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Christine Jensen: Looking Left

Jason Crane By

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I think the big thing for me was, before doing [my first] album, was having people support me and say, "You're ready to do this."
The Globe and Mail called saxophonist and composer Christine Jensen "one of the most important Canadian composers of her generation." She grew up with her trumpet-playing sister Ingrid near Vancouver, though she's now based in Montreal. Jensen has recorded three albums. Her most recent project is Look Left (Effendi, 2006), the result of a half-year spent studying and writing in Paris.



AAJ contributor Jason Crane caught up with Jensen to talk about life along the Seine, Plato and Lee Konitz.

All About Jazz: Let's dig right in with a quote from the liner notes about the title track, "Look Left." You said: "'Look Left' developed into a political theme representing my opposition to the invasion of Iraq by Bush and Blair." This is an instrumental tune. How do you feel jazz musicians are able to communicate political protest if they don't have the benefit of lyrics?

Christine Jensen: With that tune, it really was a bit of emotion that hit me at the time. I was living in Paris. I had a six-month residency there, right in the heart of Paris, and I was traveling a bit to London as well. It was the summer of 2002—post 9/11—and there was a lot of heated discussion and debate and marches going on. A lot of people in France and England were uprising against the choices their governments might make going into the impending invasion.

So I got an Eastern theme with this kind of melancholy, Chopin-esque bass line hovering around the key of F#. [plays melody on piano] It's this haunting little theme. I think of flutes—a "marching in the distance" feeling. And then I think on the recording the band gets into it. We're all big fans of Wayne Shorter's new band, and we tried to go for a group improvisation in it.

AAJ: You mentioned that you were in Paris because you got a grant, which came from the Council of Arts and Letters of Quebec. Talk about that residency and what a completely different environment did for your composing. How was it different to be in a studio overlooking the Seine rather than in Montreal?

CJ: A lot of jazz musicians have lived in [that same area] in the past because of this residency. And you really get the feel of what it must have been like in the turn of the century in France when all these artists were there, and they were creating this new source of what was to come of art. Then to be there 100 years later or more, and everything is still as stunning as ever. I think visually it's one of the most vibrant cities to get inspiration from, just walking around.

I had a choice to play a lot and meet people or to get more introspective. I think I'd gone through a lot of playing the year before, and I tend to go in waves of playing or writing. So this was a great experience to be writing in. Then I'd have people over to play my music.

AAJ: What was the point of the grant? Was it to get away for six months without financial pressure?

CJ: Yeah. It was a great gift from the government here. They have a few of these all over Europe and also one in New York that a lot of Quebec musicians use. I think I was very spur-of-the-moment in applying for that studio. It's very hard to get because it's multi-disciplinary. A lot of great writers and artists are going up against me when they do the juries. I was very fortunate to put up a project that they thought would benefit my future, and it sure did because I wrote the most I've ever written in a short amount of time by being there.

AAJ: You mentioned how vibrant Paris's Marais district is. I think my favorite piece on this new record is "Promenade." If I'm reading the liner notes correctly, that was one of the pieces most directly inspired by the area in which you were living.

CJ: I had just come off a tour of Canada, and when you do a tour of Canada—we're very into latitude rather than longitude here. I spent quite a bit of time running around doing some larger ensemble projects. So I actually arrived in Paris quite exhausted from the previous few months of work. I got there and this woman said, "The Place de la Seine is going on," which is where they dump all this sand on the main thoroughfare running along the Seine. No traffic goes on it, it's all pedestrians. They put beach towels and chairs and sand and they have volleyball and all these sports going on. It was literally outside my door.

I hadn't experienced Paris in the summer before, so I just landed in this building right on the edge of this. I was like, "What is going on down there?" It was this huge extravagant party for the public along the Seine. So that was my "Promenade." Also, for a couple of weeks I was walking miles and miles every day because there was so much to take in that way.

AAJ: In terms of geographic inspiration for this record, it can't get too much more different than it is. It runs from Paris to an area that I'm sure has inspired a lot of great jazz: Fargo, North Dakota ("Upper Fargo").

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