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Interviews

Denys Baptiste: Jazz Missionary, Part 2-2

By Published: May 3, 2005
AAJ: One thing I like about the album is that if it were a stew, it would be perfectly spiced. There's a certain amount of Okri's spoken word—but there's not too much. There is a certain amount of soloing, but not too much. There seems to be exactly of much of every element as there needs to be.


Photo Credit: Russ Escritt

DB: Well, in the end, it took me about five months to get the [laughing] recipe exactly right! Where, as far as I could see, it was the best length and the best structure. By having the different sections, it doesn't seem there are as many solos as there are. I was also trying to look at it on different levels. If you take a piece of music which is going to be eight minutes long, or thirteen minutes long—getting the musicians, number one, to be able to express what they want to express as individuals within the music, will make it seem shorter because you're hearing different voices coming out of this very structured piece of music. It also creates different places of tension and release where people can concentrate on very dense harmonic and melodic ideas, but then also step away with some very sparse things. The music seems to breathe in that way, and that was really a lot of the goal: to try to make it so that it didn't seem like the parts were incredibly long. Because most of the tracks are long, too long for a lot of radio stations.

AAJ: They are too long for radio, but they're not too long to enjoy, and the album only adds up to an old-school vinyl LP length.

DB: That felt right.

AAJ: Yeah, I liked that about it, because it made me think even more of the sort of works to which one is tempted to compare Let Freedom Ring!, like Sonny Rollins' Freedom Suite or John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

DB: Absolutely, and you've hit on a very interesting part of the other process of trying to represent this music, because I also realized that at that time there were a lot of musicians who were fighting their own fight—with Civil Rights and their own rights—at that particular time, and were writing music that was informing the public. The Freedom Suite being one; there's [Duke Ellington's] Black, Brown and Beige; there's also some of the works that Charles Mingus was doing at that particular time.

AAJ: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

DB: Exactly. And in there [Let Freedom Ring!] there are sort of little references; in fact, I do play a little melody from The Freedom Suite [sings the phrase] as a hommage to what [Sonny Rollins] did. There's also the second part of the suite, "With This Faith, which is in a way, based on the Charles Mingus tune, what's it called—

AAJ: "Better Git It in Your Soul?

DB: Yeah, that's it.

AAJ: Because "With This Faith is definitely workin' that 6/8 Mingus thing.

DB: Yeah! That was the idea of it; it's not trying to plagiarize what they've done. They were important and it's really trying to represent the whole envelope and the whole umbrella of how society—the political side, if you like—and the musical side work together. And the two at that point in history were in perfect harmony: the music perfectly represented the times. I can't really think of a time when the music was so powerful and so important, really, in people's lives. So there was a little bit of that as well, trying to represent those musicians. I mean, my hat off to them because they inspired me; the power and love in their music inspired me to write this.

AAJ: I think you've answered the question I was going to ask. Taken as a whole, Let Freedom Ring! can be seen as a miniature history of jazz; it's got elements of polyphony, Mingusy gospel, Afro-Cuban, free jazz—and I guess that was very definitely intentional.

DB: Yes. Definitely. Which [laughing] is why it took so long to do! To find a way to represent all those different ideas; because you can do, you know, aspects of it, but to try to find a way to represent as much of the subject as I could and brighten the sense of that and the focus of it being Dr. King and all of the things that were related at that time! Music and politics and the speech and all of that kind of stuff in there—was really important for me to get into the music. If I had done it just by half and just written some tunes and called it Let Freedom Ring—I would have felt like I'd cheated people. So I can speak to you and say, look, I did my best to find as many different angles to represent the subject because it's a serious subject matter and one which is still relevant today. Relevant everywhere that I've played it, across Europe. One of the most powerful places, actually, was Sarajevo. And the reaction I got there was just incredible: people loved it but people are still sort of struggling with those same issues where their differences, or their differences of opinion, or their differences of religion, are still such a massive issue. And for quite a few people I spoke to, Let Freedom Ring! seemed to give them a feeling that people are thinking of them and trying to understand what they're going through. And getting [all] kinds of reactions, which is what I do music for, really: it's not something I throw away, it's a really important part of my life, so it's great when I get those sort of reactions from people.



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