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Denys Baptiste: Jazz Missionary, Part 1-2

By Published: May 2, 2005
AAJ: To my ears, you as a tenor saxophonist sound pretty fully formed on that Gary Crosby's Nu Troop Migrations album, which I believe was recorded in 1997. You're dominant on "Gorée Island. And your songwriting is pretty developed as well: you wrote the song "Incentricity on that CD. Do you feel that your playing or composing has changed much since then?

DB: I think it's developed. I've always had a sort of sense of what I wanted to do. The music that I'd been interested in playing—it's not even something that I have even sat down and formulated: "this is the approach that I am going to take as a composer. The way that I write is I tend to sit down and if a melody occurs to me, I allow it to sort of form itself in my head. If it stays with me by the next day, then I know that it's something I have to develop. It tends to develop in a similar style [each time], which I suppose gives it a character which I hope is very much me. It's something that I'm still learning to do, and I listen to lots of great composers and great musicians to inspire me with different ideas and different directions to go, really. But quite often it's just following my instincts of what I like—and thankfully the things I seem to like other people seem to like as well.

AAJ: Your first solo CD Be Where You Are got a lot of attention. It was also the beginning of your association—at least on record—with pianist Andrew McCormack, with whom you play so well, especially on the song "Of Stars. Tell me about him.

DB: Andrew's a young musician who I met—he was probably eighteen years old when I met him and he was sort of hanging around jam sessions. He'd seen me playing because I'd been with Nu Troop for a number of years. I saw something really special in what he was doing at that point and I wanted to follow, if you like, in the footsteps of what Gary Crosby was doing: rather than going for established musicians who were on the scene—that I know have a reputation and a pedigree—to do a CD, I wanted to get young musicians that people haven't heard of. And develop a group out of that, out of like-minded people. And Andrew—from the moment I heard him, I knew there was a, first of all, great partnership that we were going to be able to form, which is why I've used him for all of my CDs up to this point. But also he's a fantastic composer and ... pianist who's developing at an amazing rate as well. Andrew's very much an integral part of what I do. He's kind of the harmony side of the way I think about stuff; he's very intuitive about how I write. I don't have to tell him very much in terms of interpreting the music that I'm writing. He just knows exactly what it is that I want.

AAJ: That must make it so comfortable to collaborate with him.

DB: Absolutely, yeah. It's much easier when you can be with musicians and you don't even have to say very much. He knows exactly what it is that you want and he can just slot in to the role. And most of the things that he does within the comping stuff—I've just given him a sketch and he does what he does, which I find always amazing about him.

AAJ: That first album really established you as a very fine composer; it's got great songs like "Hall of Mirrors and "Parallax. Were those songs that you wrote very recently before recording the CD or had you had them for a while?

DB: "Hall of Mirrors I'd had for a little while. It was actually a reworking of the bass line of "Incentricity which I'd done with Nu Troop; but instead of having it in eleven, I decided, well, what would happen if it was in six? Or in twelve, if you look at it in 12/8 instead of 11/8: you've got basically one more quaver, one extra eighth note, on the end of the bar. So I just decided, what else can I do with this bass line? Because it's very hypnotic, the way that that bass line seemed to work for me. "Well, if I add another eighth note to it, how will that work? I always found it interesting performing "Incentricity : people tried to dance to it but [laughter] they missed the eighth note! You'd sort of see people stumbling over their feet as they were suddenly off the beat of it.

AAJ: You had tricked them.

DB: [Laughter] So I reworked that one. And that, in a way, the basis of that one ["Hall of Mirrors ]: I'd actually had that for a while. "Parallax was probably one of the last pieces I'd written for that [album]; it was really something that during the rehearsals, before we went into the studio, I jotted down an idea and said, "hey, guys, let's play this and see what happens. Even when we got to the studio, I wasn't sure that we were even going to record it. I decided, let's just see what happens and if it works, it works, and if it doesn't—we'll try something else. It was just an idea, really; a sketch that worked because it was quite spontaneous. There wasn't so much thought put into how we were going to structure it. It just happened.

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