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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 CDBaptiste's thirdwas 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 originswhere I first came up with the ideawas 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 sameunfortunately 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 speechthere'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 traditionit'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 speechDr. King's speechand 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.