Sowing the seeds

Jake Baxendale. Photo: Sam Pietras
Jake Baxendale. Photo: Sam Pietras
Jake Baxendale is composting his own music and telling jazz stories in new ways, he tells Tom McKinlay.

Composting is the truth, the source, the creation story.

Gardeners have known it for millennia.

But there is always room to employ ancient truths in new ways, and Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington-based saxophonist and composer Jake Baxendale is doing it. With jazz.

Baxendale, best know for his work with genre embracing jazz ensemble The Jac, heads south to perform his "Gardening Music, contemporary jazz musings on the natural world" in Ōtepoti Dunedin next weekend, and composting is at its heart. That and an upending of conventional story telling.

In a departure from the familiar jazz recipe of setting out a theme or melody, then improvising around the chords, Baxendale’s new music encourages the players to pay strict attention to the written phrases in a piece, but place them wherever and whenever they like within the performance — an approach he calls composting.

As a result, the music’s theme emerges only slowly and partially, as initial statements mix with concluding statements, blurring the notion of beginnings and endings and creating an indeterminate "middle", he says.

It’s a departure, to Baxendale’s way of thinking, from the conventions of the linear hero’s journey — a paradigm he’s keen to disrupt — and which he sees in a lot of music, where everything’s in the service of the big finish.

In contrast, the indeterminate "middle" in which his players find themselves, is more of a continuous present, the place where we do, in real life, exist, he says.

If it sounds a little theoretical, then there are reasons for that, Baxendale has drawn inspiration from his partner’s research in the environmental humanities — with a particular focus on community gardens — and some of the influential writers in the field, Robin Wall-Kimmerer (of Braiding Sweetgrass fame), anthropologist Anna Tsing (The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins) and Ursula Le Guin among them.

Tsing even has a piece in the set named for her.

"That piece, especially, was inspired by a phrase from a bit of writing by Anna Tsing," Baxendale says, "where she used the phrase ‘polyphonic assemblages’ to describe farming in Indonesia and the inter-species interaction that went on there. I thought that was a great phrase."

The assemblages of life around those farms involved complex distributed interactions, rather than any one thing going on.

It became an ambition to write music that sounded like that, to bring "disparate stories into resonance without smudging them into indistinction", to quote Tsing again. And indeed, incorporate some of his own vege garden experiences on his steep Wellington section.

"A lot of it has to do with how we tell stories," Baxendale says.

Story-telling has a prominent role in the environmental humanities, in an effort to communicate the pressing issues we face, he says.

"And I like to try to tell stories in my music. Even though I'm perfectly aware that instrumental improvised music is very abstract and people are not necessarily going to imagine the kind of story that I'm imagining."

However, it’s still worthwhile, he says, to present people with a story, set out what has influenced the music, as a guide to the listening experience.

"I think that these writers that I'm talking about, they're very big on non-traditional ways of telling a story."

Le Guin, for example, had a "carrier bag" theory, which told the human story in terms of a shared effort to contribute towards gathering our collective cultural inheritance — rather than seeing history as the outcome of so many heroes’ journeyings.

"Things don't have clear beginnings and endings, they're very muddled. People muddle through, they get by ... people go on living, doing the small stuff. And those are the stories that we ought to try and tell," Baxendale says.

"I was kind of, like, what if I could write a story that is more of a carrier bag kind of story? In a tune where, you know, it's not clear exactly how the beginning and the end differentiate themselves from the middle. Or each other?"

If that’s beginning to sound like a slightly difficult listen, don’t be discouraged.

Baxendale is entirely aware of the duty to take the audience with him, to make it compelling.

"Stories about life still need to be good stories, first and foremost. So, if you have some kind of message, or something that you're trying to put across, that's really got to be secondary to telling a good yarn."

He’ll be putting his ideas in front of some very good musicians, who will be figuring out how to make music out of it, but first and foremost, they’ll have to make it sound good, he says.

The musicians are Michael Crawford, on the keyboard, Nathan Berg, double bass, and Cameron Finlay, on drums. Baxendale will be mostly on alto sax, unless he can find a bass clarinet to borrow in Dunedin.

Le Guin will appear elsewhere in the set list, as Baxendale recently wrote some songs drawing on her translation of the Tao Te Ching.

"She really brings out the poetry in her version," he says.

"But it's very related."

They’ll also be older pieces that again reference gardening.

"It's all sort of part of the same thinking process."

The gig

 - Jake Baxendale plays Gardening Music at the Dunedin Jazz Club, Hanover Hall, Saturday April 27, 8pm.