“Now’s the Time!”: Denys Baptiste. Edinburgh, October 2013.

Denys Baptiste played his new suite, Now’s the Time, for only the second time on Monday night; it is an extended, complex and ambitious piece for jazz orchestra and chorus that made demands of both the players and the audience. It had moments of passion and brilliance, but was slightly marred by teething problems and the unforgiving environment of the Usher Hall.

Like Baptiste’s earlier suite, Let Freedom Ring, which made up the second half of this compelling concert, Now’s the Time was composed in response to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream…” speech. Let Freedom Ring was written to celebrate the speeches fortieth anniversary; Now’s the Time its fiftieth. As Baptiste said in his introduction, the world was possibly in a worse place than it was ten years ago, but his music caught an optimism for the future.

I have heard musicians argue persuasively the the blues, and the jazz it gave rise to, are inextricably linked to politics. Improvisation is an expression of freedom, and repressive regimes have repeatedly tried to suppress jazz. Certainly jazz musicians played a big role of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and free-jazz came out as desire for both musical and political freedom. The two suites played tonight are clearly political in their inception, which only adds to their power.

As with its companion piece, Now’s the Time was accompanied by spoken word, the poet Lemm Sissay making videos for each of the four movements. The videos worked well, but his voice overwhelmed the orchestra. For much of the time, the piano and bass were barely audible, a real shame when they are played by musicians of the calibre of Gary Crosby and Andrew McCormack. It took a while for the string section – two violins and two cellos – to settle in the mix too.

But the music was great. Each movement was presaged by the 60-odd members of a local community chorus singing spirituals or protest songs, and they really entered into the spirit of it. Their first tune, a spiritual, raised the hairs on my neck, and set the tone for the whole suite. It took the first orchestral piece for the players to find their feet; for the second, “Now’s the Time”, they stretched out as bit: it had a real bebop feel to it, and quoted sparingly from the bebop tune of the same name. The final section worked best, as if it all came together. The orchestra riffed simply behind a sequence of soloists, each upping the ante for a fine finale.

It will be interesting to see how the suite develops, both with musicians’ and audiences’ familiarity. At well over an hour, I felt it could safely be trimmed a bit, but I hope it is recorded sometime soon: I’d love to hear it again.

The second half of the concert was the more familiar music of Let Freedom Ring, expanded for the strings and chorus. The singers had little to do until the eponymous third part, but here they were very effective: hearing sixty people chant let freedom ring! sends a powerful message, and their singing in the final section, “Free at Last”, as positively moving. When Denys got the audience to join in as well, the effect was spine-tingling.

For this suite, the poetry was provided by Ben Okri, and it fitted better with the music, perhaps because I knew where it was coming. The visuals worked well, too – footage of civil rights abuses in USA in the fifties and sixties (including some heart-rending images) , followed by protests (in particular the “Great March on Washington” where Dr King made his famous speech); and then some more recent footage of civil rights violations and protests – anti-capitalism and anti-austerity marches, the Occupy movement, the Tahrir Square protests, anti-fascism marches in Greece, the Turkish Gezi Park demonstrations – all emphasing Baptiste’s notion of the currency of the feelings expressed in the music.

The final section, “Free At Last”, was a tour de force. Featuring an exquisite piccato cello solo, and a lovely piano solo, Nathaniel Facey then took a long alto solo, set against the chanting of the choir, which lead to a final solo by Baptiste. Then he got everyone chanting, “free at last!” At the end of the concert, after he had introduced the band – it took a while, it’s a BIG band, he lead the orchestra off the stage; as he did so, some of the band started the riff again, and the choir and audience joined in. Powerful stuff indeed.

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