Django Bates and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band with Eggs Laid by Tigers at Ronnie Scott’s 5th September 2017
First a confession – I’ve never actually owned a copy of the Beatles’ original or any other Beatles records. In fact they almost passed me by. In 1962 I was moving into the Sixth Form and my family home had little music in it. No record player just bits and pieces of radio.
It turned out that all the people in the Upper Sixth were into trad revivalist jazz and all the kids in the Fifth Form were into the new popular beat combo The Beatles. I was kind of marooned in the middle.
Some of my mates did swing towards the Beatles and they even tried to get me to be their lead singer. That was a non-starter. Once I almost saw the Beatles in Handsworth, Birmingham. We all trooped up to an old cinema in Rookery Road but it was a false rumour and they never showed. I did listen to some of their early BBC radio shows but that was it. But I must have absorbed it over the years probably from sharing a flat with people into pop as it turns out I know all the words.
By 1966 jazz and blues had somehow become my thing and I had a record player at last and when Pepper came out in ’67 its was noticed but I was only really interested in the bits that were somewhat jazzy – When I’m 64 particularly.
In the late 60s the UK was starting to emerge from the deadly dull and stultifying 50s. And instead of aggressive colonialism we were creating music and culture that was spreading round the world. But we were still a decade or so from fully joining the European project.
Listening now to Django Bates’ brilliant reworking of Sergeant Pepper of course its clear that The Beatles distilled something significant about that shift from 50s isolationism into a brighter place in the world.
What Bates has done on record and with the live shows – I caught him and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band with Eggs Laid by Tigers at Ronnie’s in September 2017 – is a truly fantastic homage to the original. As he says he kept the key changes and the structure of the songs – in fact in a weird way it sounds like how Sgt Pepper should always be played. But its not the same – he has layered in new, but respectful, tones and voicing in his arrangements. In fact its much more whole orchestrated work than the original which, although advanced for its time, still feels like a four piece band with additional parts.
From the opening chords of the title track at Ronnie’s a smile automatically spreads across your face. It feels familiar and yet excitingly different. The sound is full and balanced and its immediately apparent that despite being made up of three distinct parts Django has got the band playing as one – not a pop band backed by an orchestra but one brilliant big band.
There’s Django pulling the strings at the front with his mate Stuart Hall on stringed instruments, the 14 strong Frankfurt Band and then an actual pop band – the trio called Eggs Laid by Tigers from Denmark bang in the middle.
The Eggs lead singer Martin Ullits Dahl strolls on for the second number With a Little Help… and it’s immediately apparent that he has got this. He is unforced, natural and languid with a clear delivery. Seemingly without effort he pitches his tone somewhere between Liverpool and London, which is just right given the way Pepper mixes impressions of those two places. Nice touches are shaking hands with the audience as he leaves for a short lay out and coming back on with a cup of tea. How English and he’s Danish, but in retrospect it’s a clever nod to John drinking a cup of tea at the original recording of a Day in the Life if the clip on YouTube I found is right.
As well as directing the music with panache, Django plays significant solos and fills. But this is no normal play the head, solos, play the head again jazz – it’s full on orchestral playing with members of the Frankfurt band coming in and out of the soundscape. Eggs’ drummer and bassist Peter Bruun and Jonas Westergaard sound right at home providing a driving underpinning while avoiding the rather plodding bass and drums of the original.
The set is a complete triumph – massively enjoyable and there’s even a sing along version of Love is All You Need – is this a first for Ronnie’s – or any jazz club?
It’s the frisson of a line in a Day in the Life that brings you back round to where we are today in the UK. “The English Army had just won the war…” sung by a Dane backed by a German big band, directed by an Englishman who works as Professor of Jazz in Switzerland.
And that’s it for me. Amid all the deeply unpleasant Brexit retrenchment that seems to want us to return to those dull and isolated pre-60s days it strikes me that our culture does not need to be defended. Our values are not under attack. This gig, this band and Django’s music are a fantastic demonstration of the positive power of culture, of how it works both ways. Culture interacts and changes and the best of us is when we allow that to happen.
Django Bates: keyboard, backing vocals, arranger, conductor.
Stuart Hall: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, lap steel, electric sitar, violin.
Eggs Laid By Tigers:
Martin Ullits Dahl: lead vocal.
Jonas Westergaard: electric bass, backing vocals.
Peter Bruun: drums, percussion, backing vocals.
Frankfurt Radio Big Band (hr-Bigband):
Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn: soprano sax, flute, clarinet.
Oliver Leicht: alto sax, flute, clarinet, alto clarinet.
Stefan Karl Schmid: tenor sax, flute.
Steffen Weber: tenor sax, alto flute, bass clarinet.
Rainer Heute: baritone sax, bass sax, bass clarinet, contra alto clarinet.
Willem Bastiaan Both: trumpet.
Thomas Vogel: trumpet.
Martin Auer: trumpet, flugelhorn. Axel Schlosser: trumpet, flugelhorn. Günter Bollmann: trombone.
Peter Feil: trombone.
Christian Jaksjø: trombone.
Manfred Honetschläger: bass trombone.
Martin Scales: electric guitar.
Saluting Sergeant Pepper at Ronnie Scott’s 4th – 9th September 2017.