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Denys Baptiste: Let Freedom Ring!

John Kelman By

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With jazz becoming such a broad landscape that labels are increasingly difficult to apply, it's difficult, if not impossible, to identify specific new movements like the ones that appeared in the middle decades of the 20th Century. While there have been all kinds of innovations to be sure, there hasn't been anything quite so sweeping as the emergence of bebop, free jazz, cool jazz, or fusion. Artists continue to expand many of these artificial boundaries (and more), but it's safe to say there hasn't been anything so all-encompassing that it's completely altered the way we look at jazz as a whole—smaller increments, say, rather than big steps.

One end result of this change in the way jazz is evolving is that it is rare to find an album of such monumental influence or scope that it literally redefines the collective zeitgeist. While there's no lack of strong recordings being released, this shift—not to mention the marginalization of jazz as a whole—has meant that one would be hard-pressed to find a modern Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme. But it isn't that albums with the same kind of potential aren't being released; it's simply that the whole landscape of music, and art in general, has changed.

One might wonder how Let Freedom Ring! would have been viewed had it been released in the '60s. One can't help but think that if this tribute, in music and spoken word, to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream speech had come out forty years ago, it might have been considered an album of major significance. By creating a sprawling work of four interconnected pieces that incorporate elements of a more mainstream jazz tradition with Afro-Cuban concerns and a hint of European impressionism, saxophonist Denys Baptiste has created an album with the clear potential to become a classic.

With an ensemble combining a four-piece frontline of tenor and alto saxophones, trumpet and trombone with a cello/violin string section and a more traditional rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass, drums, and percussion, Baptiste has a large palette at his disposal, and he uses it to great effect throughout the suite. Each part is in itself almost a miniature suite with plenty of shifts. And while there is an overall structure to each piece, there's also plenty of room for the soloists to explore.

There are elements of Mingus in "With This Faith, with its raucous handclapping, shouts, and gospel inflection recalling tunes like "Better Git It Within Your Soul, while the title track combines rich counterpoint and a Third Stream sensibility with a chaotically free middle section. Overall there's a feeling of evolution from innocence to protest to final resolution and celebration that makes the entire suite come together as a unified narrative.

Will Let Freedom Ring! have the overall impact as, say, Kind of Blue? Probably not, but it's not because the album doesn't have the makings of a classic; and there's no doubt this recording will bring Baptiste's name into greater profile.

Visit Denys Baptiste on the web.


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