To appreciate how high the star of 30-year-old English saxophonist Denys Baptiste has risen in his brief career, you need only know that his most harrowing performance took place not in a smoky club or on a festival stage, but in a soap opera. Last fall the producers of the long-running English program EastEnders told Baptiste that they wanted to use a tune from his debut CD, Be Where You Are (Dune), as mood music for a scene in an episode of the show. Baptiste was hit by a case of screen fright. "I suddenly realized that 10 million people were going to hear my record," he says. "I had sweaty palms while it was on. I didn't actually watch it. I was too nervous." He finally caught the show on tape and still marvels at the places his music has taken him. "Things have just been coming out of the blue," he says.
For Baptiste, these are red letter days. One year since the release of Be Where You Are, the tenor sax man has established himself as the face, and the sound, of contemporary British jazz. Be Where You Are garnered enough acclaim to become the only jazz record shortlisted for the Technics Mercury Music Prize, the British music industry's most prestigious award. This summer he and his fledgling quartet have played to packed houses throughout Europe, a tour which included a 10-day swing through Russia and an appearance as the only English act at last month's North Sea Jazz Festival in the Hague, one of the world's biggest jazz events. Later this month Baptiste's band returns to England to headline the Coventry Jazz Festival. "The last year has been a lot of fun," he says, mindful of how few British jazz musicians achieve similar breakthroughs. A smiling, affable man, Baptiste's conversation can wax both lighthearted and thoughtful. He is quick to point out that success hasn't changed him. He currently lives in a modest London flat, but he has bought a house with his fiance. "Financially it's a little better, which is cool. I have the luxury to do fewer gigs and can concentrate more on writing."
One indication of Baptiste's growing popularity in Europe is the simple fact that he is able to keep the sidemen in his quartet employed — a rare feat in Britain. "There was a time in the '80s when every pub and theater in London was putting on jazz shows," he says, with a rueful chuckle. "Now those venues have reverted to karaoke."
Baptiste laments that many promising young musicians "seem to be gravitating toward dance music." But as a youth in west London, he too dreamed of playing in a pop band. He didn't begin music lessons until he was 13, starting with the clarinet. His introduction to jazz came from a Count Basie record, but it wasn't until he heard a recording of American sax legend Wayne Shorter wafting through a department store that he decided to pick up the tenor sax and pursue a jazz career. As a teenager he pasted a picture of John Coltrane onto his school notebook. "I've studied all the great American players," he says, adding that "to innovate you have to imitate. It's a process of osmosis — you listen to and study what other people do and then somehow in there it comes out in your own way."
Be Where You Are is a testament to Baptiste's ability to blend the classic bebop influences of his idols, such as Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, with an array of other sounds and rhythms, ranging from Latin to calypso to funk. The album includes seven tuneful Baptiste compositions, a buoyant rendition of Coltrane's classic Naima and a gospel adaptation of Stevie Wonder's Have a Talk with God. Baptiste's eclectic tastes help make the record sound at once familiar and fresh.
The son of immigrants from St. Lucia, Baptiste doesn't shy away from his English roots. Before his set at the Hague last month he introduced his band to a standing-room-only audience of 300. "We're from England," he said. "It's not exactly the home of jazz, but we've made ourselves at home there." Playing live, Baptiste shifts between adroit, cascading solos and lush, bluesy romances. It seems he can coax just about any sound out of his sax — which may not be surprising, as he keeps it at his bedside when he sleeps. "My instrument is the one thing I own which I could never be without. It makes me my living," he says, "and we have a wonderful time together when we play."