Chris Bates on prog rock, playing with brother JT, and new album
Still, in all those musical endeavors -- indeed, since Motion Poets -- Bates, who plays both upright bass and electric bass, hasn't had the opportunity to explore what he could do as a composer. He's never released an album of his own, and most would say it's about time.
For one of Minneapolis' foremost figures in local jazz comes a new project and a new release: Chris Bates' Red 5, a five-piece experimental jazz ensemble featuring, in addition to Bates, his brother JT on drums, Zack Lozier on trumpet, Chris Thomson on saxophone, and Brandon Wozniak on saxophone. Their debut album is titled New Hope, and it's a stunning nine-song collection (eight composed by Bates, one by Wozniak), charged with emotion and a heartfelt ambition to let the music be fulfilling in and of itself. You can hear that in the cascading rhythms, where the three elements of the band -- horns, drums, bass -- work together. It's a debut album that, some might argue, is 15 years in the making -- since the end of Motion Poets -- and it's startlingly good.
Gimme Noise caught up with Bates ahead of the release of New Hope this weekend at the Artists' Quarter.
Gimme Noise: Tell me about what led you to create this album.
Chris Bates: I've been playing for a really long time, over 20 years professionally. I never made my own record. I've been in lots of bands, made records with those bands, but never really focused on how I could make my own album happen. It's just kind of something that was always floating around, but never realized, you know? And then in December last year, my friend Will Jensen -- who is the executive producer on the record -- just basically said, "Here's a number, can you make a record for this?" And we started this label together, Technecore, and the label and all those things kind of happened after the initial question of him asking me if I could put something together for this amount of money.
I've always written, and always had a few ideas sitting around, but the bulk of my writing that I did was for a band that I was with 15 years ago, because it was a regular ensemble. This was just kind of a chance to re-immerse myself in composition, and me deciding that I wanted to play with my brother on drums, and kind of picking the three horn players because they're my friends and I play with them a lot, and I knew they would bring the music to a higher level than what I could do on my own.
The album is titled New Hope, which is also the fifth track on the album. In the liner notes, you credit Leann for giving you hope again -- is that your wife?
Can you tell me a little more about the inspiration for that song? What's behind it?
I love great, beautiful lush sounds and songs, and that tune was an attempt to write something that had a more orchestral feeling to it. The horns are very lush and the notes are long, and so we have a sonic environment for that kind of feeling, and I think that's a ballad, in general. To me, it's a love song, even if it's not really a love song--that slower feeling of music that comes from that kind of meditative place. I'm not writing lyrics, it's more of a musical idea that I had, and it took some time to develop... I ended up rewriting this to make it what it is. Part of it is the classical music background that I have, to play with the harmonies, and overall it's just meant to be a lush mellow piece. I just think "New Hope..." You know, I've been through some stuff in my life, with divorce and some other stuff like that, so it's just kind of rediscovering some stuff about myself.
What's it like playing with your brother again?
We've played off and on together, but we haven't had a project of this nature for probably fifteen years so. I play gigs with him and we're always in touch because we live in the same town and all those things, but it's just great. We just have a really organic connection as a bass player and drummer, so there's ways that we play together where we don't have to discuss anything, we don't have to rehearse. We can just walk in and play, and so whatever type of music we're playing we can just get to the music. We don't have to worry so much about what's technical, or worry about what's stopping us from being as creative as we could be, and for this band that was really important.
Sort of like, how can I provide a vehicle for myself as a composer and a bass player that also gives a lot of freedom to the other players? So for a drummer who I don't need to give instruction to, he can just hear what I'm playing and then come up with his own thing... He's such a brilliant musician, and he's younger than me and I would just say that I've probably learned more from him than he's from me. I'm just happy and lucky to have him in my band. I think when people hear the album, I think they're hearing something that's greater than the sum of its parts... And in general, he's my favorite drummer to play with, for obvious reasons.
The tracking is really lovely, everything is in place -- except for that last song, the closing "We're Going In." I think it's my favorite song, but it's definitely got a more... mainstream vibe, if you will.
Yeah. It draws a lot from my love of prog rock, and I play electric bass on that track. That was something that I wanted to explore with this album, because I've always played electric bass and upright bass, but I rarely get the opportunity to use them on the same gig and present people with a wider palate. That song also represents a new direction for me compositionally, because I'm bringing the rock, and what you said, I guess, "mainstream" access of music to my own music. I guess I've never shied away from that, I've just never written a song like that, and that's why I put it where it is on the record, because I want people to see it as a new direction.
I view this as a sort of "genesis prog project" on a certain level, and that song represents a new direction for me as a composer. Reference point wise, I don't know if you've ever heard of Happy Apple from here--they're a trio, and for people from Minneapolis I feel like they might hear [our] sound as somewhat familiar to them, just bass, drums, and horn.
And this is the technical part, but it's some mixed meter stuff, too, where we're changing time and stuff like that and that's not going to play in some other bands that do that just more of a rock vibe.
Is that what you're seeing as a next step -- making a prog rock record, or steering a little more away from classical? Is that a possibility?
I think for me I think I'm always going to be kind of in the instrumental zone in the writing, but I do feel like I can now tap into some of those influences better than I could a few years. I hope that I am writing more with some of these ideas in mind in the future, so that's the hope--that it's going to push me in a new direction I'm always just going to try to find new ways to combine music and grow as a musician, so that track for sure represents a newer direction for me and I hope that more songs like that come out, but I don't try to control that. I just let the music dictate what I write, and let everything be organic and natural, and it took a while to get to that place.
You can catch Chris Bates' Red 5 debut tonight, Friday, September 14 and Saturday, September 15 at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul. Sets are at 9:15 p.m. and 11 p.m. $10 cover. Reservations recommended. All Ages.
City Pages on Facebook | Gimme Noise on Facebook | Twitter | e-mail us