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Ingrid Jensen: Viking Spirit


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For years, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen wanted to bring together her friend, pianist Maggi Olin, and her sister, saxophonist Christine Jensen, for an album celebrating their shared Nordic ancestry. That album is Flurry (ArtistShare, 2007), by their band Nordic Connect. It's another deep and moving recording from the Juno-Award-winning Jensen. All About Jazz contributor Jason Crane talked with Jensen about the Viking feeling, the long road to her present success, and whether or not Phil Woods, Bob Brookmeyer and Bobby Shew are crazy.

All About Jazz: This is a fascinating record. I know from the liner notes that this project was a long time in conception, and it seems like a big victory that it finally arrived. Can you talk about that?

Ingrid Jensen: Well, when the stars align and you can do a tour and then record, it's kind of like everyone's dream. And we were able to do that with Christine and Maggi and my husband Jon Wikan on drums and a bassist from Sweden as well, Mattias Welin, thanks to a lot of grants from Canada and Sweden and then some gigs at Canadian festivals last summer [2006]. Then we went in the studio and recorded in Montreal. And the rest is history. We mixed and mastered it in Montreal where Christine lives.

AAJ: You've known Christine since she was born, but you've also known Maggi for a long time. How did you first meet?

IJ: We met in Boston at Berklee [College of Music]. We were in an ensemble—I think it was Herb Pomeroy's ensemble or one of those original music ensembles—and we just liked each other a lot and started hanging out. We kept in touch over the years. I started going to Europe a lot and working with different bands with different contacts that I'd made when I was living in Austria and when I went to Berklee. Then we just started playing a lot together. Every year for about five or six years, she'd bring me over once or twice. I was finally able to return the favor with this project.

AAJ: What makes you and Maggi a good musical fit for one another?

IJ: From the beginning, I always loved her compositions as well as her feel for the music. She was not so much like, "I have to play on every beat and show off all my major impressive chops to everyone." She has a great amount of technique, and she has a very unique harmonic sense and comping sense as well. I always liked the way she would shape what I would play, and how her music would give me space to shape my ideas, rather than just having to play it like a head-solo-head approach to the music.

AAJ: Is it hard to find that kind of empathy in another player?

IJ: I'm pretty fussy about comping instruments, as far as piano and guitar go. I play a little piano myself—not that I would ever play professionally—and I have an idea of what colors are available. And of course, playing with [bandleader and composer] Maria [Schneider] and hearing all that music as well... But just the amount of space and the interplay that can be enhanced or ruined by a player's approach—it's something I really listen for and really go for.

It's funny. I finally had time to watch YouTube lately. I never had time until about two weeks ago. And I saw [trumpeter] Miles [Davis] say something that really hits home for me. I think I'm going to have to steal this phrase: [he said] "This is social music." An interviewer was asking him, "How does it feel to be a jazz musician, one of the greatest jazz musicians?" [Miles] said, "Jazz? What's jazz? This is social music. I play social music."

That's how I feel. I play music that evolves out of my social environment. Maggi and Jon get along really well. And Maggi and Christine—the minute they met at my wedding it was like they were best friends for life. The trust between all of us is very, very deep. That comes into the music.

AAJ: When Christine was on The Jazz Session a few weeks ago, she was mentioning that the difference in your ages, while not huge, was enough that it wasn't until she was in her twenties that she really felt comfortable stepping onto a stage with you. She said since then, not only has she become really comfortable with it, but [saxophonist] Lee Konitz mentioned to her how well you two play together and complement each other. What's your experience from the other end, watching Christine come up behind you? What's it been like to collaborate together professionally?

IJ: It's very cool. It's the most intimate experience I can have playing music next to playing with my husband, whom I know very well. [laughs] As far as Christine's development goes, I was playing her music before I was playing with her. She wrote some tunes that I played and recorded. I recorded one of her first tunes she ever wrote on my first Enja record [Vernal Fields (Enja, 1994)], which was called "Vernal Fields."

AAJ: And the tune won a Juno Award [Canada's version of the Grammy award], right?

IJ: It won a Juno. Her tunes were so unique and so beautiful and lyrical, and the players could really add something to them as well. It was a challenge for her to decide between playing piano and saxophone. As we all know, if you're going to compose and write and play, it takes a lot of time. I think her skills developed in a different way than mine. I just took the trumpet and said, "Okay, I've got to learn how to play this or I'm going to quit." Now I'm more in a writing phase than ever. I played a gig the other night and thought, "Wow, I just played all my own music. I never thought I'd do this."

With that sensibility that we have as sisters, it's magic. Even from the beginning, when she was still getting her chops together and developing, there were always times when we would just go into these places where there was no need to talk. You couldn't have even explained what it was that we got into. It just happens, and now it happens more than ever because we're at much higher technical levels on our instruments, and we're more developed players from having more experiences.

AAJ: I've often heard folks say that no vocal groups can harmonize as well as vocal groups made up of family members. Is there a similar phenomenon that transfers over to instrumentalists in terms of melding sounds?

IJ: I'm sure, yeah. Christine and I do a lot of things where we just spontaneously come up with lines and material behind another person's solo, doing a live orchestration, basically. It's okay for me to do that on my own music with my own band because it's just me. But when Christine and I do it together, a lot of times people ask, "Wow, can I see that part you were playing? What does that look like?" And we say, "We don't know." We just looked at each other and we have little code signals for long lines or short lines. But that's also part of the tradition of the music that we grew up with. We heard a lot of [the big band of Count] Basie and a lot of Oscar Peterson and the guys that riffed. We grew up riffing and communicating quickly on the bandstand. I think it's a combination of all that.

AAJ: With a Swedish pianist and bassist and two horn players whose last name is Jensen, I guess figuring out the name Nordic Connect isn't difficult. How does that name relate to the music that's on this record?

IJ: I think it's got a sort of "ECM-ish" sensibility. It's less straight-ahead and more ethereal. But mostly it's just about our heritages—"heritages," is that a word?

AAJ: It is now.

IJ: It sounds like a [George W.] Bush word, so I take it back. [laughs] "Combined heritage? Shared heritage and history?"

AAJ: I think "heritages" was better.

IJ: Well, "I'm the decider" here. [laughs] In many ways, we were able to get back to our Viking feeling of just being together from the same DNA and not worrying about playing in the tradition of a lot of the music we studied. We felt like we could support each other and we did support each other in bringing a lot of original music to the table and developing it. Some of it we developed just in the studio. I developed a sketch that we played. It came off of [my composition] "At Sea." It's an introduction I'd written for a new version of "At Sea." Thanks to them, it became an epic piece in the studio. Again, the social elements are what it's all about.

AAJ: Flurry hangs together so nicely as an album, and the tunes were written by the three of you, but you could easily convince someone that they were all written by one person or all written collectively. There's such a common sound. How many of these pieces came to the studio in complete form?

IJ: I think we did a couple of Christine's tunes pretty much the same way that they are on her former recordings. Some of my pieces we were working on in the studio, like the rewrite I did of "Everything I Love" [called "Things I Love ]. I finally got a new melody on it that I was happy with. [Pianist] Geoff Keezer was telling me, "Why are you continuing to play Cole Porter's tune when you've arranged it so far away from what it is?" I have to listen when he says that because he's right, so I struggled to find something. Now, I kind of like it.

Maggi brought in "Flurry" and she wasn't really sure about that. We had been playing it on the tour, but once we got in the studio, it was another thing we had to talk about a lot. At a certain point, I think Jon got really frustrated, really mad, because he didn't know what to play. Because of that, he ended up playing some of his best stuff, just searching and searching.

"Breathe/Quadr'l" are beautiful tunes that Maggi's already recorded before, but not in the same setting with the two horns.

AAJ: I've been listening to this record a lot, and I had it on in the car today with my one year-old and four year-old sons in the back seat. There's a moment in one of your solos where there's a very high note that bends up at the end of a phrase, and from the back seat I suddenly heard my one year-old say [mimics bending of high note].

IJ: That's awesome! [laughs]

AAJ: He kept doing that for the rest of the trip, even when it wasn't musically appropriate. [laughs]

IJ: That's fine. I'm glad I created a reaction. That's great. You have to let him hear "At Sea" so he can hear the whale sounds and say, "Daddy, what's that?" Although I guess at one he's not saying, "Daddy, what are those?" yet.

AAJ: You and Christine took different paths out of your hometown of Nanaimo [British Columbia, Canada]. Your path went right to Berklee. Why did you make that decision?

IJ: I don't know. I was quite the lost child in my mid-to-late teens. My family wasn't too excited about their daughter becoming a jazz musician, particularly on an instrument that not a lot of other women were making a living at. Especially not when I was coming up in the mid-'80s.

AAJ: Even though your mom was such a proponent of all of you being involved in music?

IJ: I think she wanted us to be involved so that we weren't out smoking pot with the kids who lived up the street. She provided us with a lot of things to do, but I don't know if that was exactly her idea of my career choice. I know it wasn't, because she came from the old school where her parents said, "That's nice, you can play that, but you have to have a real job." I think she was still carrying around that old-school way of thinking. But I got a lot of scholarship money from different festivals, and I had quite a nice little savings of scholarships, especially for Berklee.

I went to what used the be the Bud Shank Jazz Camp. Now it's called Centrum and it's run by [bassist] John Clayton. I was there and I had this really extraordinary summer experience following my second year at the local college that I went to in Nanaimo. Even though I was very much in love with playing and there was no question what I wanted to do, I just wasn't sure what my next move was going to be. I was waitressing in the same restaurant that Diana Krall played piano in. She was playing piano one day and I was serving wine and bussing tables.

That was where I was at when I went to this amazing summer camp with all these great musicians. I think [woodwind player] Chris Speed was there that summer, and the [saxophonist] Phil Woods Quintet and [trombonist] Bob Brookmeyer and [trumpeter] Bobby Shew. All those guys heard me play, and they were super encouraging to me. That was in July and then I had a month to get myself together and go to Berklee, which is what they were suggesting I should do.

AAJ: When these big-name players were all listening to you and being very encouraging, was it a surprise to you? Did you think that was the level you were at?

IJ: I thought they were crazy. I thought, "What's the matter with these people? Don't they hear how bad I am?" Of course I was in awe of them. I knew their music and loved their personalities, and when they played it just freaked me out. For them to acknowledge me as someone who should potentially pursue what they were doing—it was a pretty heavy thing. I definitely took it and ran with it. In many senses, they were right. They were hearing much more in my playing than I was hearing. They were hearing this deep influence of great music that my mother had surrounded me with and all these great band teachers had plugged me in to. I just wasn't hearing it because I was struggling. I play trumpet. Maybe if I had played saxophone it would have been easier. But the instrument's a bit of a beast sometimes.

AAJ: You were encouraged by their words and decided to go to Berklee. What was that experience like?

IJ: It was pretty incredible. One of my best friends there was [pianist] Danilo Perez. I saw [saxophonist] Donny McCaslin a lot and he was very nice to me. I got to play in [saxophonist] George Garzone's ensemble and [trumpeter] Herb Pomeroy's band. I just met tons and tons of people who were exceptionally great to me. It was also an eye-opening experience as far as how the business works. I had no clue. I saw my peers getting record deals and getting whisked off to private lessons with people I idolized. I saw how things worked and found my way through it all.

AAJ: Did it make your goals seem attainable when you saw how things worked?

IJ: I was having so much fun playing so much music with so many people that I didn't even think about it, actually. By my third year, I was just trying to keep up with all these people I was playing sessions with like [guitarist] Kurt Rosenwinkel and [trumpeter] Kenny Rampton. I didn't stop to think, "How am I going to make it in the business?" I was too busy trying to finish my transcriptions and learn tunes and do all that.

I think the reality was abruptly thrown in my face when I finished school, because there were no real opportunities for me. Nothing. No gigs. No, "Come on down here and play in this band." Which is kind of the way it works with music school. You don't get out and get a gig like a lawyer or doctor gets an internship. You have to create that yourself. So I just took off to Denmark when I graduated. I had an aunt in Denmark and I stayed at her house for a couple months and hung out with the musicians in Denmark. [Bandleader] Ernie Wilkins and a bunch of good people. I went to a record store every day and just sat there and listened to music with the guy who owned the store. I transcribed and practiced and sat in with the local guys, which was kind of a perfect experience after college.

From then on, things just started rolling. I moved to New York, played in the subways and got gigs with all-women bands. Paid my dues there. Then, while living in New York in the 90s, I got a gig to play in Austria with the Vienna Art Orchestra. That happened via going to Berklee and then ending up in New York with one of my Berklee friends as a roommate. That got me back in Europe, but in a working situation. I auditioned for a teaching job and the teaching job landed me in Austria. Being in Austria landed me in a bunch of different scenes that were really inspiring and really great.

AAJ: From that point, did things continue to progress upward? Did it become easier once you got that first good gig?

IJ: I wouldn't say it became easier. It was kind of hellish, actually, because I was isolated living in this—

It wasn't hellish, but it was a very trying time. I didn't speak any German and I was living alone and moving every couple months because I couldn't get a place of my own because I wasn't Austrian. I spent two-and-a-half years dealing with the teaching situation, which was making me old really fast, and traveling around a lot in Europe. But in the end, being there made one major break for me, which was when I sat in with [trumpeter] Clark Terry and [vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton.

When I sat in with Clark at the [Village] Vanguard when I was living in New York, he really took a shine to me. So did [trombonist] Al Grey. So whenever they were anywhere in Europe, when they were in Austria or Germany or anywhere within train distance, Clark would say, "You come on and sit in. Bring your horn." So I went and sat in with these guys in their eighties and nineties, and this little blond thing comes boppin' onstage and plays a chorus of the blues and everyone goes "Whoo!"

One time, I think it was the second or third time I sat in with them, Clark introduced me to their road manager for Europe. He was a really cool guy named Alex. He really wanted to help me. He said, "Give me your best demo tape and I'll send it out." So I gave it to him and he sent it out to ten record companies, and the only one that was really interested was Enja, which was the one I wanted to be on if I were going to be on a label.

AAJ: How did the connection with Maria Schneider's orchestra come about?

IJ: That was when I moved back to New York in 1994. I was just getting ready to record my very first album [for Enja]. I never thought I'd be in the studio until my mid-forties, but I was 24 or 25 years old. I was sitting there writing a tune and the phone rings and [saxophonist] Rick Margitza says, "Maria wants you to come down and play in the band. [Trumpeter] Tim Hagans isn't going to be there tonight." I said, "When does it start?" He said, "Ten minutes ago." I said, "Aaaahh!" [laughs]

I had been checking out the band. In fact, the very first time I walked into the club and heard them play, I said to myself, "I'm going to play with this band. I'm going to be playing in that trumpet section. I don't know how, I don't know when, but I will." Because I immediately identified with her music and the sensitivity and the depth and all the elements of her greatness. I wanted to know more.

From then on out, she kept calling me to sub.

AAJ: How has your experience in that band affected you as a writer?

IJ: I think the major way it's affected my life and music is in not hearing things so "boxed in" anymore. In big band music, there's a lot of AAB feeling and boxed-in forms. With Maria or Bob Brookmeyer or Gil Evans, it's very through-composed. It's like, "Here's this now and let's see where it's going to go." And then when it's the soloist's turn to solo, it's not so much like a barn-burning, everybody-stand-on-your-feet-and-scream solo. It's more like the feeling of the picture and the story and the art has set you up to go somewhere with it. And then in combination with those players, it doesn't ever allow the music to be the same. It always inspires you as a player to be different.

AAJ: Before we close, I want to come back to the new album, Flurry. Will you explain what ArtistShare is and why you chose it to put out this new album?

IJ: ArtistShare is a web-based distribution service that is taking care of us as musicians in a way that makes us take care of our own product more than ever, and in the end also own it. Everyone's project is different, and everyone approaches their ArtistShare project differently. If you go to MariaSchneider.com, you can see how many ways one can take it. Mine is a little simpler. You get the CD, but you also get many more insights into the music. Video from the road and bootleg radio that's constantly being updated. Photo galleries. Interviews with the musicians about the tunes. For my CD At Sea (ArtistShare, 2006), I did a lot of commentary about how the music that I wrote was inspired by what I saw in Alaska and what I've seen around the world as a more environmentally inspired player.

Selected Discography

Nordic Connect, Flurry (ArtistShare, 2007)
Maria Schneider, Sky Blue (ArtistShare, 2007)
Christine Jensen, Look Left (Effendi, 2006)
Ingrid Jensen, At Sea (ArtistShare, 2006)
Maria Schneider, Concert In The Garden (ArtistShare, 2004)
Ingrid Jensen/Project O, Now As Then (Justin Time, 2003)
Christine Jensen, A Shorter Distance (Effendi, 2002)
Christine Jensen, Collage (Effendi, 2000)
Ingrid Jensen, Higher Grounds (Enja, 1999)
Ingrid Jensen, Here On Earth (Enja, 1997)
Ingrid Jensen, Vernal Fields (Enja, 1994)

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