Review: Denys Baptiste's Now is the Time… at the 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Aerial shot of Denys Baptiste, Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2014
Photo credit: © John Watson/ . All Rights Reserved

Denys Baptiste's Now is the Time…
(Town Hall, Cheltenham Jazz Festival. 3 May 2014. Review by Jon Turney)

Some festival commissions shine brightly but briefly. Denys Baptiste’s Let Freedom Ring project, which first saw the light of day at Cheltenham in 2003, has had a rich afterlife. Ten years on it was expanded and enhanced to produce the equally ambitious Now is the Time..., conceived to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech where Let Freedom Ring marked the 40th. So there was a nice symmetry in this final performance of the new project’s tour coming on the Saturday afternoon of this year's Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

It’s an ambitious affair, and we had a slightly truncated version in Cheltenham’s allotted 75 minutes – highlighting the new sections inspired by the words and vocal style of the earlier passages of King’s great oration.

The music is intercut with video recitations of new words by Lemn Sissay, inspired by King, and for once the multi-media elements of a jazz show really work. Sissay is brilliant, in words and performance, the video editing is well done, and gives the whole thing an edge that stands comparison with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s great Freedom Now suite. Declaiming “We will not be satisfied!” could sound incongruous in the genteel elegance of the civic hall of this most genteel of jazz festival towns. It didn’t.

The 13-piece band, complete with string section and powered by the ever reliable Rod Youngs on drums and Gary Crosby on bass, have some fine material to work with, more bebop than gospel for the most part, and there is fervent playing from Omar Puente on violin, Jason Yarde on alto, last-minute recruit Byron Wallen on trumpet and Baptiste himself.

Jason Yarde in Now is the Time, Cheltenham Festival
Photo credit: Mick Destino

Their fervour was more than matched by The British Gospel Arts Choir - the best one they’d played with on tour, said Baptiste – whose interwoven renditions of freedom hymns almost upstaged the band. Along with Sissay’s fine words, though, the disparate elements of Baptiste’s vision did cohere, and the choir ensured the last date saw the (current) tour finish on a high. It would, however, have been twice as enjoyable at half the volume.

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