Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bassist and composer Chris Bates comes home to "New Hope"

Chris Bates by John Whiting
If you’ve been to more than a few jazz shows in and around the Twin Cities, you’ve seen bassist Chris Bates play. It’s hard to miss him. Either he’s on the stand with a touring artist (like Mose Allison, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, Steven Bernstein, or Eric Alexander) or he’s up there with one of the many bands he’s in, a list that currently includes Atlantis Quartet, Todd Clouser’s A Love Electric, Framework, Good Vibes Trio, Leisure Valley, the Pat Moriarty/Ellen Lease Ensemble, and Red Planet. Like another bassist he admires greatly, Dave Holland, Chris loves what he does, and it shows as he grins, nods, and wraps himself around his big instrument as if it’s his best friend in the world.

Chris and his younger brother, drummer JT Bates, were born into music. Their father is the respected musician and bandleader Don Bates; their older brother, David, is a recording engineer and saxophonist in Nashville. Chris began learning the upright bass in fourth grade, studying with James Clute of the Minnesota Orchestra. He taught himself electric bass and played both classical and jazz from seventh grade on. Sometime between junior high and high school, he decided he wanted to be a musician, knowing even then from his father's example that it would be a lifelong journey. He studied bass performance at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (with Clute) and later with Anthony Cox, who had returned to the Twin Cities after several years in New York.

In the mid-1990s, Chris was a founding member of Motion Poets, a jazz sextet that also included Doug Little on saxophone, Mark Sutton on trumpet, Mark Miller on trombone, Nate Shaw on keys, and JT on drums. From 1995–99, they released three CDs and toured nationally, earning writeups in DownBeat and JazzTimes. All of their music was original, written by the band members. In 1999, Chris won a McKnight Foundation Composer Fellowship. 

More than once over the years, as I’ve watched Chris play with other people (and at least one memorable solo set at the Rogue Buddha gallery in 2007), I’ve wondered when he would start his own band and maybe make a CD. He has now done both, sort of in that order. “New Hope,” the debut CD by Chris Bates’ Red 5, a quintet with JT on drums, Chris Thomson on saxophones, Brandon Wozniak on saxophones, and Zack Lozier on trumpet, has its official release at the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul the weekend of Sept. 14-15. It’s a double debut, launching both a new band and a new label, Technecore, founded by award-winning architect and music lover Will Jensen.

“New Hope” is a frankly personal, richly varied, serious and playful collection of all-original compositions (eight by Chris Bates, one by Wozniak). Every tune says something different while forming part of the whole. The three-horns frontline builds on the solid foundation of Motion Poets; the absence of a chordal instrument (no piano, no guitar) leaves room for the bass to roam. The music swings, wails, sighs, dances, and rocks. It says a big thank-you to Chris’s parents, sends a love letter to his wife, nods respectfully to Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, tells a sly joke or two, and carries you like a good story from the opening track to the closing note, which leaves you wanting more. And although this is Chris’s first CD as leader, a temptation to hog the spotlight if there ever was one, it’s all about the band, the ensemble spirit and sound. And what a band it is – stellar, in-demand players. For many jazz fans in the Twin Cities, the big unknown will probably be Lozier, who is often categorized as a New Orleans-style trumpeter. Which he is, and then some.

Chris and I spoke by phone in early September.

PLE: First, congratulations on the release of “New Hope.” Second, what took you so long? 

Chris Bates: Life! In 2000 I got married and Motion Poets broke up. I took a different path and got a regular job. I was divorced in 2005 and laid off from my job in 2006. That’s when I said, “Time to be a bass player again, Chris Bates.” I had never stopped playing, but there were some lean years between 2000 and 2006. I was away from music for a while. 

When I was laid off, I went to unemployment classes, took personality tests, did group exercises – the things you’re supposed to do to find a job you want. It was like going back to Career Day in high school. All signs pointed toward “You’re an artist, kid! Get yourself in the arts!” I thought, “I’m already in the arts. I’m a bass player. I’m just not executing this right now.” BOOM, the equation had been solved. I went into attack mode, taking whatever gigs I could get, putting myself in front of people again. I did some solo shows and got involved with Framework [with Chris Olson and Jay Epstein). About that time, Red Planet came together [with Dean Magraw and Epstein]. That was a dream come true for me, playing with my hero, Dean Magraw. It propelled me very quickly to a higher bar of artistic expression. 

In 1999, you won a McKnight Composers Fellowship. Between then and now, where was Chris Bates, composer?

He was off the map. I applied for the McKnight again for the next two or three years but didn’t get it, after getting it the very first time I applied. It was like the freshman triumph followed by the sophomore slump. Also, when Motion Poets went away, I lost the vehicle I had for writing. I’d had a band I could bounce ideas off of, try things out on, and refine things with. The band’s break-up was an emotional bottoming-out for me musically. I thought, “Since I don’t have a band anymore and I have to get gigs, I guess I should learn the standards.” So I went from trying to be a writer to becoming a more well-rounded sideman. When I joined Atlantis Quartet in 2008 [with Wozniak, guitarist Zacc Harris, and drummer Pete Hennig], I brought in some of my old tunes from the Motion Poets days, like I did with Framework and Red Planet. 

In 2011, I was touring a lot [with Todd Clouser’s A Love Electric] and finding myself in many of the same places I’d been in the mid-1990s with the Poets. I started thinking, “Why am I not doing this for myself? What’s wrong with this picture?” I had a break in the winter of 2011, four or five months of open time, and was starting to throw some things down on paper when I got a call from Will Jensen, someone I’ve known for a couple of years. He said, “Here’s a number. Can you make an album for this?” It was one of those angel moments.

Which came first, the compositions or the band?

The idea of the people came first, but I wrote the songs before the band came together. I knew that I wanted three horns, bass, and drums. I wanted the hang to be great, and I wanted the relationships to be personal.

Chris Thomson and JT were on my list from the start. I played a gig with JT, Brandon, and Lozier at Jazz Central and realized those two dudes [Wozniak and Lozier] play great together. Then I heard them again in Adam Meckler’s big band and I knew it was going to work.

I can't stress enough that all of these guys rose to this in a way I didn’t think was possible. The music was written, there was no band, we rehearsed and recorded and now we’re exploring it. This is completely the opposite of any other band I know. Usually, the concept of the band comes from playing gigs, and original compositions come after you’ve formed a band.

Do you miss the piano?

Not on this record. There are times when it’s great to have a piano or guitar. But when it’s not there, it frees the bass and drums to do more, to react more readily to the soloist. It creates more openness. 

When and where did you learn composition?

I learned theory and the building blocks in college, but composition for me has been trial-and-error, a combination of lessons with Anthony [Cox] and writing for the Poets. That’s pretty much it. 

I play and listen to a lot of music. Sometimes I think, “I love that chord.” That cell becomes part of the language. It might be a modulation chord the composer is using to get from point A to point B, but that’s the one I like. I rip it out and use it. Kenny Wheeler’s music is a touchstone for me, especially "Music for Large and Small Ensembles." [Dave] Holland, [Charles] Mingus, Ornette [Coleman], Joe Lovano: that’s some of the stuff I draw from, and had put in a box on a shelf when Motion Poets went away. Another direct influence for me this time around was African pop music. And Happy Apple. You can hear those influences in two songs on the record, “Maliapolis” and “We’re Going In (Dusted).” 

Somewhere along the way I started thinking, “How can I write tunes that are simple enough to work with, yet ample enough for improvisation?” That’s where “The Hidden Place” came from, a tune I wrote for Atlantis. And “Rarefaction” for Red Planet. With Red 5, even though we’re playing structured music, I want it to feel and sound like it’s fresh and made-up on the spot. 

I’m always trying to create structures that allow people to do more with them. But ultimately it comes down to trust, and the relationship you have with the people you play with, that takes you to the level of freedom where it’s actually organic. At 50 minutes, “New Hope” is the shortest record I’ve ever made. It has the compactness and succinctness I’ve been searching for. Yet when we played Icehouse in August, we played just seven songs and the set lasted an hour and half. It proved to me that the songs are vehicles we can expand on. But if we need to keep it short, we can, and there’s still something there. 

What does composing mean to you personally?

It’s an expression of a different part of myself as a musician. The bass player is the foundation of a band. The bass player never, ever stops playing. Specific roles need to be fulfilled by the instrument due to its sound. Composing allows me to express other ideas I might have, melodically or harmonically. When the bass player expresses those ideas, certain things disappear from the sound of the group. As a bass player, I’m always riding that line. On this record, with this band, is the closest I’ve ever gotten to an organic balance between my compositional vision and the roles I have to play for the music. I’m happy to play the bass line on these songs because I wrote them. Because it’s my compositional vision, I can be comfortable in the role I have to play for the music.

Why did you name your band Red 5?

Why any name for a band? I honestly didn’t know what I was going to call it, so at first I just called it the Chris Bates Quintet. “Red 5” is Luke Skywalker’s call number in the original “Star Wars” movie. [Recording engineer] Brett Bullion and I are huge “Star Wars” geeks. While we were in the studio, I started riffing on lines from the movies. When I said, “This is Red 5, I’m going in!” it was a moment of clarity for me. Will [Jensen] hated it. He’s still not 100% sold on the name. 

What about “New Hope,” the name of the CD?

“New Hope” is the title of “Star Wars” episode 4. It’s also the name of the city where I live, and the feeling I have with this rebirth.


Related: Chris Bates' Red 5 CD Release at the Artists' Quarter, Friday-Saturday, Sept. 14-15, 9 p.m. ($10).

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