Live review

Christine Jensen New York Quartet at Gesu Cultural Centre (2019 MIJF)

Christine Jensen New York Quartet with Helen Sung, Allison Miller and Noriko Ueda
(Gesu Cultural Centre. 3 July 2019. Montreal International Jazz Festival. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

“The Festival gave me carte blanche to invite – well, basically, anyone I wanted to,” Christine Jensen explained. And this fascinating concert was the result. The birth of a supergroup? Possibly. A near-ideal context in which four fine musicians can give of their best, and where all can live and breathe, and bring surprises drawing on the stylistic range that each of their individual careers has encompassed? You betcha.

Christine Jensen New York Quartet (Photo: Alexanne Brisson/MIFJ)

Talking of surprises, there can surely be no other pianist capable of springing quite so many in such short spaces of time as Helen Sung. Her musical mind and her fingers are so mind-bogglingly fast, she has the capacity to pack superhuman amounts of energy and variety into just a few seconds of music. During, say a 32-bar song form, while the rest of us might have mused peremptorily on just one vague thought, she seemed to have found 29 new and different comping patterns, fitted in meaningful conversations with both Mulgrew Miller and Leopold Godowsky – and probably also ploughed an entire field, read bedtime stories to all the children in the street and come up with a new design for a space station. One might be tempted to speculate that, with both of her parents in the hall, having specially travelled up from Houston, she was determined to live every moment this gig to the full, but what is undeniable is that this was piano playing at a quite unbelievably jaw-dropping level.

Montreal may be the most “European” of North American cities, and quite substantial sections of this gig had moved far from American jazz models into more unashamedly lyrical territory. I found Christine Jensen’s wonderfully spacious tune The Garden Hour brought out real beauty and focus in her sound, but that gentleness may also have been reinforced by the care, subtlety and richness of ideas that her band-mates were furnishing the accompaniment, and the way this band, even on its first outing, was already moving with one unified heart-beat through the rubato and colla voce sections of that piece.

Other pieces took the group to other places. Sung’s tune H-Town had punch and sass. Alison Miller’s Congratulations and Condolences was underpinned by the drummer’s sheer joy and crispness of attack. And the encore went to a completely different place. Jensen called the Irving Berlin standard How Deep is the Ocean in homage to Lee Konitz and Brad Mehldau who had once played it in the same room at Gesu, and suddenly we were into a very different sound world. Jensen’s sound had more of a rasp to it. Bassist Noriko Ueda was suddenly transformed too. Rather than fitting her very fine bass-craft impeccably and almost invisibly deep in textures, she produced a completely attention-grabbing (in the best sense) solo with fearsomely accurate left-hand speed up and down the fingerboard and improbable virtuosity. Wow.

A very special gig, then. Hopefully this quartet will have more chances to perform. Or as William Wordsworth once wrote: “Here I stand, not only with the sense/Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts/That in this moment there is life and food/For future years.” Amen to that!

Curtain call: Helen Sung, Christine Jensen, Allison Miller and Noriko Ueda (iPhone snap: Sebastian Scotney)

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