It is now two decades since Danish bassist Henrik Jensen was admitted to the course at the Royal Academy of Music and decided to settle in the UK. His band Followed By Thirteen has just launched its third album on Babel. John Fordham explains the background:
Somewhere between the kind of mysteriously loose-swinging Miles quintet sound of the mid ’60s, the film-noir harmonies and majestic bass-playing of Charlie Haden, and the folksong-like themes and patiently subtle improv of so much north European jazz of recent decades, comes the music of Henrik Jensen.
As a composer, powerful double-bassist, and busy sideman for leaders as different as eclectic jazz/classical pianist Bruno Heinen and the Puppini Sisters vocal trio, Danish-born Jensen has been a quietly persuasive presence on the UK jazz scene for a decade. But it’s his own quartet, Followed By Thirteen (the name is a wry salutation to the superstitions of his late mother Linda) that is his first musical love and the principal vehicle for the sounds he hears in his imagination.
The band’s third and latest album, Affinity, out this month, confirms the message of its predecessors Qualia and Blackwater – that this receptive and intuitively lyrical musician and his skilful partners steadily continue to broaden the group’s palette in their own warmly collaborative ways.
Though Henrik Jensen’s music mostly works by stealth rather than bravura, a distinctive character has glowed within it from the start. Jazz Mann blogger Ian Mann enthusiastically welcomed ‘Qualia’ as ‘a highly promising début’ – and reviewing its successor, ‘Blackwater’, in The Guardian in 2016, I was struck by the session’s connections to what sounded like ‘contemporary New York downtown jazz, as smoky trumpet melodies unwind over prodding bass hooks and edgy drumming’, alongside the ‘flexible-swing hipness’ of an earlier jazz era. ‘Affinity’ takes that story on, with long-time Jensen sidekick Esben Tjalve at his cannily fluent best on piano, sometime Jamie Cullum sideman Rory Simmons often unleashing startling postbop flights on trumpet, and Pete Ibbetson demonstrating both taste and dynamism on drums. Wistful slow themes ease into gently accelerating improvisations, dreamy ruminations are unobtrusively joined by catchy piano vamps, brightly swinging bebop gives way to deep solo-bass reflection, while a snappy finale opening in springy piano-and-bass unison showcases Jensen’s ingenious countermelodic writing, and Tjalve’s fluid interpretation of it.
Henrik Jensen chuckles over the first fortuitous steps that started him on this journey. ‘It began when I was at a boarding school in Denmark,’ he recalls. ‘They aren’t like English boarding schools, they’re co-educational, pretty liberal, there’s a lot of music – and sailing. I can remember rolling cigarettes with my maths teacher! My best friend then needed a bass guitar player for his band. I’d never played one, but he just said “put your fingers there and there”, and that was the beginning.’
Jensen’s jazz awakening similarly arrived by chance. Denmark required statutory military service for fit young men when he was a teenager, but acceptable substitutes could include obligatory nine-month stints working in social or cultural institutions. Jensen got a job at Stunt Records in Copenhagen, having never heard of that legendary jazz and world-music company’s history. His duties there didn’t amount to much more than ‘making lunch for the staff and packing CDs’ he says. ‘But I heard Dave Holland’s ECM album ‘Extensions’ then, it was a quartet session with Steve Coleman on saxophone, and I was blown away by it. That opened jazz up for me. I heard ‘Kind of Blue’ around that time, too, and I began to get a sense of what the role of a double bass player in bands like that could be. Of course, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Denmark’s most famous bassist, was a model for me too. I couldn’t play anything that he could, but he gave me a sense of what might be possible.’
Denmark’s education system gave students extensive freedom and funding to pursue their own whims, which brought Jensen to London for the first time in 1997, to study fretless electric bass at the Musicians’ Institute in Wapping. ‘It was really a pop and rock school, with a tiny jazz department,’ Jensen remembers. ‘but I learned a lot. I was also starting to look at the double bass, and I bought one that turned out to be very difficult to play and keep in tune. I later found out that was because it had a broken neck! Then I went back to Denmark for a while, and met some of the Danish musicians who were enrolling at the Royal Academy of Music, including Esben Tjalve and Jasper Hoiby. When I auditioned at the Academy in 2000 I really wasn’t ready, but the late Jeff Clyne, who was teaching bass there, and Gerard Presencer, who was running the jazz course, must have heard something they liked, and they accepted me.’
Henrik Jensen joined the Academy’s jazz course at a fertile time in the Noughties, when its students included pianists Gwilym Simcock and Ivo Neame, with Jasper Hoiby, Trish Clowes, and Kit Downes among the creative originals who would soon follow. The establishment was a melting-pot for new ideas and cultural crossovers, and opportunities for a fast-developing double bassist like Jensen to play in a wide variety of settings. One of them included ensemble classes with one of the most anarchically inventive mavericks in UK jazz, legendary Lewisham punk-guitar blaster Billy Jenkins. ‘I always enjoyed Billy’s lessons, they definitely took you away from the prestigious Academy way of doing things,’ Jensen laughs. ‘Boxing! That’s the one most students will remember! He’d get two students to fight each other for two minutes, then gloves off, pick up instruments… and go! Improvise together!’ The pianist Arthur Lea, Nathaniel Facey and Shane Forbes – who would form Empirical – and I all played in Billy’s bands. I was on his ‘Songs of Praise’ tour in 2006, it was such fun and so exciting. You never never knew what was going to happen.’ Graduating in 2005, Jensen began playing regularly in duos and trios with the virtuosic young German saxophonist Peter Ehwald, and in 2008 began writing the music for what would become Followed By Thirteen’s ‘Qualia’ session.
‘I didn’t have a specific idea for how I wanted that music to sound,’ Jensen reflects. ‘It was coming together from all kinds of stuff I’d been listening to, a lot of European music from the ECM label, from Miles Davis – particularly the way Miles’ 1960s quintet could play so freely together and sound so hip – and undoubtedly from the Academy teachers, like Pete Churchill, who’s a big Kenny Wheeler fan and was teaching composition. And of course the band, which was Esben on piano and Pete Ibbetson on drums as it is now, with Andre Canniere on trumpet, hugely influenced it.’
Henrik Jensen readily acknowledges his admiration for such bass-playing composers as Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, and Drew Gress, but does the sound and methods of the bass drive his compositional approach?
‘I don’t think my music is very bass oriented,’ Jensen reflects, ‘and I’m not sure it is for those great bassist-composers either. I love Charlie Haden’s writing, it’s so beautiful, and then you have his bass-playing as a beautiful thing in itself. I compose at the piano, not usually on the bass. And because I’m not a very good pianist, it simplifies my way of getting melody out.’
Henrik Jensen wrote Followed By Thirteen’s first repertoire as a dedication to his mother, who died in 2009 before it was completed. Her support for his early passion for music enabled him to pursue it when times were sometimes tough in the household. ‘My parents separated when I was young, so raising us was down to her,’ Jensen says. ‘My older brother, who’s a carpenter, thought I should train as an electrician, get a useful trade. But my mum let me get away with so much stuff I wanted to do. She worked in a care home, so it wasn’t very well paid, but she bought me my first electric bass – even got me to hide it under the bed when the owner of the music shop came round for money we owed.’
Precious relationships are powerful undercurrents for ‘Affinity’ too. The album is dedicated Jensen’s aunt Jyta Peterson, who died in February 2019, while the brightly buoyant ‘Gentle Giant’ is in memory of his pianist friend Paolo Losi, a gifted accompanist for singers who had died suddenly at 46 the year before. ‘Four For A Boy’, one of the most directly jazzy and ingeniously-crafted pieces on the set is a vivacious celebration, for the birth in September 2017 of his son, Aksel – a milestone with a particularly poignant resonance for Henrik Jensen, since he was touring with Followed By Thirteen in Denmark when Aksel showed up seven weeks early. Jensen also notes the contribution of Babel Label proprietor Oliver Weindling, who introduced him to visual artist Aurelie Freoua, painter of the album’s striking artwork.
‘Ollie made all that happen, really,’ Henrik Jensen fervently observes. ‘He let Aurelie and I create the cover live in the Vortex Club, two hours painting and playing with no break, just double bass and brush. It was daytime, so people would just walk in and out as they pleased, it was a very enjoyable way to communicate. Ollie has such a love and passion for jazz, and any expression of the arts.’
That passion for jazz and artistic invention that Henrik Jensen describes has always been the driving force of the various editions of Followed by Thirteen, and he unhesitatingly pays homage to his partners above all. ‘All the jazz I’ve loved has been about how people speak on their instruments, and how they speak together,’ he says. ‘That’s why the guys in this quartet mean so much to me, and the outcome of music, I love the way they play. First comes friendship and respect. Then when you completely trust each other, you can take chances in the music – the kind of chances that make it fun and exciting, not scary and out of place.’
Henrik Jensen and Followed By Thirteen’s Affinity is out now on Babel.