We had a chance to chat with renowned British saxophonist Denys Baptiste at Love Supreme Jazz Festival about his early days with Tomorrow's Warriors, The Late Trane, and a number of all-star jazz bands...
Going back to when you were part of Tomorrow’s Warriors, which led you to join Gary Crosby’s band Nu Troop, how did this nurture you and what did you learn?
Well it’s a funny story how I met Gary Crosby - I used to do a Saturday job at Sainsbury’s in Chiswick and every Saturday he used to come in with his wife. So I used to see him and I knew who he was because I used to go to see Courtney Pine and see him play with his band. I did a jam session in West London and one of the guys said “Oh you’re really good, so I’m gonna give your number to Gary Crosby”. Then a couple of weeks later I got this phone call and it was Gary Crosby on the phone saying “Come to The Jazz Cafe on Saturday”. I was like “Okay” - it was Gary Crosby so that was fine, he was God!
Tomorrow’s Warrior’s as it is now is not what it was then, it was more kind of an Art Blakey vibe where you’ve got an elder musician and you formed a band around him. What we were doing was learning from his experience and from each other, so most of our experience at that time was going to The Jazz Cafe every Saturday, we did a gig every Saturday and then there was a jam session afterwards. A lot of it was peer learning if you like, you know where Tony Kofi was in the band with me at the time along with Byron Wallen, Trevor Watkis, Robert Fourdjour and Gary Crosby on bass.
So it was quite a lot of people to learn from at that time and because there was such a huge circle of people, who weren’t in the band but were turning up to the jam sessions, you were meeting other people and had people asking you to play with them so it wasn't formal in the sense that you’d sit there and learn scales, more about the stage craft and how you actually do a gig. Such as when you’re doing a new tune, what do you do?”, how do you get around that thing of playing on stage, which is something I think is missed...
I went to Guildhall and did a postgraduate there which is completely lucky because it’s all technical, you’re learning all the nuts and bolts of it but then there’s no sense of how much you apply it to stuff. As opposed to going on stage and you’ve got to do it, there’s an audience there, there’s a band there, do your thing - sink or swim. If you suck, then it’s either having the tenacity to come back next week or you learn from it and you grow. The next week you learn what you did wrong and you can ask Gary what went wrong, or one of the other guys what went wrong, and you would go away to work on it and do it. So it was really old school in that sense, in the way they probably did it back in the 1940s/50s/60s that’s how people learnt.
I think Tomorrow’s Warriors, which is still the same kind of thing but there are different levels, it wasn’t all about performance. It’s kind of about rehearsals more than anything, not being thrown into the lion’s pit every Saturday…It was a really wonderful time to be playing the music and you used to get all sorts of incredible players who would play at Ronnie’s every week, then because it was Saturday lunchtime they would come down and play with us. So Steve Coleman [saxophonist], Billy Higgins [drummer] would come down, all these people you would be playing with them and be like “there’s that person there!”. It was incredible stuff, so I kind of just learnt on my feet.
We’re looking forward to hearing The Late Trane album live, what was it that you really latched onto about Coltrane’s playing and what did you want to put across in your interpretations and original compositions?
The thing that really drew me to him earlier on was that during the period from say 1957 to 1967 he just changed his playing so much. He was always growing, he wasn’t just like “I do this thing” and then that was it; he was a bebop player and that’s what he does but through that whole period he just transformed himself over and over again. I love that idea of your whole career, as a musician, being a journey that you never stop. You never wanna just stand still and be happy with what you’re doing, you always wanna be doing something new, trying to find some other thing that you can’t play and you wanna play another style that you haven’t played, so that really drew me to him.
For the record, it was particularly about the later period stuff, which I think a lot of people find really impenetrable you know, it’s hard music. So I thought, how can I present that music and the melodies and also not compromise in terms of the content and stylistically, give an audience something that perhaps isn’t so familiar with that very heavy duty work - something that you can hang onto. So a lot of the arrangements have got grooves, there’s a drum and bass kind of one, there’s all sorts of different things and it’s all ways that people can come and mix with it in a slightly different way, then hopefully draw them to try and listen to some of Coltrane’s later music.
You’ve got this all-star band of jazz musicians, so how was it working with them and why did you choose these guys to do the album with?
I always design my projects around people, feel the idea then see who I can work with and who will be able to give it the elements I want. So all of them, I mean I played with Rod [Youngs] on my last 3 albums - he is so versatile and I know that he can do everything that I need him to do.
Larry [Bartley] I did my first two albums with, again he’s a very open player so he’s really somebody that’s always feeding ideas, so I always kind of look to him if anything gets stagnant, there’s always something he can keep stuff moving and bring things in a bit different.
Nikki [Yeoh], well I’ve known Nikki for 27/28 years and again, she is just so open to music. I think with John Coltrane’s music that’s what you need, you need musicians that aren’t just gonna go “well that’s what I do, I do this thing”. Musicians that will take risks more than anything and all of them are risk takers, but then we all have that trust as well, if anybody goes “OK we'll follow you” that’s cool and we’ll go in that direction. So music is always evolving and always changing which is what I wanted to do, I don’t want it to be John Coltrane karaoke I want it to be living music and that’s the group that I felt was the strongest collection of people to be able to get that, I’m very very lucky.
Have you got any gigs coming up that you are particularly excited about and what’s next, are there any future projects you’re planning on working on?
Well I can’t tell you about future projects… I’m writing a soundtrack for a documentary at the moment which is kind of interesting, but I can’t really tell you...
We'll keep an eye out then!
Hull Jazz Festival’s coming up quite soon, I’m doing that. We’re off to Finland later this year doing some stuff there, Ronnie’s I’m doing in late October, and a new album is coming out probably next year after the process of just thinking about it...I know what it is but I have to write for the right people.
Who are you planning to see this weekend at Love Supreme?
I wanna see George Clinton and Earth, Wind & Fire - if I can see those two then my life is complete.
You can buy The Late Trane here and listen on Spotify or Apple Music.