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Christine Jensen: Looking Left

By Published: June 12, 2007
CJ: [laughs] That was my trippy one. I've never been there. At the time, The Corrections had come out, by Jonathan Franzen, and he describes in this book—which is fiction but I think also comes from his Midwest experience growing up—a cocktail party with his family. They kept up appearances all the time by going to these events. He's in New York writing about all this stuff and he thought of their idea of "upper middle class." And I combined that by thinking of the Upper East Side in Manhattan or Upper Lonsdale in Vancouver. There are all these "upper" places where it's a little more upscale. So I imagined one in Fargo, North Dakota.

That piece stems a lot from listening to Dewey Redman and Pat Metheny from the 1970s or early '80s. That Midwest vibe of those two players. It was a fantasy. Sometimes I think I'm trying to create a very fictional piece of music inspired by the music I listen to as well as literature and arts that influence my writing.

AAJ: If we move a little further west, we get closer to your place of origin in Vancouver with a tune called "Cedar."

CJ: That's a work in progress. I just got to add on to that one recently. My sister Ingrid, who's a wonderful trumpeter in New York, and I grew up in Cedar, which was this little tiny farm area south of a midsize mill town called Nanaimo. That place is called Cedar for a reason because those trees were everywhere. They were just immense trees in the West Coast rainforest.

We had a park next to us that was my fantasyland. I'd jump the creek and go into this dense forest that was right next to us and try to climb these trees, which were very hard to climb. It was a dense forest, but if you can climb high enough you start to see some light at the top. You can hear these ascending and descending lines [in the piece]. On top of that, I was in a pretty melancholy state when I wrote that piece around Christmas. I had really wanted to go home that Christmas, so I wrote a few things that were about wishing I was home.

AAJ: Tell us about your mom and the role she played in your musical upbringing.

CJ: I have two older sisters, and that was my mother's outlet. She was a schoolteacher by day, and also a music teacher who taught private piano lessons for kids. She was also very involved in musical theatre. Even going back to my grandmother, she had the same background. They had music around them all the time and it was always live music. My mother had a small but quite tasteful record collection, so we were listening to everything from Chopin to Oscar Peterson. A lot of piano trios and then a lot of dance band stuff like Tommy Dorsey and some older singers. She always was tuning our ears to something different than most kids around us were growing up with.

We'd try to play [pop music for her]. She wouldn't listen to pop music. It was pretty hard to convince her that it was as good as what she'd been listening to. And she had a point in the 1980s. She was a wonderful, positive force in our lives. She was also really great at making us active in music. She would sign us up for every seminar and course that she could get us into because she knew we loved it and it kept us in a really positive mental state.

AAJ: So it sounds like it wasn't a chore for you.

CJ: No. I started on piano. It's funny, because I've been talking to [composer] Maria Schneider and [pianist] Maggie Olin about this, and we've all had similar experiences of sitting at the piano and doing exercises, then we'd try to escape and make up our own variation on it. My mother was wonderful at letting us try to figure out our creativity level.

AAJ: And a jazz musician is born.

CJ: [laughs] That and the combination of teachers who played jazz in our high school. That was a huge thing.

AAJ: You went to high school in Nanaimo?

CJ: Yeah. That's also where [pianist] Diana Krall went to school. She was a big influence because she was one of the first to really get into jazz. The town is about 50,000 [people], or it was at the time. There were four or five junior high schools feeding into one big high school. So the band director at the high school was very fortunate—he had four or five other guys training kids at a pretty high level. Then they'd get into their last two grades and we'd have a lot of big band stuff going on.

AAJ: Do you have a copy of Look Left in front of you? I'd like you to read the quote from Plato that used to hang over your mom's piano.

CJ: It's funny, because it was always in front of me and I never read it until she passed away. It's a really great quote. I sat down and started crying over it one day. It says:

Music is a moral law

It gives soul to the universe

Wings to the mind

Flight to the imagination

A charm to sadness

Gaiety and life to everything

It is the essence of order and lends to all

That is good, just and beautiful

AAJ: Not a bad way to live.

CJ: Exactly. Look what my mother had in front of her all the time. It took us a while to notice it, but it rings true.

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