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Interview: An introduction to Denys Baptiste

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As a celebrated saxophonist and composer in his own right, London Jazz mainstay Denys Baptiste, like so many others, draws powerful inspiration from the music of John Coltrane. Having collaborated with the likes of Ernest Ranglin, Manu Dibango, and Jeffrey Dammers, Baptiste has garnered plenty of insight into the expansive world of Jazz, and has contributed to the melting of genre-boundaries which continues to keep the music so exciting. Following the release of his excellent new LP The Late Trane, Denys will be joining us at The British Library for an in-depth interview, followed by a special playback of John Coltrane’s 1965 classic, A Love Supreme, as part of the 25th EFG London Jazz Fest. If you fancy listening to one of the finest Jazz recordings on a world class audiophile sound system, head here for tickets and more info.

Ahead of the occasion, we caught up with Denys for a quick chat about his life in Jazz, the spiritual power of Coltrane’s music, and the building of The Late Trane.       

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Ahead of this year’s London Jazz Fest, how are you feeling about the modern Jazz landscape? Are there any young or new artists in particular that you’re enjoying right now?

Its an exciting time for jazz listeners. The definition of what jazz is continues to expand and many young musicians who have grown up listening to more popular music are incorporating their musical interests into jazz. That’s kind of the beauty of this music; it’s constantly evolving, and here in the UK is where some of the most interesting music is being created. I came across a band I like, Tri-Force 5, that interests me. Mansur Brown has startlingly original sound on guitar and is one to watch. I also like Binker and Moses – their explorations with just drums and sax are very exciting.  

 Coltrane’s name still crops up as an influence all across the musical spectrum. Why do you think John’s music still resonates with so many people half-a-century after his death?

Coltrane’s music is very powerful on an emotional level and there are countless examples of musicians who count him as an inspiration. Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, Kenny Garrett, Mike Brecker…Why? because he is musician who ‘put it on the line’ every time he picked up the saxophone. His fearlessness experimentation and his constant hunger to discover who he was within the music, and just the raw emotion are very compelling and trained musical styles. Here is a true artist who speaks the truth and is not afraid to share that journey with musicians and audiences alike. This is why I think his music will continue to inspire future generations.

 Do you remember hearing John’s music for the first time? Who or what introduced you?

I was encouraged to listen to John Coltrane’s music by a fellow student at school. In those days I tended to borrow LPs from my local library, so I picked up the first Coltrane album I came across and borrowed Live in Europe recorded on Pablo records. The intensity of the music was too much for me at that time, and it sounded to me like they were just making noises. I had no idea what I was listening to and promptly took it back to the library and borrowed a Dexter Gordon LP instead. It was a couple of years later when I discovered Blue Train, and then I was hooked. 

 Was Coltrane a primary catalyst for your involvement in jazz? Or were there other factors at play, such as family or friends?

I don’t come from a musical family but once I started to play music I discovered that my dad had a small collection of jazz records including some Dave Brubeck and Count Basie. It really intrigued me and was the catalyst to discover more. I was lucky to have a great music teacher who loved jazz and introduced me to Morrissey Mullen and got me started improvising in the first jazz band in the school. I loved the idea of having space to play what I wanted, and the rush I got from having to create on the fly. Dont get me wrong, I had no idea what I was doing and probably thought I sounded great, but I loved the feeling. I love John Coltrane’s music but during the mid ‘80s I was listening mostly to Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter and Michael Brecker.

 What were your primary aims when re-intepreting some of John’s compositions for your new album ‘The Late Trane.’ Did you want to expand on the original sound or put an entirely new spin on these works?

John Coltrane was a restless artist who transformed the possibilities of improvisation several times between 1957-67. I started with a question:

‘What would he be doing now if he were alive today?’ This generated my objectives:

1. To showcase a selection of some of his later compositions, which are hardly ever played, and do so in a way that retains the spirit of his music, but with a modern feel. He used two bass players at times and often had Pharaoh Sanders as a second Horn, so I wanted to represent these changing band line ups. I also used electronic effects to further bring the sound into the 21st century.

2. Introduce new audiences to his later work: I think he would still be exploring new ways to play his music, collaborating with young innovative musicians and new forms. So rather than just recreate, like John Coltrane Karaoke, I decided to use flavours of modern rhythms and grooves for the purpose of providing a way in for listeners who might be intimidated by the original recordings.

3. Write pieces as a response to his work. Neptune’ and ‘Astral Trane’ were the result of this process and feature two basses and two saxophones in the spirit of his work. 

  And what drew you to John’s later period of work? 

The later work is inspired by Coltrane’s developing spirituality and his interest in the concept that the universe connects us all. By the mid ‘60s he was attempting to access music from this space where he could be open to all the sonic possibilities. It was also more about the emotional impact of the music rather than the flawless execution. I was drawn to this approach because performing live it is all about what the audience feels when listening to the performance. Its not about creating deliberately difficult music to show how clever I am, or trying to mystify my audience. It’s about connecting with them in a very primal way. That how I listen to his late work. It takes a while before you start getting it, but it’s well worth the effort.

Tickets for Classic Album Sundays at London Jazz Fest with Denys Baptiste: John Coltrane ‘A Love Supreme’ are available here.

Listen to our musical lead-up playlist for ‘A Love Supreme’ here.

By Owen Jones

 

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