Sanctuary- Jasmine Lovell-Smith and Jake Baxendale

Sanctuary Cover art by Eden Fainberg

Sanctuary is a collaborative album by Jasmine Lovell-Smith and Jake Baxendale. The material on the album was developed as part of the Arthur Street Loft Orchestra residency at the now lost venue Tuatara Third Eye on Arthur Street, Wellington (one of my favourite venues in Wellington). The Arthur Street Loft Orchestra was formed by a group of like minded musicians and composers who wanted to workshop ideas and compositions for a variety of ensemble arrangements not always found in the jazz world. Both Lovell-Smith and Baxendale are important contributors in this organisation, and each feature prominently in the other’s compositions on Sanctuary, in fact the compositions they have each presented here was written with the other’s abilities in this specific ensemble setting in mind. Both Lovell-Smith and Baxendale contributed a suite and a single piece each on Sanctuary,and the album features eleven musicians from the Arthur Street Loft Orchestra collective. The album was recorded in July 2020 at Massey Studios, Wellington, by Thomas Voyce with assitance from Michael Sutherland.

Sanctuary Cover Art 2 (Eden Fainberg), with personnel listing.

Sanctuary opens with Baxendale’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ suite. Inspired by the work of American poet Walt Whitman, ‘Leaves of Grass’ is a suite in three parts. ‘I: Opening’ begins with Lovell-Smith’s soprano saxophone in a gorgeous liquid, slightly melancholic frain before giving way to a saxophone and horn choir of great harmonic depth. The lines that Lovell-Smith creates in her solo bring to mind birds in flight over a city on a summer’s day (for me this holds a strong evocation of summer in New York City- possibly helped by the Gershwin-Grofé and Bernstein inspired choral horns). 

‘II: A Chant of Pain and Joys’ leans into the melancholic frain, with a piano (Anita Schwabe), bass (Chris Beernik), percussion/drums (Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa) motif before Baxendale’s alto saxophone sends up a cry of pain and loss, conjuring Whitman’s line ‘I a chanter of pains and joys’ (from ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’) in musical form. This grows into a frenzy of wild emotions, supported, and carried upwards by the ever increasing intensity of the horns. The opening piano/bass motif makes repeated reappearances throughout the ensemble, establishing a framework for this emotional dance. Like the whirling dervish, however, this is not a dance of untainted joy, but rather one that is tightly controlled and focusing on the pain and ecstacy of devotion. The movement culminates in a rush of ecstatic, wild lines from the ensemble.

The third part, ‘III: I Sing the Body Electric’, in introduced by a short interlude ‘Drum Taps’ that showcases the drummer Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa. This solo draws together and emphasises the melodic stories told in the first two movements of the suite, before gradually adding in more joyful elements and leads us gleefully into the final movement.

‘I Sing The Body Electric’ is possibly one of Whitman’s best known poems, and as jazz fans also know, has a long held a connection for jazz musicians- the best known of which is Weather Report’s 1972 album of the same name. In Baxendale’s epistle to the poem, we are drawn gleefully in through Schaverien-Kaa’s drum lines. Unlike the previous two movements, this one is a joyful blusey jam, a celebration of the physicality of music-making as much as the poem is a celebration of the human body. The opening horns melody gives baritone saxophonist Blair Latham and trumpeter Ben Hunt some moments really shine.

But while the two previous movements focused primarily on horns, ‘I Sing The Body Electric’ features Aleister James Campbell’s guitar rather more prominently. Campbell exuberantly skates around, over, and through the supporting horn motifs, ably supported by Schwabe on piano, in lines of sheer delight. The movement closes with an ‘all in’ moment of delightful (structured) chaos (a musical communal hug really) before resolving back into harmonic order, and giving the last word to Latham’s baritone.

Sanctuary Cover Art 3 (Eden Fainberg)

The album them moves to the first of Lovell-Smith’s compositions, the singular piece ‘Noche Oscura’ (Dark Night). This was an excellent choice to signal the change of composer and as a bridge between the two suites. ‘Noche Oscura’ is a radically different sound and feel from Baxendale’s ‘Leaves of Grass’. We move from the boisterous jam session feel of ‘I sing the Body Electric’ to a quietly elegant, mysterious feeling minor chorale. ‘Noche Oscura’ delicately balances opposing forces within the ensemble in interesting ways, playing off haunting melodies across each instrument and section. The intertwining melodies rise and fall in waves, at one moment a saxophone is ascendent, the next a harp like duet between guitar and piano. The melodic lines gently push and pull at the listener, almost like you’re being pulled by a gentle oceanic tide.

Following ‘Noche Oscura’ is the title piece of the album, ‘Sanctuary’, Lovell-Smith’s continuous three part suite, which is presented here as a single track (in contrast to Baxendale’s suite). Lovell-Smith has described this as a representation of her emotional journey moving back to New Zealand from living overseas to embark on her doctoral studies in music. The opening ‘I: Optimisim’ focuses on the excitement of moving back to New Zealand and embarking on her doctoral studies. It features lilting melodic lines for the solo instruments (Louisa Williamson’s tenor saxophone and Ben Hunt’s trumpet) over alternating smooth lines and rhythmic stabs from the chorus of horns, and the rhythm section, lending a feeling of anticipation and quiet joy. The melodic motif that runs throughout is quite charmingly filmic in nature- the type of music you would find in a soundtrack accompanying the main character on their big journey. If music could be described as wide-eyed or shiny-eyed this is it.

‘I: Optimism’ dissolves immediately into ‘Interlude’ marking the transition between movements, and a rather different set of emotions. ‘Interlude’ blurs and tempers the excitement found in the first movement. It beseeches the listener with overlapping improvisations from Schawbe’s piano, Beernik’s bass, and a harmonic series motif that repeats through the front line, which is somewhat reminsicent of ‘Last Post’. Here Rachel Eastwood’s quiet flute shines through adding an etherealness to the heavier brass. There are questions here, possibly those that Lovell-Smith was grappling with in her return to New Zealand, and of doing a doctorate (something that all of us who have done a doctorate does on a semi-regular basis during our time pursuing that degree).

From the ‘Interlude’ Ben Hunt’s trumpet heralds the next movement ‘II: Strangely Familiar’, which begins with thoughtful, rising bass clarinet lines (yes, there are two bass clarinet’s here). This sets the scene for Lovell-Smith’s wistful soprano saxophone, which continues the questioning tone set up in ‘Interlude’. The horns support the soprano line, while Schwabe’s piano adds a harp-like counterpoint, moving towards a climax that is cut short by a sudden shift to dark and insistent harmonic and rhythmic blocks by the horns- an almost sinister circus feel. Lovell-Smith then pulls back to her wistful saxophone before reintroducing the block horns, this time under a trumpet solo, which heralds a frenetic building from the drums in his own competing solo, and so on as the chorus dissolves into its constituant parts as each musician improvises, before Lovell-Smith weaves the strands back together for the final movement, ‘III: Inevitable’.

‘III: Inevitable’ Begins with a pulsating bass, dream like horns, and a shimmery piano. The combination builds in tension, whilst remaining dreamlike until a climax that shifts the feel to classic swing. The tension remains and bursts out through Latham’s baritone solo as the horns climb with steely resolve towards the finale, which scales back from sections to individual lines, and resumes the wistful, unresolved questioning that was prominent in the ‘Interlude’ and ‘Strangely Familiar’. It is a move that on first listen seems suprising, but returning to it, it just seems natural, and makes perfect sense in the context of this suite.

The album closes with Baxendale’s ‘Sleep (A Glimpse of Plimpse)’. It serves as an appropriate postscript and fits well with the conclusion of Lovell-Smith’s ‘Sanctuary’. Here Baxendale gives us a glimpse into his dreamscape. It meanders, seemingly with no purpose through a landscape of his own imagning. The elegant muted horns tremble and trill like eddies of fog, before a clarion call dictates a new scene and tension in the dream, and then resolves back to harmonious sleep. It is a charming closure to the album and neatly weaves the emotional strands of both suites together.

Sanctuary Cover Art 4 (Eden Fainberg)

This album is an exquisite journey through the sonic landscapes of two excellent composers who are both very similar and different at the same time. It is particularly thrilling to hear Baxendale and Lovell-Smith work with the same group of musicians (including themselves), and hear how they envision each person’s musical voice, the similarities and differences, and it’s delightful to hear the musicians respond to the different demands. We are fortunate to be able to partake in their visions for jazz in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Sanctuary will be released on June 12 at the Wellington City Gallery as part of the 2021 Wellington Jazz Festival, and is available for purchase on Jasmine’s label Paintbox Records on her Bandcamp page from June 12 for purchasers from New Zealand and August 20 for International purchase: