Comparisons, comparisons… I know, we shouldn’t make them. But when listening to the music of John Coltrane how can we not? No matter how we choose to describe it; Coltrane’s music ‘reinterpreted’, ‘reworked’, reenvisioned’, etc etc, it is still the music of John Coltrane. For an artist, the challenge has to be to find an original voice and character from the music that is already so familiar to the listener. To this end, “The Late Trane”, the new album from British saxophonist Denys Baptiste does succeed in the main. Baptiste is a commanding, enigmatic musician, and here he attempts to balance his unique artistic vision with the visceral emotions and cosmic references that encompass Coltrane’s late music.
Baptiste enjoys the company of a stellar band; Nikki Yeoh on piano and keyboards, Neil Charles on bass, Rod Youngs on drums, and with special guests Gary Crosby on bass and Steve Williamson on tenor sax. And at times, they really do fire on all cylinders, blowing up a spiritual storm. Yet at other times, I’m left a little nonplussed, wondering how all this talent appears to have got a little lost on their journey. Too many wrong turns or questionable direction? The cosmic sat-nav has a glitch; it should know where it’s going but it just doesn’t quite get there.
Eight of the ten numbers presented here are Coltrane tunes, with the remaining two, “Astral Trane” and “Neptune”, being fitting Baptiste originals. There’s a nice flow to proceedings, with Baptiste and Yeoh, two formidable musicians who I greatly admire, on occasions striking planetary gold together. But for me, these moments are a little too rare on this occasion. The exploratory style that Yeoh employs here is a little out-of-place at times, and somewhat surprisingly, Baptiste’s energy, whilst fluently rhythmic on occasion, also appears slightly disjointed. A mixed bag that leaves me wanting to like what I’m hearing more than I actually do. And whilst some tunes do work particularly well, with a fresh edge and sincerity making for a very enjoyable, almost visionary feel, there are other tunes that simply just don’t work.
If I was to take this album in its own right, without knowing anything about it, or without having heard any of the tunes before, would I have liked it more? Yes, I probably would, because the originality and wonder of the tunes themselves would sing loud to me. But as it is, I can’t ignore the fact that on this recording I’m left with a keen sense of what might have been. There is nonetheless still much to enjoy and admire. For me personally, it’ll be a big ask to find anyone who plays Coltrane quite as well as Joe Lovano does. The big man fits comfortably into the great man’s shoes.