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Review: Denys Baptiste

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Review : Denys Baptiste- Let Freedom Ring
(Rich Mix, Saturday January 23rd. Review and photo by Patrick Hadfield)

Denys Baptiste draws on the rich seem of politically-involved jazz which has run through the music, going right back to Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong singing “Black and Blue” in the 1920s. Baptiste released his Let Freedom Ring! suite in 2003, commemorating Martin Luther King’s speech “I have a dream”. The suite was inspired the speech patterns King used, and features words from the speech, together with poetry from Ben Okri.

Last Saturday, Baptiste played Let Freedom Ring! for the first time in a couple years, this time to commemorate the anniversary of the swearing in of Barack Obama. He assembled his ten piece band in the bar of Bethnal Green’s Rich Mix arts centre and made the most glorious sound.

They only played the suite, which sounded richer than the recorded version. Without the violin which features on the original, the brass were more upfront, producing a sound reminiscent of Mingus – enhanced by the sonorous trombone of Winston Rollins. Baptiste said after the gig that Rollins had only had one rehearsal: he did a superb job, his raucous solo bringing a gospel feel that was a pinnacle in an evening full of high points.

Hearing Let Freedom Ring! live, it seemed both cohesive and varied. Clearly conceived as a whole, the suite had the wholeness which Wynton Marsalis brings to his longer works. The band sounded Marsalis-like, too. Baptiste throws in all sorts of references – there were quotes from Coltrane, and sections where his tenor was duetting with Rod Youngs ’ drums also reminded me of ‘Trane.

Okri doesn’t perform, so his words were delivered through a Mac managed by altoist Jason Yarde. There were also projections onto a screen behind the behind the band – sometimes of the band performing, sometimes of words from the speech or Okri’s poem, but also footage of civil rights marches and riots – from 1960s America, but also more recent civil disturbances: there were clips of Palestinian’s throwing rocks and Israeli tanks demolishing buildings.

Politics was very near the surface; the film could have distracted from the music, but it served to reinforce it.

Baptiste got the audience involved, too. Normally I shy away from audience participation, but in the intimacy of the bar it was almost impossible not to sing along as he got us chanting in the final section “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”, the closing lines of King’s famous speech.

It was rousing, spiritual stuff. Once more political, Baptiste said at the end that perhaps he should have placed a question mark after “free at last”: we have some way to go.

Baptiste’s band was strong throughout. Gary Crosby played some beautifully toned bass; Abram Wilson some suitably New Orleans’ sounding muted trumpet. As well as Youngs, Satin Singh provided a range of percussion – the two worked well together.

Rather than a series of solos, though, it felt like the music was the main thing, the band as a whole. At the end of the gig, Crosby said a few words about how the music made him feel: he asserted that this was an important piece. Live, it was certainly a powerful, moving piece. And, of course, political.

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