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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.

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