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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."

In addition to the eight Coltrane compositions on the album, there are another two—Neptune and Astral Plane—which were composed by Baptiste. These tracks aside, what is it that makes The Late Trane a Denys Baptiste project uniquely?

"I'd like to describe myself as a pretty versatile musician. I've played in lots of different kinds of bands, from African music to funk music to pop music, bebop and all that, and all of those things formulate the style that I play in. It's bringing together all the types of music I've played over the years. I'll do a bebop gig and I don't just stick to that specific language. I'll go into other areas because I don't see that there's a division between those things. I guess it's the broadness of the different styles which are on it which make it something which is me, I suppose. If I look back on all the albums I've done, they retain those qualities and have something for everybody, I hope.

"I've got to a point where I just think you've got to do things. If you come up with an artistic idea, something you want to do, try not to worry about what other people are going to make of it. In many people's eyes John Coltrane's music is pretty much sacred. For my own personal development as a musician, I feel I need to find ways to explore music through his initial ideas, these sketches of melodies and complete melodies he put on record. You get the feeling with some of the stuff on record, some of the untitled stuff, that he just started playing and the band went, 'Oh, he's doing that—let's find something to play.' Sometimes it works really well, sometimes it doesn't, but there's always that feeling of surprise and that feeling that the band is always searching, trying to push the envelope. Perhaps the idea of not really knowing what they were going to do, brings that music to life. For me, that whole principle of being able to explore, and every gig is different and every solo is different, and in a way, with the live music, it's evolving as well. We're finding other spaces within the music. This is another stepping stone to getting to where I want to get to, wherever that might be."

It is in this respect more than any other—the relentless quest to find himself—that Baptiste identifies Coltrane as a touchstone.

"He lived his life pretty much one hundred per cent through music. He was somebody who was not afraid to try new things, somebody who was always searching for another place beyond where he'd go to—never being satisfied, being restless with his art. On a lesser level I feel that I have that feeling myself, that I want to push through the boundaries of what I already know. Being a musician, for me, is about eventually being able to find yourself among all of the great stuff that's gone before. How do I find the real Denys Baptiste amongst all of that stuff, and have that identity? That's what Coltrane was all about—trying to discover, search and be fearless."

These attributes were also imbued in him by Toussaint and Crosby when he was starting out, and he continues to recognise them as immense influences.

"Gary is an incredibly important figure for the jazz community, but he's been an incredibly important figure for me too. I really wasn't totally convinced I was going to be doing this as a career until I met Gary. He called me up one afternoon and said, 'Come down to the Jazz Café and bring your saxophone.' Somebody had told him about me. From that day he's always supported what I've done.

"To be honest, I couldn't really play that well back then. He always had the right things to say, just encouraging us, guiding us, as well as giving us the opportunity to play. And also creating these little micro communities of musicians. He continues to do that now with Tomorrow's Warriors. There are so many young players coming through now, and you don't even realise the influence he's having on what they do, that one word or that one sentence that can guide somebody to the place that they should perhaps be, even to the point of saying, 'You sound like an alto player who should be a tenor player.' He has this wisdom.

"Jean Toussaint has been great as well. He's always somebody I can call up or ask questions of, and play with as well. I'm not afraid to ask people—I've still got loads to learn."

Commendable humility from someone who is much sought after as a soloist—he's played with McCoy Tyner, Ernest Ranglin and Julian Joseph, to name but three—and whose debut album, 1999's Be Where You Are earned him a Mercury Music Prize nomination. How does Baptiste view that album now in the context of his music odyssey thus far? "I went through many years where I never listened to it, or I'd cringe when I listened to it. All musicians are a bit funny about listening to their work. I'm not sure it was Mercury nomination-worthy album, but I'm really proud of what I did—my first set of compositions, my first time putting a band together properly.

"I guess the music connected with people. The fact that I had a certain innocence, of not knowing any better. I just did whatever came to mind and somehow that worked. That's a principle I've tried to follow ever since, to be where you are—that's what the album title is all about. Wherever you have to be, try not to be in the future or in the past, try to be actually present in what you're doing. It was a starting point, and I feel blessed that I'm still here 18 years later still doing it."
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