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Denys Baptiste: Let Freedom Ring!

Paul Olson By

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London tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste aims for the sun and stars with his four-part, large-ensemble suite Let Freedom Ring! What is striking is just how wildly, and wonderfully, his ambitions are realized by the final product. The piece was commissioned by the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's historic "I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963; indeed, Dr. King is a living presence on this recording as Baptiste uses some of King's vocal rhythms, cadences and dynamics as actual templates for composition. The twelve-piece group—call it a small big band—is supplemented by Nigerian author Ben Okri, reading from his long poem Mental Fight; the resulting album was released in the U.K. in 2003—the same year it was recorded—but has only been released this year in the United States.

How, then, did we Americans live without this for so long? Let Freedom Ring! very definitely presents itself as a unified statement in the spirit of outstanding, socially-aware jazz albums like Sonny Rollins' Freedom Suite, Max Roach's We Insist!, and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme—even the CD's 47-minute, LP-friendly length encourages comparison to these seminal recordings. This level of ambition smacks of hubris; yet Baptiste's marvelous writing and arranging are equal to the challenge.

And the ensemble! Surely this group had substantial rehearsal time; the ensemble parts have an oiled, supple precision—and this is group music. Baptiste seldom solos, but like every element in this suite, his unadorned, austere solos are perfectly placed and devastatingly effective. His solo on "Let Freedom Ring!, the third movement, is a song in itself as the leader plays with complete concentration and intensity, somehow mingling equal parts of terror and joy.

All the musicians excel, but special praise should be directed toward powerhouse drummer Rod Youngs, percussionist Satin Singh, and iron-fingered bassist (and Dune Records patriarch) Gary Crosby, who negotiate the rubbery 3/4 time of the first and fourth movements, the Mingusy Black Church 6/8 of the second, and the 5/4 groove of the third with equal aplomb. This is a serious work, but it always swings, relentlessly and joyously. It is, ultimately, music of celebration. Okri's spoken-word interludes could have been a distraction; they are not. If anything, his entrances—again, perfectly placed—elevate the music considerably and frequently produce chills.

This is a marvelous work. I am hesitant to overstate its importance, or how educational it is (the styles covered over the three-quarters of an hour can be seen as a sort of jazz history in which polyphony, swing, chamber music, and free jazz all appear) because that would suggest that this music is like sonic broccoli: good for you, but not terribly fun. It is fun, endlessly inventive, singing, and propulsive. It is impossible to imagine how on earth Baptiste will be able to ever top this work—but whether or not he even tries to, I'll be listening to whatever he does next. Highly recommended.

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