Christine Jensen: Impressionism
I was first exposed to alto saxophonist Christine Jensen through working with her trumpet playing sister Ingrid Jensen. We played some of her music, which really struck me as direct, mature, grounded and highly creative. Later on I got to meet her; unfortunately, we have not played together much (except for maybe one or two jam sessions years ago). I hope that will be rectified in 2011! Jensen has a new CD called Treelines (Justin time Records, 2010), which features a large ensemble and her original music. In addition to alto saxophone and composition, Jensen plays a mean soprano saxophone, and also plays piano quite well. She's recently added motherhood to her list of activities (Congratulations! Hope you like coffee...unless your baby sleeps, unlike mine....oy vey...anyway....) I recently sat with this Montreal-based musician to discuss some high concepts relating to music.
George Colligan: OK, Here we go. Let me say off the bat that I haven't done many of these, and I like to keep it loose. I'd rather you just talk about whatever you want, and I don't edit much. I have some questions, which might seem general, but hopefully it will lead to something interesting.
So I'd like to know what made you want to be a musician, and how specifically did you get into jazz music?
Christine Jensen: Well, I grew up in a musical family. My mother was a great piano and music teacher plus she was into musical theater. There was a lot of classical, and American songbook music in our house through her LP collection, and from what she played on the piano. She had a few jazz piano recordings that she loved playing including Oscar Peterson Trio and George Shearing. She also loved Nat "King" Cole and singers [like] Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney in particular.
Needless to say, I had piano lessons from an early age, and was lucky to participate in a strong public school music program that included combo, big band, along with concert band. My older sisters chose trumpet and trombone, so I was destined for sax. Although in hindsight, anyone who wants to play sax might want to start on clarinet, as it is a more difficult instrument.
Anyway, my early training really helped me to become a composing jazz saxophonist, as I was able to soak up so many genres of music.
Related specifically into jazz, I was always a daydreamer. Classical piano was more about repertoire. I was always gravitating toward the more impressionistic repertoire when studying classical piano, including Toronto Conservatory repertoire.
Anyway, I had terrific public school teachersthe same schools as Ingrid and Diana Krall in Nanaimowho really had a passion for jazz. They got us all improvising and playing repertoire off of Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and things like that. It was a really good starting point. The teachers also encouraged us to jam with them outside of school time, which led to gigs and great playing opportunities around Vancouver Island.
GC: Was there a specific moment when you decided that music would be your life, or was it gradual, or maybe you always knew?
CJ: For me it was gradual. I really went back and forth between piano and sax from age 15 until about 25. Once composition started flowing, I knew that I was committed to jazz, but it was always there in front of me for so many reasons. Having Ingrid as an older sister kept jazz very present for me, although we didn't perform together until I was in my 20's.
My teachers also encouraged me by feeding me with recordings to listen to and with gig opportunities really. School was fun, but I was not focused until I moved back east to attend McGill. It was a small program with some of Canada's most elite players kicking my butt, including Kelly Jefferson, Mike Rud, Denzal Sinclaire, and my now husband Joel Miller.
GC: I like the dreaming thing you were talking about. Composing is kind of like dreaming. If you've ever seen that clip of Duke Ellington in his later years being asked about his compositional process or something, and he says, "Oh, this? This is just dreamingthat's all I do is dream."
CJ: Exactly, he along with Billy Strayhorn are my heroes for that. I have also heard similar statements from Kenny Wheeler, Bill Frisell, Maria Schneider, and Jim McNeely. We all want to give our impressions on paper, and that is such a difficult hurdle in the compositional process. There is a certain amount of risk taking in order to get to honesty in composition, I think...
I also think of Gil Evans' process as well. It should take a long time to commit to a sound that you are trying to capture. He would play a voicing over and over before committing to it.
GC: So are you saying that you labor over the compositional process?
CJ: In fact, I have to work really hard at everything in order to get into a dream state in my compositional process. Quite the opposite of improv.
GC: Interesting. So you don't see improvisation and composition to be connected in that sense? Like a similar process but at a much slower or faster rate? Do you ever try to get into a dream state when you are improvising?
CJ: Definitely. They are two different processes for me, yet they must weave together at the final stage, which is the performance. Regarding compositionI first have to force myself into a dream state, which means shutting down my whole world around me. I also usually have some sort of deadline and a bit of a map of what I am composing for. I can usually break it down into three or four components, rhythm, melody, counterline melody (usually an accompanying bass figure). If the initial idea is strong enough I can further orchestrate it for whatever group context that I am working in. Basically, most of what I compose breaks down to a lead sheet.
Regarding improvisation, I do get into a dream state, as long as I am comfortable with my playing. That means keeping up my jazz vocabulary, and hopefully building on it as well. I get equally inspired as a performer and composer just from listening to the development of a great solo like a solo from Joe Henderson or John Coltrane. I really feel that a great jazz solo is just as meaningful as a strong composition.
Back to composition versus improv and dream state: both are in the moment, but composition is such a solitary state. I love improv because I get to have a conversation with at least one other person and hopefully the element of spontaneity prevails. I guess that is what makes for meaningful conversation that the audience can react to as well.
GC: I was always struck with the clarity of your compositions. They remind me of Wayne Shorter or Thelonious Monk in the sense of having a very clear idea of a melody and thematic materialnot to say that it ever sounds cliché or obvious. Although I get the sense that you aren't afraid of the obvious in the effort to try to be too clever or something. Your music has a strength of ideas that really appeals to me. I try to write this way, with questionable success. Is this something you are conscious of? It seems like a consistent pursuit throughout all the music of yours that I am familiar with.
CJ: That is such a compliment! I am constantly struggling with initial ideas. It is like a big drawer of little scraps piling up, and I go back and look over these ideas. If they jump out at me, I might start to re-hash them and develop them further. Otherwise, it is back to the drawing board. Sometimes ideas flow fast, but it is probably because I have been unlocking an idea that was buried in my subconscious. The more time I devote to composition, which includes studying different styles of music, the more ideas I come up with. The tank runs empty the longer I stay away from it too. I really do pull from Shorter, and the rhythms and harmonies of bands from the past, and try to emulate them, give up and move on. That seems to be when they pop back in. I think of it as the blender affect in coming up with a unique sound. I have to listen equally to all sorts of music. African, Brazilian, European, American, they are all worth intense and equal study.
I guess not being afraid of the obvious is also risk-taking. Once I commit to an idea melodically, I kind of have fun with the idea of a counter-attack with rhythm and possibly harmony. I also tend to gravitate toward a pop mentality with melodic ideas. Maybe that makes the composition memorable?
GC: Why shouldn't it be memorable? Does that make it less intellectual somehow? I'm checking out your CD entitled Look Left (Effendi Records, 2006) and the writing is very intriguing but also memorable. It's not being afraid to have clear ideas but it also makes for great improvisational vehicles on that album.
CJ: As the composer, I am not the one to judge how the listener embraces the work. I write for myself first, and then hope the musicians add to the life of the work. Again, it's about having the freedom to put it our there on so many levels, with the end result being that hopefully the audience is able to gravitate toward listening to it for there own reasons. I am a lover of so much music with melody, from the Police, to Antonio Carlos Jobim, to Miles Davis, to people on the fringe that influence me know such as Guillermo Klein and Bill Frisell, not to mention Chopin, Stravinsky, Barber, Copland, Bjork, Dirty Projectors, and Django Bates. Very random list, I know, but they all compose melodies that stick with me, and a lot of it has to do with interval choice and rhythm.
GC: That's a wide range of influences to be sure. There is so much great music out there. Sometimes I feel like students are sort of pushed into a box where all they listen to is hard bop. While I feel like students need to listen to jazz, I don't ever discourage them from listening to anything. Sometimes I ask them what I need to check out! So even though the music of yours that I have heard is definitely jazz, could you say that you have a multitude of influences outside the so-called genre of jazz?
CJ: I am very influenced by what the people around me are listening to, whether it is the musicians that I am working and touring with, my sister, or my husband especially. We live in a very picky household for music listening! I know when I was a student I was obsessed with Blue Note recordings, Miles' classic quintets, and Bill Evans doing anything. Evans was a master sculptor of creating a really well placed thought out solo. It makes sense as he devoted his life to capturing a perfect sound on the piano and with his trio. Funny, one of my favorite albums is Bill Evans' We Will Meet Again (Warner Bros, 1970). It is just full of great solos by him plus the added sax and trumpet of Tom Harrell and Larry Schneider. It was like he went one step further near the end of his life to transfer his sound into a front line. Anyway, I still write with jazz in mind as I love the idea of being able to instantly be in a moment with the musicians that I am performing with. I am just so lucky to be able to play with some great musicians who get excited to try out my new works, or equally when we tour a lot with my repertoire. It excites me to know that every time I get together with like-minded jazz musicians, that there are so many surprises to discover through playing in the moment. I get the most satisfaction when we can use my compositions as a base for our explorations, and come up with new directions that are off the page. It really takes a high level of artistry, along with trust throughout a band for it to happen though. I am lucky that I have been able to experience it in both my small and large ensemble projects. The great thing is that it inspires me to continue to write and perform.
GC: Your alto playing has a great presence. You play with a rich, thick tone. I am a huge fan of the alto, but there are some alto players remaining nameless who annoy me because I can't stand their tone. I would put you in the sort of post-modern alto category, leaning towards two of my favorites, Steve Wilson and Jon Gordon. My wife was listening to your CDs and she compared you to a tenor player named Bill McHenry. Who are your biggest influences on the alto, and do you really feel like an altoist, or do you just think of yourself as a musician who happens to play alto. Also your soprano playing is really nice, any influences there?
CJ: Well, I work hard on sound development. Ingrid also got me into that as trumpet is all about maintaining a sound. I also had some great teachers who gave me exercises including Steve Wilson, George Garzone, and teachers here in Montreal including Janis Stephrans and Remi Bolduc. I also got into transcribing Gary Bartz, who you hipped me to. He has one of the most modern sounds going I think. Anyway, long tones along with centering pitch is what I am a stickler for. In fact, Ingrid and I still work on a few routines whenever we get together, which helps to bind our sound together. Soprano I don't even think about so much, as I find alto such a difficult instrument to control, in comparison to soprano. Some alto saxophonists think the opposite I am sure.
I love Charlie Parker, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley}, and Sonny Stitt, not to mention Johnny Hodges! I find that Hodges and Parker the hardest out of all of them to emulate.
GC: In another life I will play alto. I have one sitting in my office. I've played it for a total of 15 minutes. Your playing makes me want to try again. Before we talk about the big band recording, which of your small group CDs is your favorite and why? I think Look Left is mine. Dave Restivo is killing on it! I think the whole CD has a vibe.
CJ: [laughs] You are too generous. It is an incredibly difficult instrument to make sing I think. Look Left is great because I felt that we were able to communicate in a small group setting that gave us lots of space. That was really due to us having spent some time on the road beforehand, rather than me starting a new studio project. Not to say that I don't love each record for different reasons.
GC: Treelines is a wonderful large ensemble CD. I hear some influence of Kenny Wheeler, Maria Schnieder, [and] Gil Evans. What made you decide to do this and what were the pros and cons? Was it overwhelming?
CJ: It sure didn't happen overnight, or even within a year, and there were times in which I was overwhelmed, but the big thing was keeping organized and entering the studio with a well-rehearsed band. I really built the whole thing around my rhythm section and soloists as well. I gradually have been building up a big band repertoire of my music over time, probably for the last 10 years. I also gradually worked on getting the project of this album organized over the past three years, which included finding financial support through various agencies. This allowed me to dedicate a large chunk of time in preparing the scores, rehearsing the band, recording, and spending quite a bit of time in post-production. Through doing a concert a year of new music along with bringing in guest artists, I was inspired to get the album off the ground. Fortunately, I was able to get some optimal circumstances in the recording of the album, including working with a great producer/engineer here by the name of Paul Johnston. He was great in terms of making sure that I was not overwhelmed. In a way, it was much closer to producing a pop album, as we had to prepare so much and find a balance in mixing between a modern and traditional acoustic jazz sound, while layering Ingrid and her electronics on top.
We also worked hard on giving the feeling of a large room sound, as the studio we used included a tight set-up. I liked that for various reasons. It was especially a great session in terms of capturing an "in-the-moment" vibe with both the improvised sections and the brass and woodwind sections. Overall, the actual recording of the band was the shortest moment for me in creating the whole recording. We only had three days to lay down a lot of tracks, and we only got two or three takes of each track to choose from, so it really was an attempt of capturing the music in a pretty live setting. The other beauty of this project coming to life was that the musicians really dedicated themselves, and heir focus helped to raise the bar even more with solos and ensemble parts.
I don't really know when I decided to do this. It was always in front of me in a way, and the big step for me was getting focused on having optimal conditions with a project of this size. [laughs] Next album will probably be a duo or trio project though!
GC: Some of the big band music I enjoy has that sort of mixture of the large with the small, and features strong rhythm sections. I always felt that way about Maria Schneider's music, or that Joe Henderson's Big Band CD, or even playing with the Charles Mingus Band. I enjoy the soloing on Treelines as much as the group sound. Did you have any particular models for this particular project, being your first, or was it not a conscious thing? I realize you already listed some of your many and diverse influences, but for this being kind of a massive undertaking, did you feel more inclined to use a model, or was that not a factor? When I studied big band writing, we talked about some of the greats like Thad Jones, or Sammy Nestico, or Duke Ellington, but the instructortrumpeter Mike Mossman showed us very concise skills that I thought made it easier to write it our own way, as opposed to copying other styles. Is this how you think. Perhaps I'm leading you with this line of questioning?
CJ: I would say that those are all strong models. My general picture or idea of big band is the following: I am creating a large landscape, and the soloists are adding their own layer of color to it. I did study arranging with Bret Zvochik who is now running the jazz program in Potsdam, and came out of North Texas. He really drove home the traditional arranging techniques a la Nestico and so forth, but also inspired me to come up with original orchestration. I was really in love with Bob Brookmeyer and Wheeler's use of thick brass pads.
I think all of the masters that have been mentioned here have one thing in common: They were constantly writing for their musicians who were also great improvisers. It gives the large ensemble composer a large palette to work from, and it is easy to draw inspiration from the musicians they are or were working with. Another thing in general that I have not been afraid to tackle is composing in less common keys and time signatures. I really spent a lot of time working through B Major, D Major, C# minor , and so on. I continually challenge myself in finding new sounds, and part of the process is exploring keys or modes that I am less familiar with. Part of the process of composition for me is "exploration" and working on uncovering the unknown.
So no model per-sayalthough I am compared a lot to Maria or Kenny Wheeler. I listen to them, and I think that they are both impressionists with their music, and I probably fall into that category as well. This is not to say that I have probably spent just as much time listening to and playing the repertoire of Ellington and Count Basie. I am hooked right now to Ella Fitzgerald and Basie! What a great recording of counterpoint between her and the band with the orchestrating of each section.
Anyway, it is so important to learn those basic arranging skillsorganization and voicing of sections especially. [laughs] However, I am also one to break rules, but only after knowing what they are!
GC: I know you are originally from British Columbia in Canada. What makes you a Montreal resident? What are your thoughts on the scene in Montrealnot counting the jazz festival. Did you ever consider living in New York?
CJ: I spent a bit of time in NY on and off between '98 and 2001. I would go down for one to three months at a time. I got to study with all sorts of sax players as well as a bit with Kenny Werner and later with Jim McNeely where I took part in the BMI Composers meetings. I love New York, but I also love being in Canada where I have a bit more luxury in devoting so much time to creating! Montreal, being majority French presents some challenges. But I have been surrounded by a strong music community, [which] includes McGill University.
I met my husband Joel here at McGill. He is from New Brunswick in the Maritimes and I am from the West Coast, with lots of our family living on the east coast, so it is a nice city to travel from in terms of distance. The music scene in general is so strong here in Montreal, with culture being a top priority in the urban area. Two small jazz clubs and a bigger venue through the festival for larger acts makes for a busy scene as well. I have also been fortunate to work with two actual jazz record labels here. So, there have been great opportunities for me present my music, and to travel between here, NY and Toronto especially. I also got to hook into Paris jazz scene thanks to receiving a 6- month residency in the Quebec loft in 2002 at Cite des Arts in Paris. But New York... I was so fortunate to always be able to spend time there as Ingrid lives there and loves introducing me to new sounds coming out of there.
GC: Last question: How do you juggle motherhood and your busy jazz career?
CJ : Ha! Everyone kept saying if I could do that big band record and tour it, motherhood would be a piece of cake. Well, I could write a book about my experience through being pregnant as a saxophonist and the first three months so far! It meant canceling and postponing a lot of projects for six to 12 months while getting this baby fed and taken care of. However, I know that I have even more to give as a composing jazz musician in the future because of this life-changing experience. That being said, I am on a bit of maternity leave until January 2011. At the same time, I am currently doing a few gigs not as a leader but as a sideman locally right now. My husband Joel and I did our first few gigs together over the past few weeks, so it was scary and exciting to start leaving the nest a little. It was such a blast to have my horn back on my face and be in the moment with the music. We are lucky to both have a career where there is so much passion in preparing ourselves mentally and physically with the music in order to create in the moment. The act of performance in jazz is so fulfilling to the mind and soul, and I can't compare it to motherhood and family in the same way, although the same words can be used. Now we get to share tons of experiences with this new little being who is so innocent. I just hope that I keep getting to put out even more music down the road, while knowing that I have even more to share with both family and whoever my audience may be in the future. Having a baby makes me want to practice and explore new sounds even more. It's just harder to find the time at this juncture!