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Denys Baptiste: Jazz Missionary, Part 1-2

By Published: May 2, 2005
AAJ: That first album got a tremendous amount of attention and praise—deservedly, I think. But it was just the first album from a young tenor player. Did you ever find the attention intimidating?

DB: Yes, I did, actually. The kind of accolades it was getting at that point—I had kind of thought that maybe there might be a possibility after two or three albums that I'd have found a formula that worked, and then I'd sort of slide into that [level of acclaim]. But the day I got the phone call saying I'd been nominating for a Mercury Prize—which is one of the most prestigious—I was absolutely flabbergasted. To be honest, to start with, I didn't actually know what it was, because I didn't really follow awards and things like that. But my manager rang me up and said, "you've been nominated for this thing, and suddenly there were interviews coming from all over the place. It was quite daunting knowing I had to somehow live up to this mantle that I'd been put on. In a way, it did inspire me to try to draw some deeper music out of myself. Because then I was put on a bigger stage; people were suddenly saying, "this new young tenor player who's the next big thing. I knew myself that this was my first album and that I had just recently become a leader—so I tried to keep it in perspective, really, and use the opportunity I had to the best of my ability. But it was great because it put all my band on a bigger stage and we did some really fantastic concerts as a result. I got a lot of travelling in and got my name around a bit. So it was a very exciting time for me [laughing]—if a little scary!

AAJ: Yeah, I can see how it would be. Although there is a lot to be said for anything that generates a certain number of gigs where the checks will definitely clear.

DB: [Laughter] That is definitely true. You sound like a philosopher!

AAJ: Let's talk about your second album Alternating Currents. It's different from the first one; first of all, you're suddenly playing soprano sax, and not just a little bit. Had you always played that instrument or had you recently picked it up?

DB: I'd got it about two weeks before we recorded, actually. I'd written a couple of tunes and tried playing them on tenor and realized they didn't really work. So I thought, well, if I'm going to include them on the record—and I really did want to—the only real way to do it was get hold of a soprano saxophone. I'd actually decided that probably a month before but it took me a little while to find one that I liked. So then I just spent the next couple of weeks just 'shedding—the biggest thing was achieving the intonation and the tuning.

AAJ: It's legendary for being hard to keep in tune.

DB: [Laughing] In the control room, I had a tuner on my stand between takes, just to make sure that I had the tuning correct. But I do like soprano. It gives me a different voice and it makes me play in a completely different way—which surprised me, because at that time, I thought, well, I played an alto before, I played a baritone. But soprano really made me think about the instrument in a different way. And it's quite an interesting voice for me.

AAJ: Well, it's a saxophone, but to me, it's the different one. You can mistake an alto for a tenor if you're not paying attention, but you'll never mistake a soprano for, say, a tenor sax.

DB: No. It's not going to happen. If you pick it up and you play it, it's a completely different animal; it's like it's from a different family of instruments. I suppose it is following the tradition: Coltrane and a lot of tenor players have been doubling on soprano for many years. But for some reason, some of those compositions [on Alternating Currents] just didn't feel right on tenor, and that's what I felt I had to do, and it was an interesting challenge for me to get [playing soprano] at a decent level in a couple of weeks. I was happy with the result.

AAJ: It doesn't sound like a beginner on the CD.

DB: [Laughter]Well, thank you very much! At the time I wasn't so sure; but listening to it, it's all right. I've got better as time has gone by. It's nice to have a choice between the two horns.

AAJ: Another difference with the second album is the addition of other musicians to the core quartet. What do you think inspired you to do that?

DB: I think somewhere along the line, I kind of had this master plan to start writing for larger groups. The quartet situation had given me one way of expressing myself, and with that particular group of musicians—as we started doing the live concerts I stopped sort of announcing tunes and the tunes became almost, how can I say, unidentifiable—as they were on the record, anyway. Just the way were playing them, it was just changing so much. So that very organic approach we had with playing that music—I wanted to do something different to that. Also, I wanted to start exercising some ideas I'd had about organizing horns and writing for guitar, because I'd worked for a few guitarists a few years before. Adding a few more horns was the first thing and also working with guitar was another because tenor and guitar is a really nice sound; I really love that blend of those two instruments. So it gave me an opportunity to start working on voicings that I'd had little notes of for a few years before—and then I developed those into tunes.

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