Denys Baptiste Quartet – The Late Trane, 2 June 2017

Denys Baptiste – tenor saxophone
Nikki Yeoh – piano
Gary Crosby – bass
Rod Youngs – drums

Even fifty years after his death, the John Coltrane legacy looms over jazz—and although his influence has become more diffuse over time, the original recordings have retained their utterly remarkable, startling impact. So any tenor-led quartet with a view to playing two hours of Coltrane’s music might well find itself asking, ‘How do we reprise a revolution?’ or ‘How can we present a fresh interpretation of music which refuses to become old and familiar?’ To perform Coltrane’s late material at all requires a deep familiarity with the sources, a superbly integrated band and incomparable musicianship. Enter the Denys Baptiste Quartet.

This was a thrilling performance—high octane, of course, but the most important way in which the band paid homage to the Coltrane legacy was by exposing the logic of the music through the way in which the band members played and interacted with one another. There must surely be a temptation to fill a set with furious ‘sheets of sound’; and although this band’s performances delivered Coltrane’s music at its further reaches—a kind of transcendence-through-power—the hallmark of this gig rested on an appreciation that the essential power of Coltrane’s own performances was not in pace and intensity, but in the way in which the themes were developed and expressed, with instrumental techniques and group dynamics that have lost little of their edge in the decades since. The Denys Baptiste Quartet brought these qualities to their performance, in interpretations that truly honoured Coltrane: not as attempts to replicate his recordings, but as dedicated, creative responses.

Denys Baptiste himself was in fine form and everything one could hope to hear in ‘late Trane’ music was there—intensity, passion, rapid-fire runs that all but defied relief, altissimo patterns that would have given many another player vertigo; controlled and highly expressive multiphonics; and tonally, something that’s often overlooked in Coltrane’s recordings: a yearning sweetness in the slower passages. His extended solo on ‘After the Rain’ fully deserves the accolade, tour de force.

It is difficult to imagine a more alert and responsive pianist than Nikki Yeoh; and it was plain throughout that she and Denys Baptiste had a special rapport. Their interactions on ‘Ascent’ and ‘After the Rain’ were peppered with subtle shifts and challenges, Nikki smiling throughout, even as she patterned or supported the tenor lines, one hand on the piano, the other on her electronic keyboard. When on piano alone, there was nothing conventional about her left-hand playing: instead of chords, she most often set up complex counter-rhythms—fascinating on their own and enthralling in combination with Baptiste’s tenor.

Rod Youngs and Gary Crosby were not ‘side men’—it would not have been possible to play Coltrane’s music at this level in anything other than a band of gifted equals. Crosby’s bass had a full, resonant quality—at its best in a duet passage with Nikki Yeah; and when Rod Youngs cut loose in the second set, it was a drumming master class (and hugely entertaining into the bargain) that introduced a number which required of him yet more versatility and stamina.

After the final number, the audience seemed aware that asking for an encore was pushing its luck, since it was hard to believe that Denys Baptiste was still on his feet. Then, after yet more applause, the thanks and goodbyes, the band decided to play just one more number, to see us out the door. No one moved, of course.

© J. Whitman

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