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Music interview – Denys Baptiste: ‘I’m drawn to the way John Coltrane created these soundscapes’

Denys Baptiste. Picture: Dave Stapleton
Denys Baptiste. Picture: Dave Stapleton
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One of the most respected figures in British jazz, Denys Baptiste performs in Hull this weekend. Duncan Seaman reports.

Over the course of more than two decades of music-making Denys Baptiste has become one of the most revered figures in British jazz, winning two MOBO Awards and twice being nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.

On his latest album, The Late Trane, the 49-year-old Londoner offers his own interpretations of classic tracks by the John Coltrane, the American saxophonist whose experiments with modal and free jazz lit up the genre in the 1950s and 60s. Baptiste will perform them tomorrow at Hull Jazz Festival.

Baptiste was alerted to Coltrane’s work by a friend. “At the time I was listening to people like Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins,” he remembers. “He said, ‘You’ve got to check out Coltrane’ so I went to my local library and I picked up the first John Coltrane record, I didn’t know any of his work at the time, and took it home, put it on the record player and thought ‘Wow, this is not very good’. It was a live concert from around 1963, he was already getting quite avant garde around that period, I just wasn’t ready for it so I took it back to the library the same day and got something else.

“It took me a good couple more years to make my way to a more gentle approach by Coltrane. My point in was a double album which I think is a compilation of two albums called More Lasting Than Bronze. It had I Love You and various other standards on there. Hearing that record was my way in and I slowly built up my tolerance for the later stuff and I’ve got more into it ever since then.”

The Late Trane focuses on music from the last four years of Coltrane’s life, before he died of liver cancer in 1967. It was a period where Coltrane fused experimental jazz with his growing spiritual concerns. “That period certainly has a different energy to the stuff he did in the 1950s,” Baptiste says. “I’m drawn to the way he’s created these almost soundscapes. It’s not about the long lines, like Giant Steps and the very dense harmonic stuff, it’s more about how to convey some kind of emotion. Really that’s my favourite period of him.”

Denys Baptiste. Picture: Dave Stapleton

Denys Baptiste. Picture: Dave Stapleton

He was however conscious 
that the listening public may have the same reaction as he did when first encountering Coltrane’s work. “The idea with The Late Trane was to take some of those melodies from that period and actually rearrange them in such a way that it makes it easier for people to approach that late music.

“So there are more familiar platforms for me to play over, I’ve done something different with After The Rain and Vigil is more of a drum & bass thing, but a lot of it is for me to introduce people to Coltrane and encourage them to listen to more of his music.”

In the 60s Coltrane switched from his signature instrument, the soprano saxophone, to tenor sax. Baptiste believes it was a significant step. “I think he was inspired to play the soprano saxophone by the late great Steve Lacy and I suppose to an extent Sidney Bechet, that’s where he was coming from with that whole sound. My point of view of Coltrane’s work is at that particular time a lot of what he was trying to do between ’62 and ’65, where I feel he got to a point where he really at the top of his game and he was just looking for another voice. There’s stuff with him playing alto saxophone on Live in Japan, there’s a bit of flute on one – it’s all these different ways that he needed to express himself through different instruments. He was already experimenting with the tenor and that very high register but the soprano gave him a natural way to get to that sonic area to express himself through that.”

The Late Trane also contains two Baptiste originals inspired by John Coltrane. “I hadn’t even told the band I was going to do this,” he says. “They were literally just sketches of things, I just said ‘This is kind of what it is, let’s just play it’ and both of those were done in one take. In quite a lot of Coltrane’s late stuff there are tracks that are untitled, the idea that he’d be introducing new stuff to the band and seeing what they would do really interested me and I thought ‘We’ve played through all this music, let’s see what we can do as a response’.”

I’m drawn to the way Coltrane has created these almost soundscapes. It’s not about the long lines, like Giant Steps and the very dense harmonic stuff, it’s more about how to convey some kind of emotion.

Denys Baptiste

Baptiste feels there has been “a bit of a resurgence recently of jazz coming back into the mainstream”. Films about Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Lee Morgan have helped, he feels. “There are a lot of great bands that are coming through. Nubaya Garcia is doing really well but I think Shabaka Hutchings is the one that really started this new movement of young players. The Ezra Collective played at Quincy Jones’ 85th birthday party. All of these things are great.”

Denys Baptiste Quartet plays The Late Trane at Hull Truck Theatre on July 21. jnight.org/hulljazzfestival

Other acts to watch at Hull Jazz Festival

Vimala Rowe & John Etheridge – Friday July 20, 7pm – Hull Truck Theatre, 50 Ferensway, Hull HU2 8LB

Denys Baptiste. Picture: Dave Stapleton

Denys Baptiste. Picture: Dave Stapleton

Tickets: £16 (students and under-26s £6) from Hull Truck Theatre box office.

Wall to Wall Prince – Friday July 20, 8.30pm – Hull Truck Theatre

Tickets: £23

The Dime Notes – Saturday 21st July, 3pm – Hull Truck Theatre

Tickets: £15 (students and under-26s £6)

Camilla George Quartet – Saturday July 21, 6pm – Hull Truck Theatre

Tickets: £12.50 (students and under-26s £6)

The Shuffle Demons – Saturday July 21, 5pm and 7.30pm – Hull Truck Theatr

FREE entry events

New Sounds of Hull: The Broken Orchestra, The Dyr Sister and Revenu – Saturday July 21, 8pm – Kardomah94, 94 Alfred Gelder Street, Hull, HU1 2AN

Tickets: £7 (students and under-26s £6)