Saxophonist Denys Baptise wears a Sonny Rollins beard and is dressed like a revolutionary, but his military garb belies his inner peace. "I'm in my Zen mode" he beams. A Londoner of St. Lucian parentage, Baptiste is bound for his first complete performance of his Let Freedom Ring! suite, out now on CD via Dune.
Let Freedom Ring! is in four parts, each drawn from a phrase in Martin Luther King's speech. Baptiste's intention with the suite was to create a collage of nonmusical genres-including spoken word and video-to rebrand King's message for today. "There's a lot of micro-ideas coming in to put across the point that we can all live together," he explains. One of these is to knit Nigerian poet/novelist Ben Okri's secular sermon "Mental Fight" into his piece. "Certain people that you meet-they speak or you read what they've written and you think, 'Wow! This is an eternal truth!' You read bits of 'Mental Fight' and realize that he's actually talking about the same things as King but in the context of 40 years later."
The first part develops from the speech's natural rhythm and melody, and it's given a Cuban feel because, Baptiste says, "Cuban music is a metaphor for joy and optimism." At the other end of the emotional spectrum, part three is cacophonous and challenging, melding fiery solos, angry percussion and voices to evoke injustice and struggle.
"Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X-their doctrine was action by any means necessary," stresses Baptiste, "but Martin Luther King's whole idea of how to fight the world's injustice was coming more from the standpoint of not complying with a system that was intrinsically unjust. What he's trying to say is rather than making our differences a point of contention, they should be something we celebrate."
Practising what he preaches, Baptiste is embracing difference: employing a multinational band and borrowing from African-American, Latin and European musical traditions. Baptiste came up through the ranks of Tomorrow's Warriors, a "finishing school" for young jazz musicians led by exceptional U.K. bassist Gary Crosby. With two solo CDs to his name, and having played alongside British jazz luminaries like guitarist Martin Taylor and sax player Courtney Pine, Baptiste is becoming an important force on the U.K. jazz scene.
So what's Baptiste's dream for the impact of Let Freedom Ring! on the public tonight? Clasping his hands together he smiles and nods. "Hopefully, there'll be a whole audience full of people from different walks of life, and they'll come away feeling that they want to understand each other better."