WHEN I heard the Hounslow-born (1959) saxophonist Denys Baptiste play some of John Coltrane’s latter-day tunes at Foyle’s during the 2016 London Jazz Festival, I was intensely moved — as much by the dedicated musicianship of Baptiste’s bandmates as by his own skilled and committed artistry.
The narrative spirituality of pianist Nikki Yeoh was also deeply affecting, as was the long experience of master bassist Gary Crosby and drummer Rod Youngs.
And when fellow tenor horn Steve Williamson was introduced to complement Baptiste for a rendition of Vigil, there followed some very special moments.
For here were two precious saxophonists of proud Caribbean roots, blowing in the creative wake of the greatest of horn men, yet still making their own very inspired and personal musical excursions in the heart of London, their own throbbing city.
Baptiste’s new album The Late Trane is no work of mere copyism. It is a powerful assertion of contemporary musicians anatomising the present and stretching for the future in the very complex and profound notes of their own music, in their own place in the world, nourished and provoked by a genius of earlier days who, by his own brilliance and insight, changed the very essence of the music which he revolutionised and loved.
But another very powerful Anglo-Caribbean saxophonist is a vital player on this album, alongside Baptiste and Williamson.
For The Late Trane was produced through the musical brain and empathy of the scintillating London altoist Jason Yarde.
As they played, surrounded by thousands of books at Foyle’s, I remember thinking what I was hearing was very London music; the sound of the cosmopolis, of the city is resplendent in their notes.
Yet I could also hear the waves of the Caribbean and Baptiste’s St Lucia peaks, Coltrane’s North Carolina and Philadelphia, all immersed in this band’s intense and wondrous sound.
They open with Dusk Dawn from Coltrane’s 1965 album Living Space and continue with the same album’s title tune. Baptiste plays them radiating a sense of sonic wonder and the serenity of Yeoh is absolutely her own sound. Crosby’s bass digs deep into the London earth.
It is his delving notes too that begin Ascent from the 1965 album Sun Ship. Yeoh’s electric keyboard and Baptiste’s charged notes create a sizzling effect, a preface to Peace on Earth from the Live in Japan album, waxed two decades after the human catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yeoh’s powerful gentleness anticipates the shelter and caring beauty of Baptiste’s benign horn.
Transition is the title tune of Coltrane’s 1965 album.
Neil Charles’s subliminal bass grounds Baptiste’s melodic excursion into Coltrane’s conscious artistry, with the tenderness of Yeoh’s notes.
Perhaps Baptiste’s own composition Neptune is as much about his and Williamson’s forebears’ Caribbean as it is about the planets, as their horns palaver and erupt.
But it is in Vigil, another track from the Transition album, with Young’s rolling drums introduction that Williamson’s vibrant horn is reborn from his ’90s annunciation in such verve albums as Waltz for Grace and Rhyme Time, but now with a brother saxophonist who had been inspired by him two decades before when he had burst out of reggae with Misty in Roots and later played and recorded with jazz giants like Art Blakey, Abbey Lincoln and the Brotherhood of Breath.
The tenor duo continues into Baptiste’s own Astral Trane, where their twin horns seem to be floating in space, guided by Crosby’s deep strings.
After the Rain, from Coltrane’s 1965 Impressions album, is a gift of sheer melodism to both Baptiste and Yeoh’s musicianship, played with a beautiful and optimistic simplicity, as Coltrane would have wished it half a century before, while the civil rights movement was still defiant and protest against the war in Vietnam was still raging.
And at the conclusion of the last and briefest of tracks Dear Lord from the 1967 Spirituals’ album, after the bass/saxophone duet of Charles and Baptiste, someone mutters: “That’s what it is man!”
For that’s what Coltrane was and that’s what Baptiste is: brothers through time and sound.