Five Questions with Jake Baxendale

4 October 2023

Jake Baxendale is one of two artists the Wellington Jazz Festival commissioned to compose new works for the 2023 Festival. Waypeople, based on Ursula Le Guin's translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching marks Jake's first foray into writing music with lyrics. I asked him five questions about his commissioned piece, the musicians he's chosen to play with and his composing process.

What can audiences expect from your Wellington Jazz Festival gig?

Some really beautiful and surprising poetry, put (I hope) to some beautiful and surprising music. I've chosen some verses that really run across the emotional spectrum, from reverential to irreverent, light hearted to deathly serious. They'll also experience the guzheng, a 21-string Chinese zither which is a very cool instrument and one not often heard in jazz.

Can you tell us a little bit about the musicians you’ll be working with, and why you chose them for this project?

Chelsea Prastiti and Callum Passells are two very close friends from Auckland. Chelsea is one of the world's most talented and versatile jazz vocalists, 100%. Look her up. Her RnB band Skilaa just put out a single, Money - it's great. Callum, another saxophonist like myself, is a wonderful improviser, someone who inspires me often to be a better musician, but there's no competition there. This is important: competition is anathema to Lao Tzu. Quiet work, done well and without fuss, is a big part of the Tao. These guys know how to do that!

The rhythm section is one of Te Whanganui-a-Tara's grooviest and hardest working. Daniel Hayles on piano, I've been working with him in bands for 10 years at least. Johnny Lawrence on bass, he's playing in my jazz standards quartet, when I can get him. I'd asked Cory Champion, on drums, to work on some recording some songs in a producer role before this project came up. I ended up making that recording into a live band thing called Gardening Music, Cory is playing drums in that, so he seemed a natural choice as we've been playing together a fair bit recently. Johnny is in that band too, and some of the songs have carried over to Waypeople. The main thing about these three is that they work great together and they understand songs - you give them something and they quickly understand what each section is for, where it's heading, and also what the other possibilities you hadn't considered are - that's extra valuable. It's great to have people familiar with your concept on the gig, as well as people who can go their own way.

Finally, Jessie Ling on guzheng. I didn't know her before I asked her to play, I just put out the word that I needed someone on the instrument (shout out to Michael Norris for the speedy hookup) and I was lucky to find someone who can really play and is super interested in playing guzheng in a jazz context. It's not something she's done before, but she's keen to dive right in!

Can you give us a glimpse into your composition process?

My process has changed a lot since I've had my first child. I used to get an idea, lock myself in a room, and thrash it until it was complete, in one or two sessions. Now, I have to plan more. Also, I've never put poetry to music before, so it's all very new. I spent a lot of time with the text, annotating and bookmarking my favourite sections. I also listened to Ursula Le Guin's audiobook of it, which she narrates herself. That was incredibly useful because it gave me a sense of the rhythm she was going for. I also got an audiobook of a collection of her non-fiction work about writing, and there were a couple of things in there where she gets really deep into rhythm and the stress of syllables in poetry and prose. That was very revealing.

So I'd do a lot of this work on walks with the baby, headphones on. If a melodic idea came to me, I'd sing it into my phone's voice memo app, or play it on the piano if I was at home. It wasn't until I had a melodic contour for the majority of the text of a whole verse that I would sit down and write it out. I would add chordal or bass motion things as I went, if they came to me. Once I had all the melodies, I finished fleshing those aspect out, and I had 6 or 7 "lead sheets" - enough information to play the songs down.

The final step is to arrange this material for the instrumentation, and most of that work is in figuring out how to do this for the guzheng, what the possibilities are, how to write it out. Luckily, Jessie can read the Western musical notation: I took a look at the way guzheng is typically notated, it's a whole other system. I'm glad I don't have to learn it!

What have you listened to recently that has had a big impact on you and why?

I don't listen deeply to music when I'm composing because I'm too impressionable. Stuff comes out almost verbatim and I realise I've written someone else's tune! But earlier this year the folk ensemble Octopus In Heels were rehearsing in the flat downstairs from me. I liked their style, figuring out these beautiful 4-part vocal harmonies over a bottle of wine and a lot of laughs. I finally saw them do a gig for the first time earlier this year and I was floored. If I'd heard that performance before this project had started I think I would have added a few more vocalists!

What’s next for you?

I have lots of ideas, and no plans... I had the idea this year to learn all of Thelonious Monk's compositions. That'll keep me busy for a long time. I want to go to Chicago, where a lot of music I've been checking out over the last few years is coming out from (especially from the label International Anthem) and see what the scene is like. My baby will be one year old at the end of the year, I'm looking forward to seeing how her journey continues. Of course, I'd love to record this material, and I'm keen to tour it or Gardening Music next year. Plenty to get on with!

Jake will premiere Waypeople at Meow on Saturday 28 October, 6:30pm. You can purchase tickets here.