Ingrid Jensen: Viking Spirit

Jason Crane By

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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.
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