Denys Baptiste: Jazz Missionary, Part 1-2


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I just like unevenness... I like to have the sort of things that don
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London saxophonist Denys Baptiste made a huge splash in the U.K. when his debut 1999 CD Be Where You Are was shortlisted as a prestigious Mercury Prize Album of the Year. Jazz fans were perhaps less surprised, as Baptiste had apprenticed for years on record and in concert with the likes of tenor player Courtney Pine and bassist/Dune Records patriarch Gary Crosby's Nu Troop. I spoke with Baptiste in London about his musicial career, his associates on the British Dune label, and especially Let Freedom Ring!, his breathtaking large-ensemble tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream speech. This CD—Baptiste's third—was recorded in 2003 and has only recently been released in the United States.

All About Jazz: Where were you born?

Denys Baptiste: I was born in London in 1969.

AAJ: Oh, I thought you were born in St. Lucia or lived there for some years.

DB: No, I didn't. My parents are from there; there were born there and they came to England when they were in their twenties. So I never actually lived there myself, but as ninety-nine percent of my family [laughing] all still live in St. Lucia, I consider myself to be a full-blooded St. Lucian—as well as a Londoner as well.

AAJ: That sense of being rooted there, of being a St. Lucian—do you think that informs your work in any way?

DB: I think that the music that I grew up listening to—I suppose you can never really escape from your earliest influences, and the earliest music that you're exposed to, the music that your parents were listening to. For me, that was listening to calypso, a little reggae music, and also listening to soca. So Christmases and birthdays and any celebration—those were the sounds that I was hearing to start with.

AAJ: I get the impression that as a very young London musician, you were rather influenced by the example of [British tenor player] Courtney Pine.

DB: Yeah. For me, at the time, I had decided that the saxophone was the instrument I wanted to play. I'd started off on the clarinet originally, and didn't like it too much, but I was told at the time that I had to kind of show a reasonable commitment to that instrument before the borough, or area, that I was from would give me a tenor saxophone to try out. So I stuck with it. At that time I just really started to listen to all the sort of pop things that were around in the early, mid-eighties. That was the time there seemed to be lots of horn sections in lots of groups: Earth, Wind & Fire, all that kind of stuff. Also with the tradition of the music that my parents were listening to: the ska tradition, where you've got the Skatalites and people like that where you're hearing and seeing lots of saxophones and horns. And for me, that really made me want to play the instrument. But what really made me want to become a musician, a professional musician—was seeing Courtney Pine. He was kind of from a similar background to me: a young, black Londoner. And I guess it's something that I never thought I could actually do; I never thought it'd be possible, actually, to do something like that. But seeing him doing that—a young man in his twenties, really affecting the world around him with the music he was playing—really inspired me to want to try to practice more, to learn a little more about the music that I wanted to perform.

AAJ: Tell me how you, as a still-young musician, got involved with Gary Crosby and the Tomorrow's Warriors jam sessions.

DB: Well, the Tomorrow's Warriors jam session was something I did quite a bit later. What happened was, they used to have a jam session in a particular art center called the Watermans Art Centre in West London. I used to go down there with a friend of mine; we used to go and just hang out and watch the musicians play. And one day, we got the courage to actually go up to the musicans and say, "well, look, can we kind of sit in with your group and play some standards with you? There were a couple musician there: a guy called Brian Edwards, an alto player, and a pianist called Adrian Reed. And they said they quite liked what I was doing at that point; they said there were going to pass [my] number on to Gary Crosby. And I'd seen him playing with Courtney Pine quite a few times—I'd heard his name—and I was quite nervous [laughter] that they were going to give my number to this very eminent bassist. So a few weeks later I got a phone call on a Friday evening saying "come down to the Jazz Café tomorrow at twelve o'clock, don't be late. So I got my horn and went down there and [Crosby] was really a lovely guy. He was running a band at that time called Nu Troop, which was in a kind of Art Blakey Jazz Messengers spirit in the sense that he was getting young musicians to play and learn about the jazz era that had passed. So I'd be just sitting in with them, and he was really one of these guys who just encouraged you all the way—even when you felt that you wanted to die when you came off the stage. Just saying, "hang in there, just learn from the people around you and every experience you have is going to be one that's going to enrich you and inform you to get to the next stage. And I stayed with that band, really, for the next ten years. And he's been a mentor and a great friend of mine ever since. Tomorrow's Warriors is still going—I think they're on their fourth generation now of young musicians who are going through that finishing school, if you like, getting an opportunity to learn about the music and perform professionally in front of real audiences. The spirit's still there and now I'm part of the educational part of it: helping and encouraging the new set of musicians that are coming through. It's a really exciting organization to be involved with, and I was there at the beginning as one of the students.

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.

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.

AAJ: It's funny that you mention guitar because I absolutely love the song "The Kraken from that album; Martin Taylor's guitar is fantastic and I love the groove. Which tunes from your first two albums do you like the best—that you're the happiest with?

DB: I like different things for different reasons, actually. But I quite like "Kraken as well. That's one of my all-time favorites. I also like "Rollinstone [from Be Where You Are]—which is my tribute to Sonny Rollins—because for me, it was a tune that, although it has different time signatures happening within it, it still sounds really natural. It doesn't feel like it's deliberately going from 3/4 to 4/4.

AAJ: I think that's become a trademark of yours.

DB: I just like unevenness. I'm just [laughing] sort of a little bit quirky and a bit strange so I like to have the sort of things that don't necessarily follow an even trend, an even keel. Different time signatures have always been something that I've been interested in. For me, everything like that is a challenge; I haven't written anything in thirteen yet! I'm afraid that one of these days an idea is going to come to me and I'll write something in 13/8, something like that.

AAJ: I'll be anticipating that on your next album. Any other tunes from the first two albums you like?

DB: "Toga to Go is one I like on Alternating Currents. I like "Shades of Green [from Be Where You Are]; that's one of my favorites, sort of exploring that "Giant Steps -type idea, but in sort of a very melodic tune as well. I like all of them for different reasons, but if I had to put some on to listen to those are the ones I'd choose as my particular favorites.

AAJ: You mention "Rollinstone as your tribute to Sonny Rollins. I find your tenor solo on "Confucius from the Jazz Jamaica All Stars Massive CD to remind me the most of his playing. Everytime I hear it I think of Sonny.

DB: I shall listen to that; that would never have occurred to me. I love the stuff Sonny's done with Caribbean music and the way that he approaches rhythm and melody. I think if there was a player that I'd want more of his attributes in what I do—I think it's Sonny, because he just exudes music. He's a person made of notes.

AAJ: Perfectly put. And you can listen to that song "Confucius and then tell me how wrong I am. "Dear Paul: you are completely off the mark ...

DB: [Laughing] "I actually sound like Wayne Shorter.

AAJ: "Clarence Clemons.

DB: [Laughter] Now, come on, let's not get personal now!


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