacing the relaxed warmth of Parker’s sax, there’s a twitching energy to the interpretation that gives Laura new life.

It takes a very particular group of musicians to extrapolate the music of someone like Charlie Parker into a constellation of instruments such as the one that took stage at the Royal Albert Hall. The frantic movement of Donna Lee demonstrates the skill of the Norrbotten Big Band. Big flourishes and the irresistible hiss of the hi-hats, staccato passages of blurting brass have an enlivening and invigorating effect on the spectators, providing an early highlight of the performance.

Although this is a celebration of Charlie Parker, the UK première of Bates’ own The Study Of Touch seems the evening’s main event. Initially slow and delicate, but neither ponderous nor fragile, it breaks into sizzling life with a soaring soprano sax solo and is imbued with the warming calm of many of Parker’s own compositions with a tenor sax solo. It’s a composition concerned with the deft touch required form musicians performing music that is essentially simple but in effect startlingly impactful.

Throughout the evening Bates is disarmingly charming and friendly with the audience, full of anecdotes that explain his history with Parker’s music, even venturing into the crowd to find a dance partner briefly during My Little Suede Shoes (God forbid anyone should dance at a jazz show! – it’s a stillness I’ve never been able to understand).

“Bird Lives!”, the phrase goes. And yes, he lives in the music left to us, but he lives more in the impact he’s had on so many subsequent musicians: musicians like Bates who take the songs that had such an effect on them in the adolescence of their affair with jazz and make them something new. To ponder how faithful to Parker’s renditions the performances were would be to miss the point slightly. It’s certainly wonderful to hear Charlie Parker’s ideas refracted through the musical mind of someone like Django Bates, but what’s more touching is to hear a musician sonically explaining the inspiration and influence Parker’s music’s had on them.

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