Somnambule - Writing About Music

Denys Baptiste ~ Searching For Freedom

14 November 2003, Queen Elizabeth Hall

On the eve of his homecoming concert in London as part of the London Jazz Festival, Denys Baptiste walks into the room dressed in a smart green combat jacket and Che Guevara matching cap. Later he will play in front of a Queen Elizabeth Hall filled in part by students from community projects he’s worked with over the past year. The music he performs will be an expanded version of his latest release, Let Freedom Ring, whose subject is community and the way in which it may be achieved in the face of endemic, day to day racism.

Denys in conversation is a hugely likeable man with a ready smile and a playful intelligence which comes to the fore when fielding questions. On the subject of why his music is based upon Martin Luther King’s teachings of non-violent resistance rather than King’s more aggressive successors such as Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael he responds that all the world’s violence hasn’t brought peace but rather, more violence: “… our differences rather than being a bone of contention should be a basis for sharing.”

His is a general claim to the relevance of such a laudable message, unfortunately there are to be several issues which will weaken the power of that message when he seeks to convey it musically in concert that evening. Although Let Freedom Ring is an earnest and generally enjoyable suite of music its post-bop soundworld is redolent of the 1960s and there is arguably a missed opportunity to communicate King’s message to a young audience by dressing it in more contemporary musical clothing. One sign of the modern day which Baptiste does introduce is a live video accompaniment. Unfortunately this depicted all too familiar reportage of stricken Vietnamese children burnt with napalm, archive footage of the Civil Rights Movement, unspecified contemporary protesters, etc.

In the final movement of Let Freedom Ring Baptiste conducts the audience in singing “Thank God Almighty we’re free at last”. This is a touching and enjoyable moment, but there is a contradiction at the heart of the gesture: freedom is concerned with the ability to debate, the idea of a level democracy. A musical concert, however enjoyable, is controlled by the artist and is a predominantly one way communication that does not admit dissent easily. It felt to the contrary as though there was little freedom to be found in the experience. To build debate and the potential for dissent into the piece would have been a radical experiment worthy of the tradition from and to which Denys Baptiste speaks. To date he has not extended that tradition, but with his undoubted talent and generosity any move in such a direction will hold great promise.
Colin Buttimer
Published by Me