Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dmitri & Michael: Michael Bates's Acrobat

Michael Bates is originally from Canada’s West Coast, namely Vancouver. For the past decade, he’s been living and working in New York as a jazz bassist/composer. But I met him in the mid-90s at a record store, the first choice for employment by any struggling musician, when he lived in Toronto. (Even though we were paid low wages, we enjoyed the luxury of listening to music 40 hours a week). In those days, Michael worked part-time while continuing to play jazz in the evening, when he could get a gig. He was a friendly young man, full of energy, humour and a strong focus on being only one thing in life: a working musician. He loved to play and he loved to talk about music, especially jazz.

I lost touch with him after I left the record store in 1996; hearing through the grapevine that he relocated to New York and was pursuing more formalized study and the art of composing. Occasionally I’d see his name in the paper or at a gig in Toronto, usually with his group, Outside Sources. In recent years, he became inspired to issue his own recordings as a leader on Sunnyside Records, an independent label established in 1982. On his new recording Acrobat (Sunnyside, 2011) , his inspiration comes from the superlative Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 -1975). The subtitle of the album is Music for and by, Dmitri Shostakovich and it offers up a challenge to any listener, whether you are a classical or jazz fan.

Acrobat: Music for, and by, Dmitri Shostakovich, which features Bates on double bass, Chris Speed, tenor sax and clarinet, Russ Johnson, trumpet, Russ Lossing, piano and Fender Rhodes and Tom Rainey, drums, is a stunning work fueled by a Russian composer whose life as an artist was paradoxical mix of mystery and sarcasm under the oppressive regime of Josef Stalin. Shostakovich, in spite of his difficult times under Stalin, remains for Bates a seminal figure because the composer was able to say things in his music that he could not say in words. For Bates, Shostakovich’s ability to overcome political oppression using the power of music to transcend it took him into deeper, more meaningful statements about humanity. Shostakovich's notion of artistic purpose, a purpose that defied order, gives Acrobat is an unpredictable sound. It's a free, improvised spirit in an attempt to capture the essence of Shostakovich, a mysterious man whose music offers a great deal of insight, albeit cryptic at times, into his life. I'm not sure if Acrobat offers insight into its leader, Michael Bates, but having known him all those years ago while working at that record store in Toronto, I was not surprised by his approach on this album.

Michael Bates
The album opens with an arrangement of the fourth movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio N2 in E minor, also known as “Dance of Death.” It sets the tone of the music as a lyrical, circus-like tent where anything can happen. The band plays the arrangement beautifully in spite of its rhythmic difficulty, although I can’t discern the bass in the mix. It’s also the only piece composed by Shostakovich. The record then unfolds as a variation on the main theme stated in track one. "Talking Bird" extends the circus ideas even further heard in a rapid fire spree. It’s a rewarding piece especially on repeated listening. “Some Wounds” is a much more contemplative work featuring Chris Speed on clarinet. His solo is eclectic without being ostentatious. In fact, the whole band expresses great freedom with musical ideas, especially on “Silent Witness,” where the use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano is particularly effective.

“The Given Day” offers a slightly more accessible rhythm and the band’s call and response opening line gives a showcase to the agreeable tones of Chris Speed on tenor sax and Russ Johnson on trumpet. The song “Yorodivy” heralds the influence of Shostakovich in a less impressionistic way. It’s a moody, ethereal work reflecting more the paradoxical nature of the Russian composer. My favourite is the closer, “Arcangela,” because of its warmer colours and depth of feeling. It’s also a stronger melody than the free-form works that preceded it. The band sounds best on this track, complementing the texture and dynamic range of each instrument.

Acrobat was recorded in one day and that aesthetic decision has its pros and cons. On the one hand, we get as immediate a musical statement as possible where the band is exemplary. On the other hand, there isn’t enough playful humour and compassion in the music as I would have liked. Shostakovich was certainly a dead serious composer, but he also had a sense of humour. If you listen to his Symphony N8, for instance, this musical snub at Stalin is filled with tweaking phrases and sarcastic notes. But I’m confident in time that the band will grow even more comfortable with the music and take the chances necessary to display the lighter, more humorous ideas always present in Shostakovich’s music. In the meantime, Acrobat: Music for, and by, Dmitri Shostakovich is a good record for anyone who wants a new musical challenge. Click here to learn more.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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