Denys Baptiste: Jazz Missionary, Part 2-2


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The seed is the speech itself. I spent something like a week just listening to the speech, over and over again.
—Denys Baptiste
Part 1 | Part 2

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.

AAJ: It's time to discuss what I am going to call your first masterpiece: your third album Let Freedom Ring!. I know this was a commissioned piece; tell me of its origins.

DB: It was supposed to be my second album, actually. The idea and the concept of writing that piece were going to be the second record. But logistically, I just couldn't find the time to sit down and write that. Secondly, it was just going to be too expensive to tour, so it was really a matter of finding the right circumstances and the right time of doing it. Then an organization called the Jerwood Foundation came to our rescue through a friend of ours, Tony Dudley-Evans, who runs a jazz festival in Cheltenham in England. Tony spoke with them and they said, "yeah, we'd love to commision you to do this for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. That allowed me to basically stop working for a few months and just sit down and really try to work at how I was going to put that piece of music together. The real origins—where I first came up with the idea—was I'd heard the [Dr. Martin Luther King 1963 "I Have a Dream ] speech probably about fifteen years ago ... And I wanted to do something which reflected, I suppose, the rich history of the music and its involvement within society: not just as music that you enjoyed to listen to and just wanted to dance to, but as a function of its informing people and having some link with what was happening in society at any particular time. Taking Dr. King's speech—"I Have a Dream —I suddenly thought to myself, "well, okay, here's the words, here's what it's about. I wonder what would happen if we took those words and inserted them the twenty-first century. How much has changed; how much progress have we made in the forty years since Dr. King made that speech? And when I analyzed it, and I suppose when many other people do the same—unfortunately there're too many things that haven't changed. And that made me want to write a piece of music that was representing those ideas. That was really the basis of it and it just really required the right time to actually sit down and do it.

AAJ: Let Freedom Ring! consists of four formal parts and within those parts are different sections with different time signatures, melodies, styles. When it came down to composing the piece musically, what did you begin with? What's the seed musically of this piece?

DB: The seed is the speech itself. I spent something like a week just listening to the speech, over and over again. And I decided that I couldn't just call the piece "I Have a Dream and write a melody and go, yeah, that's "I Have a Dream. Because it didn't seem to bear any relationship to the speech. So I decided to transcribe the speech and actually work out the rhythmic patterns of what Dr. King was saying; then maybe it might retain some of, if you like, the magic of what he said. Because in the way that he actually delivers the speech—there's such power and such passion in it that the only way I could think of to present it without using the words themselves was take out elements. And the rhythmic elements in the way that he delivered it seemed to be the best place to start.

AAJ: The cadences and crescendos.

DB: Absolutely. What I discovered, in listening to it, was an awful lot of melody in the way that he says it. The whole tradition, that Southern Baptist tradition—it's not just about speaking. There's blues in there, there's an awful lot of melodic ideas that, I suppose, inspire people in the congregation in all these churches; they have it here [in England] as well. It goes between speech and singing quite easily. A lot of melody. So finding those little elements [in the speech] where the melody was very, very obvious: that's where I started putting the puzzle together of how I was going to begin. That was the beginning of the structure of it.

AAJ: On the finished Let Freedom Ring! CD, Nigerian author Ben Okri contributes readings from his long poem Mental Fight. How did his participation in the project come about?

DB: At the time, I realized that to do the speech—Dr. King's speech—and to represent that period of forty years ago, I needed something to represent the now for people to understand what I was trying to say. Sometimes music can be a little abstract if you don't have some kind of explanation of what the music is trying to say. I'd been aware of Ben Okri's work for a number of years; I'd read a few of his books. I hadn't actually read Mental Fight, but it was brought to my attention that he might be available to be able to do it. So through a friend of ours I contacted him, and waited patiently [laughing] for a couple of weeks before he agreed that he would do it. I was very pleased and surprised that he said he wanted to be involved in the project. As time went on, he suggested these passages from the poem Mental Fight: an Anti-Spell for the 21st Century and they seemed to fit really well with the four different sections that I'd written. So just found a way to slot those things together to say what I wanted to say.

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.

AAJ: On the CD, the group sounds very well-rehearsed. Was it?

DB: We had rehearsed before, but only the ensemble parts, the written parts. Because of the way it all fits together, I wasn't writing parts in blocks; quite often there are melodies interweaving with other melodies. [We rehearsed] so that [the musicians] could understand where things come from and how the different things mixed together and where different instruments come in and come out: how they relate to one another. We needed to rehearse that. I think we did about three or four [rehearsals] just to get those things. It was really so when we went into the studio, with the red light on, it was going to be the take. You know, we're doing that take and that's it; there was no editing. It was a huge room and there was no way to hide any mistakes or any rough things in there—it was just going and playing it live. Being a small record company as well, you know, [laughing] cost is always an issue!

AAJ: Very much so. So there are no overdubs on the CD at all?

DB: No, because as I said, it was all done in the same room. There was no escape.

AAJ: Oh, yeah, everything leaks.

DB: Yeah. All that was separating everybody was just little walls so they wouldn't spill too much, but there was no real separation at all. So if there was any mistake [laughing] it was right back to the beginning again!

AAJ: Did you write the parts with specific musicians in mind?

DB: Yes, I did. I always tend to write in that way. I'd already had at least a core of the musicians that I wanted to be in the group in mind already. The violinist, Omar Puente, I'd already had in mind; I'd seen him playing with a colleague of mine. [Puente's] colleague, Jenny Adejeyan, the cellist—I'd played with her about five years before before with another group. And all the musicians—I'd go to gigs, and I'd check people out and I'd say, "oh, I'd really love to have that sound in what I do. And then I'd try to think: what would they enjoy playing, what would really bring out, really, what they can do. Because that's kind of important to me; that's why I didn't do loads of solos on the album.

AAJ: Well, you sure gave Omar Puente a chance to show what he can do; his solo is extraordinary.

DB: Yes, he is quite an amazing musician. I'm very lucky to have him in the group! [laughing] But he loves doing it and he finds it challenging to be part of the group. He's one of my most loyal members of the group; he really, really pulls his weight and helps to get the music together. He's great.

AAJ: When I reviewed the CD, space considerations prevented me from doing what I was tempted to do, which was to mention and praise every musician on the album. So I ended up singling out drummer Rob Youngs, percussionist Satin Singh and bassist Gary Crosby because, well, they're the rhythm section and they made all the different parts really swing. And in so many different time signatures.

DB: It's kind of interesting, because you're sort of intuitively understanding the way that I write. I tend to write from the bottom up, from the rhythm section. In [Let Freedom Ring!'s] second part, "With This Faith, the bass is basically playing a phonetic transcription of part of [Dr. King's] speech, so it's really important for me—and if the bottom end of the group isn't working then the top end [laughing] certainly won't! And those guys, they really work very well together. Gary and Rod work a lot together; they're very much a rhythm section and a unit in themselves. And [pianist] Andrew [McCormack] has worked with them—and especially with myself and Gary—for quite a long period of time. I hadn't actually worked with Satin before but I'd seen him playing a few times and realized that he kind of had that thing that I wanted in the group. He's very intuitive as a percussionist; sometimes [with a group] it can be too much having too many different sounds and then a percussionist that just sort of makes all this noise [laughing].

AAJ: I'm often prejudiced against jazz groups with a second percussionist; sometimes it's great but sometimes it gets in the way of the drummer swinging.

DB: Well, I think there were points [on the CD] where Satin doesn't play, where he's not involved. I think in "Let Freedom Ring! he's not involved. But that part, incidentally, is based on that Max Roach interpretation of the King speech. Have you heard that? With the drum solo and Martin Luther King? I can't remember what the recording was called but I heard it a few years ago. It's basically Dr King's live ["I Have a Dream ] speech and Max Roach reacting to it on drums.

AAJ: Sort of a studio duet.

DB: Yeah. It's fantastic, it really is. So ["Let Freedom Ring! ] is kind of the representative of that. Rod [Youngs] just does it beautifully; we work really well together. I love the way that he swings. I mean, he's from D.C.—he's from your side of town. How could he not?—but he's a fantastic musician. And yes, the rhythm section is a very, very important part; if I hadn't gotten the right people to do that, then the rest of it just isn't going to work. So well done for noticing them.

AAJ: Again, we know that this music is not merely a setting for solos. That said, to me your tenor solo on part three of the suite, "Let Freedom Ring!, really feels like the emotional centerpiece of the album. It reaches such levels of intensity and seems to have equal parts terror and joy.

DB: To me, that [solo] was exploring a different part of my musical personality that I hadn't really—up to that time, I was enjoying playing bebop and various parts but I'd never actually tried to record something where the structure of the solo was not about notes and not about harmony. It was about trying to think about the subject matter and trying to represent that as a soundscape. And yes, right, trying to put that solo in the very center: that solo's supposed to represent the struggle, the fight and the idea that freedom is not something which is given away. It's something that has to be fought for in one way or another. So that was kind of how I felt about it and at that particular point that's my representation of that—as close as I could get to that emotion, really.

AAJ: Have you had many opportunities to present Let Freedom Ring! live?

DB: Yes. We've been playing it live quite a lot, actually, for the last eighteen months, two years. It's been a while since [the CD]'s been out [in Europe and the U.K.]. We've done a few tours in Europe and a lot of stuff in the U.K.; we just finished a tour earlier this year in Scotland, which was fantastic as well, just sort of a six- or seven-day tour. The great thing about the music: there's lots of structure to it but there's parts of it where all I've written is a couple of bars of chord changes. A phrase just saying, "do this, or whatever part I want them to do. And to each person I've said, "I just want you to do what you do in that part ; somehow, the written parts and the individuals all sort of come into one thing—and becomes an organic piece of music. And it seems in a way to go back to that organic quartet idea of having a band which—even though it's quite an ungainly size at eleven pieces—is something that can still move as one thing and change: every concert has a different feeling, a different meaning. It's not just the same thing every night. So in that respect the performance has been evolving for the last year. Once people got really into understanding the fundamentals of what the music was about; now we're really about trying to expand on it and explore all the different places where there is space for people to express themselves. There's a cello solo in there that isn't on the record. Jenny [Adejeyan] isn't really an improviser, but I've been getting at her for the last year to get involved in actually improvising. Now there's a part where she does this amazing thing between "Let Freedom Ring! and "Free At Last! So it's still evolving now and it's through playing loads and loads of concerts.

AAJ: You're making me very jealous of those who are getting to see you in Europe and the U.K.

DB: Well, hopefully one of these days we'll come and visit you all! I mean, you're like the source really: where the Civil Rights movement really started and that whole idea, my inspiration for the music.

AAJ: I know it's outrageously expensive to bring a big band over here, but I'll keep my fingers crossed. Your energies, then, have been devoted to working with the large ensemble. Is there an official Denys Baptiste small group at present?

DB: Not at this particular point in time. I mean, I can call on my original quartet anytime and they'll come and we'll be able to do stuff. But really, Let Freedom Ring! is taking up most of my energy and until I think I've exorcised that particular idea and really sort of got bored of it, I'm quite happy playing in that ensemble. It would be nice and fresh playing with a quartet; in fact I'm doing a concert with Gary [Crosby], Rod Youngs and Andrew [McCormack], actually. It's a quartet thing just for fun, next week—because we haven't done it for a long time. So I'm really looking forward to that, to just sort of feel the freedom and the space around myself. I don't know whether that's changed my playing very much, but it's certainly going to be exciting for me to be back in that small group setting.

AAJ: Have you written anything? Do you have any plans to record another album?

DB: I'm actually in the process of formulating some ideas; I don't want to give anything away right now, but I'm kind of looking back at my heritage and St. Lucia and the history of the music from St. Lucia. I've discovered some really interesting sounds, so I'm kind of—at this point—just listening to stuff and trying to find a way I can represent that. So it's probably another year, actually—I like to take my time with things, I'm not really somebody who wants to get involved in churning out CDs for the sake of it. When the time is right, I'm going to put another CD out there. I'm in the process of working on some ideas because now I need to know something about where I come from: how that music that I originally started with has affected and inspired me to get to the point where I am. So I'll working on that over the next few months.

AAJ: There's a feeling I get from your CDs and from your labelmates on Dune Records. The feeling is that jazz music matters, that it's a powerful, positive, even irresistable force that is spiritual, social, even political. Do you have any opinion about that?

DB: I do. I think all of us, including Gary—Gary Crosby, he's kind of the center of the record label, at least on an artistic level. And I think all of us—I can speak for myself, Soweto Kinch, and Abram Wilson—are all people who think a lot about what we do. We're not just doing it to be rich and famous or to be adored by fans. There's something that we're trying to put across. In England—although jazz has a certain listenership—it's still very hard getting it out there, especially to the younger people. And getting it so it's respected in a way that maybe it is in other countries; on the Continent, there are bigger communities of people that are serious jazz listeners. Here you still go to [London club] Ronnie Scott's and there's people chatting when you're trying to do a solo [laughing ruefully]. This is possibly the greatest art form that has been invented by man; it allows us to express our individuality, to explore spiritual aspects, intellectual aspects. And there are not very many forms of music that really allow you to do that. Classical music is great. I love it, but you can't spontaneously compose in the way same way you do with jazz.

AAJ: It's got the odd cadenza, but it's essentially written music.

DB: Yes. But I do love it and wouldn't say it doesn't inspire me; it has. But I think all of us on the label—as you've rightly said, we are really serious about trying to get the message out there to the listeners in the country. We're trying to build an audience and put jazz back where it belongs. I'm fed up with listening to this McDonald's music that sort of coming out; it's just stuff that comes out and six months later the artist isn't even—[laughing]

AAJ: Yeah, he sold a million copies but he got dumped by his label because it was over.

DB: Absolutely. And I'm here for the long term; I'm just trying to put jazz where it belongs, to do my little bit. All of us musicians here are trying to something really serious about it and I think particularly on Dune: it's a family—we're not just individuals working on our individual projects, completely divorced from each other. We talk, we hang, and we're very much involved in the way this particular movement is developing and that whole sort of Jazz Warrior attitude of trying to spread the word and find a way to make jazz something which is popular—without ... compromising what we're trying to do to put the music out there because it's important! And it's something that I think, if people gave it a chance—because people here hear the word "jazz and they go, "whoa! You have to have an IQ of 200 to understand that! So therefore I'm going to listen to something else.

AAJ: There is some of that notion over here as well and I'm always taken aback, because, you know, you can tap your foot to it. You can dance to it!

DB: Absolutely, And when you listen to a great record, when it washes over you, if you stop thinking about it—stop thinking about intellectualizing about the notes, and just let the emotion of it wash over you—that's the only understanding that there really needs to be. That's what got me into the music [laughing] before I even understood what a D minor seven chord was. Just feeling what these musicians were trying to say. Listening to Our Man in Paris, Dexter Gordon, for the first time. Listening to A Love Supreme or Miles Smiles for the first time. That's what it's about ... when you hear those pieces of music. I mean, for me, it sort of prickles on the back of my neck because it's real: it's not some computer churning out some naughts and ones to create the facsimile of music, it's the real thing that real people produced. Real people were interacting to make something on that particular spot that would only work and exist for that particular moment. That excites me; it always has. That's what jazz music is about, and I think if people were given an opportunity and were the music presented in the right way, I think people will be flocking to it because that's freedom, that's what we want. That's what everybody wants, to be free and to have that feeling that, hey, you can do anything you want to do!

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