IDENTITY BY SUBTRACTION
Although he never really went away, Denys Baptiste is back again with his first album since Let Freedom Ring released seven years ago. Less ambitious than his suite that combined gospel, blues, contemporary jazz and Afro-Caribbean music with poetry excerpts, here Baptiste concentrates on refining his approach to the quartet through a series of compositions that tackle identity through attempting to explore the essence of the inner man.
The pieces are linked by their relationship to aspects of his persona, thus ‘The Long Night’, the album’s most dramatic and forceful piece, explores slavery; ‘Dance of Makritari’ – a musical descendent of ‘St. Thomas’ – reflects Baptiste’s recent discovery that his great-grandmother was a member of the Makritari tribe; while ‘Special Times’ is a dedication to his family (his wife and two children) which for the last few years have been his priority at the expense of his career in jazz. It is a robust and absorbing statement from one of the UK’s finest young saxophonists, the track ‘Shorter by Miles’ showing he is back for business and in fine form.
LET FREEDOM RING
For this (only his third) CD, the young British and Mobo award winning tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste has undertaken a hugely ambitious project, where he both writes for a large ensemble and incorporates spoken word into his music for the first time. Let Freedom Ring! is based around the rhythmic patterns of Dr Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech and the poetry of author and social commentator Ben Okri. It's a work that continues the same traditions of informing and educating that Charles Mingus and Max Roach pioneered in the radical sixties.
The suite is divided into four parts with Latin, gospel, blues, funk and free jazz forming the basis of alternate numbers. Okri's poetry forms solos along with violin, piano, saxophone, trumpet and guitar. Driving ensemble motifs punctuate throughout.
The set starts with "I have a dream", a gentle and moving lamentation that changes with the introduction of a subtle Afro Cuban rhythm. Omar Puente's wild, dissonant violin playing is the stand out solo. This highly positive mood sets the tone for the rest of the suite; "With this faith" is the purest Mingus. Okri's lines ("embrace our handicaps and use them") ring out over some soul-inspiring, preaching Gospel and blues.
"Let freedom ring" feels like a suite in itself, with what sounds like an atonal accelerating orchestra resolving in a post-bop sax solo which in turn becomes an angular passage ending in a wall of free jazz howls and hollers that provokes thoughts of Archie Shepp. The set ends appropriately with the upbeat "Free at last" where the rhythmic patterns of the title are easily identified in the chanted motif.
As a whole the suite rarely loses pace, only really failing with the long, dragging funk passage on "With this faith". It is also adventurous in its use of musicians like Puente, whose playing recalls both Billy Bang and Alfredo De La Fe.
This is not an album of great solos, but of bold arrangements and complex composition that reflect jazz history. Its message is just as political as musical. As such, the Arts Council of England is supporting it with a tour and school workshops. With intentions like this the career of Mr Baptiste can only continue to go forward.
Baptiste has dealt with the question with typical skill. His first disc represented the broadly straightahead style of the saxophonist's classic-format quartet, and this one deploys the same resources for half the tracks, adding vocals and extra horns for the rest. The luxuriously soulful voice of Juliet Roberts appears on disc two, and Martin Taylor makes a couple of absolutely scintillating guest appearances on guitar. The deft arrangements reflect Baptiste's enthusiasm for the Dave Holland band, with their alternately languorous and impulsive melodies, and their conversational interweaving.
Baptiste arrived in an era in which an awful lot of anonymous classic-jazz mimicry was going on, but his art is an intuitive mixture of admiration, enthusiasm and originality. Though he is fundamentally a Sonny Rollins devotee, there are echoes of the British strands of R&B, Caribbean and soul. He has also built a core quartet from relative newcomers to the UK scene that is as animated and cohesive as anything on the circuit.
Though the provenance of some of the tracks is pretty clear - the opening Journeyman is really Afro Blue with a few melodic modifications - the set is compellingly varied and beautifully played. The Kraken features a superb sax solo from Baptiste, alternating urgent clusters with atmospheric slurs that hang in the air, and he complements Roberts's lustrous sound with great imagination on the soul ballad Stop and Look Around.
For buffs seeking some solid straightahead swingers, meanwhile, the 4/4 groover Steep rolls on a thumping Larry Bartley bass-walk over Tom Skinner's hustling drumming and Andrew McCormack's piano, and the funky Mind the Gap will bring a gleam to the eye of all Lee Morgan Sidewinder fans. The follow-up problem has been resoundingly solved.
BE WHERE YOU ARE
Denys Baptiste was a member of Jazz Warriors and makes his album debut after playing alongside many of the biggest names in British jazz, including Julian Joseph, Incognito, Jason Rebello and Bheki Mseleku. One of his mentors is Courtney Pine, who claims Baptiste to be "one of the strongest tenor saxophonists this country has ever produced."
Mercury Music Prize
THE LATE TRANE
Trying to pay tribute to the arch-progressive John Coltrane is surely self-defeating. Is it right to honour someone who looked so far ahead merely by looking back? And the British saxophonist Denys Baptiste makes his task especially tough. Instead of evoking Coltrane’s accessible early work, he takes on his challenging final years of 30-minute solos, sheets of sound and reed-splitting shrieks.
Yet Baptiste solves that problem triumphantly and in the process deals with another. He brings the American saxophonist into the 21st century by fusing him with newer, more populist styles. In doing this he also smooths away the music’s abrasiveness, revealing the melody. Who knew the tormented Transition could be a chilled-out Afrobeat ballad? Or the anxious Ascent could become gloopy electro-funk?