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Denys Baptiste: Jazz Missionary, Part 2-2

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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.
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