Denys Baptiste: The Late Trane
Edition Records

On this splendid outing, British saxophonist Denys Baptiste honours John Coltrane with ten fresh interpretations of material drawn from the master's 1963-1967 period (eight actually, two being Baptiste originals). There are moments where Baptiste's sound is so close to Coltrane's, it's almost eerie, but the British artist is careful to more evoke his precursor's sound than baldly ape it; it's a fine balance any saxophonist tackling Coltrane must try to resolve, and Baptiste largely succeeds. Helping that along are the numerous personalizing touches he brings to the album, only his fifth as leader in eighteen years, whether it be injecting a few bars of dub into one track (“Dusk Dawn”) or re-imagining another as an M-Base-styled workout (“Vigil”).

He's produced, in short, a reverent statement that's not so worshipful it's constricting. And, really, how could it be otherwise? We're talking in Baptiste's case about a man born in London of St Lucian parents in 1969 who grew up in a world profoundly different in political, social, and cultural terms than the one Coltrane left behind. No one, in short, should be surprised to hear occasional strains of funk, soul, and reggae seeping into Baptiste's playing.

Recorded during three days in January 2017, The Late Trane covers ample stylistic ground without venturing into the tumultuous territory of some of Coltrane's later works, ones that for some (including, eventually, quartet bandmates McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones) proved to be deal-breakers. That being said, the album isn't a ballads set, as Baptiste and company occasionally bring the thunder too. Joining the leader (on tenor and soprano) on the sixty-one-minute date are bassist Neil Charles, drummer Rod Youngs, and pianist Nikki Yeoh; in addition, two special guests appear, the first Baptiste's mentor, veteran Jazz Warriors double bassist Gary Crosby, and the second fellow tenor saxist Steve Williamson, also a member of the London-based group.

The sound of Coltrane's classic quartet is a recurring touchstone on the album, with Baptiste's outfit evoking the earlier unit's relaxed swagger in the elegant rendering of “Dusk Dawn.” A sign of things to come, Yeoh distinguishes herself early, after which the temperature rises when the leader enters with the first of what will be many inspired statements. The contemplative ballad “Peace on Earth” and modal rumination “Transition” accentuate the album's delicate side and provide perfect vehicles for Baptiste's deep, robust tone.

With his sax modified by a wah-wah treatment and Yeoh on electric piano, the punchy take on “Ascent” moves outside Coltrane's orbit to the kind of realm associated with ‘70s-era Miles, especially when the groove's more funk-rock than jazz per se. Charles's electric bass also helps modernize Baptiste's “Neptune,” which sees the tenor crossing swords with Williamson on one of the album's freer performances. The latter also sits in on “Vigil,” a breakbeats-powered affair that affords the saxophonists ample room to maneuver when they're not pairing up for biting, Song X-like figures.

Like music wafting in on a tropical breeze, “After the Rain” is treated to a deliciously soulful makeover that amplifies the lyricism of its melodies and uplifting spirit. The leader elevates the tune with his voicing of the theme, but it's Yeoh who lifts it highest with a rousing solo that's as much R&B and gospel as jazz. “After the Rain” feels like such a natural set-closer, the inclusion of “Dear Lord” thereafter is something of a postscript, though it's no less appealing for being so when the group fashions it as a wistful reverie. One imagines the master, fifty years on from his earthly departure, would approve.

July 2017