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Christine Jensen: Looking Left

By Published: June 12, 2007
AAJ: How did you make the leap, and when did you, from piano to the saxophone?

CJ: In grade six, we joined band programs. My two older sisters—one played trumpet and one played trombone. They would always talk about, "What instrument is Christine going to play?" Ingrid would say, "I play the trumpet and Janet plays the trombone, so to fill out our band we need Chrissy on the saxophone." I used to play recorder, and one of my teachers gave me the whole recorder family to take home one summer. That was a crazy experience that led very easily to the saxophone.

AAJ: What's the age difference between you and your sisters?

CJ: I'm the youngest. I'm four and a half years younger then Ingrid. My older sister Janet eventually left music and now lives in Mexico selling real estate in the sun. She played trombone and she was a few years older than Ingrid.

AAJ: So they had already moved through the music programs as you were coming up.

CJ: Yeah. It's a pretty large distance in age when you're younger. I couldn't get on the same stage with Ingrid before I was in my early twenties. She was that much older. I was always going between piano and saxophone. Eventually, once I finished my degree at McGill University, I [decided] that saxophone was it, that I had more of a personal voice to offer.

AAJ: So even that far into university you were still playing both piano and saxophone.

CJ: Exactly. My first few years I was playing piano more than saxophone because they needed piano players and I could comp and solo a bit, but my heart was not in the piano. I find it a technical beast to conquer. At the same time, I think the positive thing I got out of it was that I put some positive effort into it and that's helped me in the long run in terms of composition. To be able to just sit at the piano and play and get some ideas happening very fast. It's such an important tool for me.

AAJ: I'm going to betray my ignorance: Is McGill in Quebec?

CJ: Yes. In Montreal.

AAJ: So you decided to travel as far from your home as you could. What was the attraction of McGill? Was it the music program there?

CJ: Yeah. We had all these choices in front of us. When I finished high school I went to college in Nanaimo. My sisters and I all did a couple years at Malaspina College first, which is now a university on the West Coast. We did a two-year program, which was basically a great time for us to sit and figure out a few things before moving to bigger cities. We were definitely small-town kids, and it gave us freedom to get the instrument together a little bit. Through that time, I was actually playing a lot of jazz piano.

I applied to McGill because I'd heard their big band with a singer named Denzal Sinclaire. I heard him and thought, "That's incredible." Then I heard the John Stetch trio and thought that I'd never heard that level before in Canada. This was the late 1980s. So I thought it was a good school to go to. In Canada, it's a big school to get into. In fact, now a lot of Americans are going there. It's sort of the "Harvard of the North." They have a jazz program that's really a great program. And very intensive with the classical program as well. You have to do a lot of theory and counterpoint and ear training, which I have no problem with.

AAJ: By the time you graduated from McGill in 1994, had you already decided that being a professional musician was the course you were going to follow?

CJ: I think that was always in front of me. I never ignored it or accepted it. I was always working [as a musician], it was how I made money. I played solo piano in hotels on the West Coast and then I moved to Montreal and as a saxophonist was playing everything from Latin gigs to jazz trio to pop gigs. It's always been in front of me.

AAJ: So what was the next step after you left McGill?

CJ: I had some more doubts. Not doubts about being a musician, but about being a performing jazz artist. It was really hard for me to even say those words: "I'm a jazz musician." I was like, "I'm a student." I mean, I'm a student for life with the music. But I think after about five years Ingrid was really quite influential in giving me a lot of positive guidance. The next thing I knew I went down to New York and had a few lessons with Kenny Werner, and I was starting to get grants from the Canada Council to do composition, which was pretty major because I didn't think I was a composer. Ingrid was playing a lot of my music. She said, "Your music is accessible to people as well as being 'new jazz' sounds."

AAJ: You wrote the title track to her first record, Vernal Fields (Enja, 1995), right?

CJ: That was an undergrad assignment in composition.

AAJ: And it won a Juno Award in 1995 [the Canadian Grammy].

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