INTERVIEW/ PREVIEW: Canadian composer-saxophonist Christine Jensen (Anglo-Canadian Group with Nikki Iles, Pizza Express Aug 15th)

Christine Jensen. Photo Credit:Randy Cole

Christine Jensen is an award-winning Canadian composer, bandleader and saxophonist, making her first visit to the UK since 2002, and playing a gig in London for the very first time. She’s been compared to Kenny Wheeler, Maria Schneider and Wayne Shorter.  She talked to Alison Bentley about their influence on her, and about her forthcoming gig: 

London Jazz News: You’re coming to the UK to play at Pizza Express and to be a tutor on the National Youth Jazz Collective Summer School [at Uppingham School.] Have you done that before?

Christine Jensen: No, it’s been a work for a few years to bring me over.

LJN: Is jazz education important to you?

CJ: It’s very important to me- I grew up with jazz education; learning to play music in ensembles, by ear and also on the page. It gave me a really strong basis, because of the great teachers I had who got me interested in improvisation- that got me into jazz. I started on classical piano- basic piano- and now I play saxophone.

LJN: You come from a highly musical family! [Jazz trumpeter Ingrid Jensen is her sister.]

CJ: Yes, I do- I’m very lucky. Our mother was a very good music educator on piano as well as a classroom music teacher using the Kodaly method, and she also was in musical theatre. She wasn’t a jazz musician per se but she was definitely interested in all music that was really great music. She had a very diverse record collection.

LJN: What particular things stood out for you?

CJ: Probably the great jazz singers. Mel Tormé was a big one for her, Rosemary Clooney. Tommy Dorsey she loved- she was into big bands, and then the piano trios of Erroll Garner, Nat King Cole, Oscar Peterson and the Canadian pianist Oliver Jones as well. A lot of piano trio music ‘cause she liked the effect of it. Bill Evans, older Duke Ellington. She was really immersed in the American jazz tradition. She was also able to play stride piano, and she played a lot of beautiful music in the house while practising.

LJN: What drew you to sax rather than piano?

CJ: I went back and forth between the two. I didn’t really understand jazz piano as easily as I understood saxophone, being a linear instrument. I had the two separate for a long time until I got a really great jazz piano teacher who knocked the principles into my head. He opened my ears up to what jazz was- learning certain aspects of jazz harmony that are unique. And then after that I went back to saxophone because I liked to play the role of saxophonist much more than the role of pianist. I did a degree in jazz on saxophone at McGill University, where I teach now.

LJN: Which sax players inspired you?

CJ: Paul Desmond, Phil Woods, Charlie Parker of course, Cannonball Adderley. Then I went through a pretty big infatuation with tenor players. Soprano saxophone players I heard, especially Wayne Shorter.

LJN: You have an album called “A Shorter Distance.”

CJ: Yeah, he just embodies everything I believe in, with what this music can do- affecting an audience or a listener or player.

LJN: As a writer as well?

CJ: Yeah, both his playing and his writing. They intertwine but they’re often very separate.

LJN: You’re doing a small band gig at Pizza Express on August 15th with Nikki Iles on piano, Percy Pursglove on trumpet, James Maddren on drums and Dave Whitford on bass. Have you worked with them before?

CJ: No, never! I’ve played with a few Brits around the world but not in England. I haven’t been to England since 2002. I’m so excited to finally play in London! My sister toured England in the Spring- both she and I haven’t spent a lot of time there, but all of a sudden we’re getting these opportunities, so it’s really fantastic!

LJN: Will you be playing your compositions?

CJ: Quite a few of mine and some of Nikki’s. I love what I’ve heard from her. I think she’s on the same sort of path as me- coming out of the Kenny Wheeler aesthetic; John Taylor. It’s really what I think is the amazing jazz coming out of Britain- coming from someone like her.

LJN: You’ve recorded two large ensemble CDs. [“Treelines”, 2010; “Habitat” 2013), both of which won Canadian Jumo awards. How do you go about writing?

CJ: There’s no routine, until I get into a routine of really compressing my thoughts though a composition. A lot of the time I write with the idea of a lead sheet, where I’d be playing it in the smallest group possible. And then I just expand on that. I think it’s more in the vein of Kenny Wheeler than anything, because his music was so influential for me growing up. He was a very big figure with my peers and musicians ahead of me at the Banff Centre in Canada. The music was just whirling around me, through other people sharing it with me. It was a very intense part of my experience, as a composer who gravitates towards a certain aesthetic and compositional process.

LJN: We think of Kenny Wheeler as being British, but I guess you think of him as being Canadian!

CJ: That’s a topic, for sure! But I think the bulk of his work was done in England. At the same time, thank goodness he was coming back to Canada a lot to have his music played, and to discuss it. I actually got to play with him when I was at Banff and he played my music, which was amazing. And I got to do his Music for Large Ensembles- many years ago, but it was such a big event.

LJN: Your music sometimes seems to have overlapping motifs that build up, almost hypnotically.

CJ: Once I’ve gotten into the piece I may take a motif, and just expand upon it, and try to use my orchestration skills.

LJN: Do some of those skills go back to the big band albums you listened to as a child?

CJ: I don’t know. I think it all comes out of small groups usually. It’s so much fun to play around with that music in small groups. Usually there are three or four pieces on each album that have gone one way or the other- from small group to large or large to small. I think mostly about how I would play on the music, and then develop those ideas.

LJN: You’ve used interesting images to describe your music- stories, architecture, building a house for the other musicians?

CJ: That’s why I called that last album Habitat. There’s this great architectural piece in Montreal with these blocks that are stacked randomly. They’re so basic on their own, until you decorate them or till you look out of the window at the view. I really like to think of building something like that, and then having my improvisers, especially my rhythm section, supporting it and colouring it in a way- maybe each cube that I create. There’s also a short story for each piece. I’m trying to develop character, and also launch the characters into their own interpretations.

LJN: You’re also inspired by the natural world- Treelines. Is that more pastoral?

CJ: Yes, I stuck to a theme for most of that album. In each piece I wrote, I wanted to express my viewpoint on growing up with some really magical trees, that are not necessarily known outside of this area. That’s why I love living on the East coast, because you don’t really get to appreciate the immensity of what is on the West coast in British Columbia, unless you leave it and go back. So I guess for the rest of my life I’ll be doing this [laughs]- going back and looking at it and going, ‘Wow, this is stunning beauty!’ And also I was inspired by Canadian women, in their expression outside of music, which includes Emily Carr who was a great West coast painter. The others are Alice Munro- her short stories with elements of place and character, and then Joni Mitchell, who just knocks it to you with each word she sings. So all these women who happen to be Canadian are in my music in a way.

LJN: Do you seek out women musicians? You work with [Swedish pianist] Maggi Olin?

CJ: It doesn’t really matter to me, but the strong women that I get to work with- we definitely are able to become each other’s catalysts, in bringing out our attitude and our music. Maggi is just an inspiring composer and pianist- she works really well with short forms and she’s able to do a lot with it. I’m lucky that my sister introduced me to her.

LJN: As a bandleader, are there other women who’ve blazed the trail for you?

CJ: Definitely Maria Schneider- she fiercely blazed the trail. She made me realise it’s not so hard to do, or not as hard as you might think. People love to get together in larger groups of friends to play your music. You have to organise that music to get it to happen. And I think that’s the beauty- all about people sharing their time and energy and love of the music together, over everything else. And that’s what a larger jazz ensemble does. It’s thinking about each role in the orchestra- how can I highlight them, and how can I share, not just my music but their music that they’re bringing to me. A lot of the people in my band are great composers and improvisers.

LJN: Do you write with those musicians in mind?

CJ: For the most part, yes, or even the sound of sections, the sound of the orchestra. I know what sounds I can achieve. I’m probably limited a bit because I’m outside New York. It’s pretty hard to have that limitless power of choice in multi-instrumentalists. Obviously if you’re really driven, you’re going to be moving to the biggest place you can to work with the most musicians. In Canada it’s a little smaller, but I’m lucky ‘cause I live in Quebec which is nearly its own country, its own breeding ground of really strong unique musicians that I can work with. It’s kind of a secret! In fact, Jamie Cullum’s band were just here, and lot of the musicians that are on my album have worked with him, horn players especially. His musical director said, ‘Wow, every time we play in Montreal it’s the best!’

LJN: Is the Canadian Arts Council supportive?

CJ: The Canada Council for the Arts is funding me to come over. We have a new Prime Minister who’s very liberal with the Arts. But at the same time, the previous government was very into exporting Canadian talent in touring. I’m hoping we keep exporting, building a stronger platform of documenting our work so the world can see it or hear it. Again, that will make it not such a secret, the great stuff coming out of Canada on many levels in the Arts. We have to, because we’re next to the United States- we’re like the mouse and the elephant, you know! Anything we do, it’s more like Scandinavia- we have to travel far between cities, and the population is about a tenth of the size, and it’s all along the borders. So it’s kind of a mandate that we keep our culture not just alive but growing. I feel very blessed to have that support.

LJN: Would you say there’s something specifically Canadian about your music?

CJ: People tell me that, but it’s not something I can really judge. I’m obviously drawn to landscape a little more, and I’m not as urban in sound as some other musicians that I admire. At the same time, coming out of folk and a church tradition of four-part harmony, which is something I’ve always had in my background- probably from playing piano. Also, playing a horn has given me the other side of creating linear events.

GIG: The Christine Jensen and Nikki Iles Anglo-Canadian Group, Pizza Express, Mon. Aug 15th

LINKS: Review of the Souers Jensen Quintet at Diese-Onze in Montreal
Review of the Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra at Jazzahead in 2014
Christine Jensen’s website

Categories: miscellaneous

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