Hall Two at Kings Place is intended as the more relaxed, informal of the two rooms at the well programmed London venue and, perhaps for that reason, tickets are general admission, with no chairs set out. When the mostly older audience understandably appear irked, more chairs are hastily arranged, accompanied by a short tempered woman who proceeds to hector the audience for the venue’s lack of foresight. Not a particularly impressive start to proceedings.
Luckily, Baptiste himself is a more genial and engaging personality. He talks a lot, with an endearing mix of confidence and humility. He thanks the audience for picking his gig over the Brad Mehldau show at the Kings Place, and also for paying close attention to a set consisting entirely of new material. Baptiste is a significant figure in contemporary British jazz, but he is not as prolific as many of his colleagues. He has not released an album since 2003’s rapturously received Let Freedom Ring, and performs relatively infrequently as a leader. Anticipation for his imminent new album Identity By Subtraction is understandably running high.
The music forming the new album and the bulk of this concert finds Baptiste examining issues of identity and heritage, refracting jazz composition and improvisation through the prism of a more personal musical history that encompasses reggae and calypso. Now with a close knit quartet instead of the large ensemble that made Let Freedom Ring so impassioned and vibrant, the emphasis is as much on group interaction as on Baptiste’s consistently imaginative writing.
As striking and strident a player as Baptiste undoubtedly is, he is also a generous bandleader, encouraging significant contributions from his sidesmen. The new album’s title track initiates proceedings with a supremely subtle and melodic drum feature from the dynamic and powerful Rod Youngs before bursting into a vivid and memorable theme and a fearlessly swinging solo section. Pianist Andrew McCormack is superb throughout, demonstrating impressively clean technique and a strong ear for melodic features and motifs in his improvising. He has an open and empathetic dialogue with Youngs throughout. Bassist Gary Crosby, a longstanding giant of British jazz, adds his imperious sound and groove to a buoyant, inspired rhythm section.
The compositions are mostly playful and exciting. McCormack’s Tunnel Vision twists and turns with wit and invention, whilst Baptiste has taken familiar rhythmic patterns and imaginatively reworked them. He plays reggae in 9/4 time, and calypso in 15/8. These pieces have some of the direct clarity of guitarist Ernest Ranglin’s work, but are also sophisticated in both conception and execution. Baptiste clearly has a strong interest in rhythm – whilst his improvising can feature fast flurries of sound and language, he also has a talent for expanding and contracting time in his solos, always in the most musical of ways. Whilst the asymmetrical time signatures are common on the contemporary London jazz scene, Baptiste’s urgency and willingness to swing are rarer qualities now.
He is also not averse to pure, singing lyricism. A highlight of the first set is a mellifluous and transcendent duet with McCormack, on which both players rise to grand heights of expression. The second set features a beautiful, considered and genuinely moving tribute to the great pianist Bheki Mseleku, with whom Baptiste toured.
Baptiste is adept at making his personal influences and concerns into something universal and honest. Some jazz musicians often find explaining or discussing their music either difficult or unnecessary – but Baptiste is happy to accompany his pieces with stories and anecdotes, creating a warm rapport with the audience. Whilst Brad Mehldau may be one of the world’s greatest pianists commanding an international reputation, his new Highway Rider album is a little polished and, at times, soporific. For passionate, questing music delivered with both freedom and discipline, Kings Place was clearly the place to be.