Christine Jensen: Impressionism
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.