CD REVIEW: Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal & Christine Jensen – Under The Influence Suite

Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal & Christine Jensen – Under The Influence Suite
(Justin Time Records JTR 8597. CD Review by Alison Bentley)

Under the Influence: a perfect description of music that is immersed in, but not overwhelmed by, the work of musicians and mentors you love. Canadian saxophonist, composer and conductor Christine Jensen was commissioned in 2015 by the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal to write this powerful suite, dedicated to Kenny Wheeler, Jan Jarczyk, Lee Konitz, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter.

Part 1 (the longest section) is For Kenny Wheeler, the great Canadian-born trumpeter who had died the previous year. Jensen has described her music as “coming out of the Kenny Wheeler aesthetic”, after working with him for a number of years at Canada’s Banff Centre, and his influence would seem to be the strongest on this album. The eerie, free sounds of Ouverture make way for Starbright, which sent me back to Wheeler’s ’90s ECM Music for Large & Small Ensembles. Jensen’s orchestral timbres are often Wheeler-esque, with their uplifting melancholy, and dark tones. Jensen’s approach to melody is more motivic; overlapping phrases build and harmonise with increasing intensity. It’s as if you see one phrase through the prism of the next. Just as Wheeler wrote for Norma Winstone’s ethereal voice, so Sienna Dahlen’s pure tones are central to this music. Dahlen’s Keatsian lyrics lead us in (“Timeless star blazing through the night”) before fusing with the orchestra in horn-like lines, lightening the deep colours. She uses free sounds as well as strong tones – sometimes breathy, like glass wrapped in tissue paper. Solos emerge naturally from the textures: François Bourassa’s fine piano solo and Bill Mahar’s elegant trumpet flow from Kevin Warren’s delicate drumming, which draws as much on drum and bass as jazz.

The late Polish-Canadian composer and pianist Jan Jarczyk is sorely missed by Jensen and the orchestra. Jensen: “He was such a great teacher of composition, and he taught us all the rules – what we were to break and what we weren’t, and I would still go break them.” In Part II To Jan Jensen explores a chorale, expanded with dynamic orchestration. Dahlen’s emotive lyrics and Jean-Pierre Zanella’s explosive sax solo pay tribute. A high energy Drum Interlude prefaces Part IV (for John Coltrane) Leap. Based on the chords to his Giant Steps, it invokes Wheeler-esque orchestration, as horns ease out long notes over an intense groove. The sounds fuse: there’s a striking moment where the sax solo seems to emulate the guitar’s slightly distorted rock sound. Part IV (For Lee Konitz) Sweet Lee pits trombone against the superb orchestration, playing hopscotch across the chords of a lopsided tango.

Wayne Shorter is one of Jensen’s greatest influences, and Part V, Anthem and Chant, are for him. There’s a mesmeric section, hinting at Miles’ In a Silent Way, with sparkling guitar harmonics, bass thrumming, and abstract sax shapes. Two saxes duet freely, as the energy increases into a slow rock groove and exquisite meditative theme. The saxes’ free breathiness interweaves with Dahlen’s voice, as they develop into an insistent drone, and then strong rock feel. Stirring blues phrases over punchy horn lines draw the whole orchestra in. A quiet moment bursts into a thrilling sax chase on a cliff edge, but everyone lands together.

“I hope that each movement of my suite contains a fragment of their character,” Jensen has said of her influences. This excellent album is no pastiche, but a development of her own distinctive style of composition and arranging. It’s an amazing accomplishment, along with the superb discipline and improvisational freedom of the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal.

LINK: Podcast interview with Sienna Dahlen talking about Under the Influence / starts at [14:43]

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