BY KELLY RAE SMITH
Local poet Marcus Amaker invited the City Paper to join him at Local 616 for a catchup during possibly the most unbelievable World Cup match to date. The score is a baffling 0-6 to Germany by the time jazz musician Quentin Baxter arrives to chat about their recent collaboration, and the atmosphere is wild — in the bar and on the big screen, too.
"It's like a video game," Amaker jokes as he texts goal updates to his German best friend. With the winner firmly decided at half-time, it's the perfect time to put sports on the back burner and talk about music and, coincidentally, the importance of finding quietness from a world of distractions. That's the whole point of the album the two artists made together this year pairing poetry written by Amaker with Baxter's jazz and production know-how.
"My goal in writing those poems was for it to really be this sort of a meditative thing," says Amaker. "I don't know if people are used to listening to music, or being active in something, that calms them down. Everything seems to have this energy behind it. So I remember somebody was asking me about the album, and they wanted to listen while they were doing stuff. And I thought, 'no; I don't think it works that well as background music.' You have to stop and listen to it. I admit I had a little fear about that because people aren't used to stopping, but that's what this CD is for."
The New Foundation, released July 1, meticulously entwines Baxter's renowned percussion skills with Amaker's calming words — his voice conversational while also rhythmic and magnetic. Indeed, this isn't stuff you can absorb while cleaning the house. The tracks at once draw you in and force your world to stop for a moment.
Baxter admits that this quieting power helped him compose the music. Though the album idea was born in 2013 and a release date was set for early this year, the composition proved more complex. The words and the intricately placed sounds forced patience upon the musician.
"Originally we said March, and then we said April, and then I said, 'Oh, shit,'" Baxter admits. "It took me for a different turn, but I ended up learning a lot from the direction of the message. Marcus' words kind of transcend exactly what you think, so if you listen to it three times, the third time you're gonna say, 'Oh, damn. It's still going somewhere.'
"And so it never stopped for me," Baxter continues. "Every time I listened to it I was trying to apply music to it, and it just kept evolving and I kept missing things. I would play stuff, and it probably would have worked, but something about it wouldn't have felt right. And we stuck with it until it felt right. The one thing I learned was, it was a natural rhythm, a natural delivery on his part that I had to figure out musically. It was tough."
During the recording of the album at the Simons Center Recital Hall, Amaker would show up and lay down the tracks in only one or two takes, to Baxter's amazement. But Amaker could see Baxter's talents at work, too.
"I didn't realize — and this isn't me talking down to musicians — but I didn't realize the amount of thoughtfulness that would go into making music to go with poetry," Amaker says. "I'm very used to working with cats who just want to get up there and play stuff. But the fact that he almost wrote like musical poems to my words was really cool. And I think that folks are gonna hear things if they listen to it 10 times that they won't hear on the 30th time or on the fifth time. You know what I mean? There's a lot of stuff involved; there's a lot of thoughtfulness involved in what he did as well as in what I wrote."
Every detail from the album art by Nathan Durfee to the sleeve's layout Amaker designed was as important to them as the composition itself. Amaker admits he's been living with these poems for a while, so it was a proud moment when the project was finally ready for release. The result is a work that can be performed live as a seamless energy with the tracks free of manipulation. It's also an album that's meant to be enjoyed as a complete work, like most albums should be. "It's hard to take one song out of it as a single so that was important for me to make it like a musical story," Amaker says.
The twosome will celebrate the piece and perform The New Foundation in its entirety on Aug. 14's Word Perfect night at the Charleston Music Hall during the venue's weekend-long event, The Summer Harvest: A Weekend Celebration of Local Art and Music. A total of 14 other poets will share the stage for an evening of spoken word. A meet-the-artist listening party and discussion is also set for 5-7 p.m. on Aug. 3 at the Mezz (276 King St.). The album is now available on iTunes and Amazon.