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Denys Baptiste: Making the Late Trane Accessible

David Burke By

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Coltrane was all about trying to discover, search and be fearless. —Denys Baptiste
Even the most avowed John Coltrane disciples among us would admit to grappling with some of the albums he released in the couple of years before his death—the likes of Ascension, Sun Ship and Om. And we weren't alone. His long-time drummer, Elvin Jones, told Downbeat magazine, "At times I couldn't hear what I was doing—matter of fact, I couldn't hear what anybody was doing. All I could hear was a lot of noise."

Evidently British saxophonist Denys Baptiste heard something else, because on The Late Trane he re-imagines eight pieces from this period of Coltrane's musical evolution (though perhaps revolution is a more apposite description), including Dusk Dawn, Peace On Earth and Dear Lord. Essentially it's an exercise in deconstruction, as Baptiste—together with an ensemble featuring Nikki Yeoh on piano and keyboards, Neil Charles on bass and Rod Youngs on drums (and guest appearances by tenor player Steve Williamson and second bassist, Gary Crosby)—extracts Coltrane's basic melodies from the maelstrom of his performances, and builds again from the bottom up.

He explains, "I thought, how can I connect the traditional—the past—with the future? What music is there that people can connect with in terms of rhythms and just the feel of it? People respond to things which are familiar, so rhythms are prevalent in popular music. I thought, if I could do that at some level, that would be a way to present that music, because the melodies themselves are quite simple. They're open to doing quite a lot with them. You can stretch them and put different feels behind them and they seem to work quite well. With Transition, which is quite an intense piece of music on its own, how can I present that in another way, while retaining the spirituality that was so central to what John Coltrane was trying to do?"

Baptiste, who was mentored by former Jazz Messenger Jean Toussaint and the aforementioned Crosby, artistic director of educational and professional development organisation Tomorrow's Warriors, admits his task was made difficult by the sheer density and intensity of the original recordings.

"There are some of his melodies that I couldn't see a way that I could make them into melodies that people would respond well to. As a composer I think melody first—I love melodic ideas. Melody is a wonderful thing. The ones that seem to lend themselves [to adaptation] seem to have a strong melodic centre to them, and I could turn them into something which is much more musical. I had a list of probably about 20 compositions. I was experimenting and throwing bits of paper away and whittling it down to the eight that I chose."

He went to the band with fully-formed ideas of his interpretations, while "leaving room for the musicians to be able to interpret to ideas as well."

There was, he says, "enough in there for them to put their own personality in it, even though essentially they were arrangements. But I wanted them to be comfortable with what they were doing. I wanted to replicate something of the past, but I wanted people to hear those musicians and what they have to offer as well." Baptiste's initial challenge was "how to present the music in a way that was respectful, but also trying to follow the spirit of what John Coltrane is all about."

He continues, "At the same time it was about looking to the future, because that's what he was doing. In ten years, between 1957 and 1967, he made so much progress, going all the way from hard-bop to the avant-garde. I wanted to have that feeling of pushing forward in a way that, if he was alive now, what would he be doing? I think he'd be collaborating with some of the most creative musicians, not necessarily jazz musicians but modern styles as well.

"Beyond that, the other challenge was to put it together in such a way I felt was keeping with the intensity and the spirituality and intention John Coltrane had, but also getting the balance of making it accessible as well. So those two things were the main thoughts in my mind when I was putting the album together. If it wasn't something that was accessible in some way, I think I would have failed in what I was originally trying to do."

The Late Trane may represent the first recorded document of Baptiste venturing onto the sacred ground of Coltrane's oeuvre, but he has performed his material live before.

"Many years ago I started playing with Gary Crosby. He asked me one day if I wanted to do A Love Supreme. I said, 'No, actually, I don't want to do it in public! Great to do in a rehearsal room.' The more I thought about it, if I really want to understand the music, I really need to play it. So we sort of got into playing that music and played it a lot over the years. That's the inspiration that got me thinking about how I could present the even more avant-garde stuff in a way that was accessible."

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