Featured Interview: Christine Jensen on Her Jazz Orchestra Odyssey
Saxophonist Christine Jensen is widely considered to be one of the finest jazz composers Canada has ever produced. Much of her writing, which has been performed by ensembles around the world, is inspired by her west coast upbringing in Cedar just outside Nanaimo.
A goal very close to Jensen’s heart was realized in February when the 18-piece Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra made its debut appearance in a CBC concert recorded at the Amphithéâtre du Gesù in Montreal. The orchestra presented six works, including four compositions that are part of a jazz suite that Jensen will record with the group and sister Ingrid in a Montreal studio starting on Monday.
Island Jazz recently sat down with Jensen to learn more about the orchestra and her latest recording project.
1. How did your newly formed jazz orchestra come about?
I have been working on the project of presenting my music with a large ensemble that includes traditional big band instrumentation for about ten years. I actually started writing for it, well, in my undergrad in the early ’90’s, but didn’t really follow through in organizing my own group of musicians until around 1999. From there I would poke at the project, recording demo’s, and putting on concerts to push myself to compose and orchestrate music for that size of a group. I also invited Ingrid up to play with the group, which I had labeled a big band. So we performed a handful of times at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2002 and a few self-produced concerts in between. In 2006 I had my first big crack at fully realizing the ensemble, as I had been working with a set Montreal rhythm section. I then invited Donny McCaslin up from NY on tenor , and the group really rose to the occasion, inspiring me to realize that I could balance a performing career with small ensembles as well as producing this jazz orchestra. I labeled it the Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra as I really feel that it is more a vehicle of orchestration rather than a big band sound in the traditional sense.
2. What are your goals for this group?
My immediate goal is to record the music that is prepared at this point. I have been working on a suite of music about trees on the west coast that I plan on continuing to write for this group of players for as long as I am inspired and driven to do it. We already have some nice performance opportunities slated for 2010, and the music has not even been recorded yet. That already excites me about the possibilities for this ensemble. It also helps me to set some goals in creating new works for the next few years. It takes a long time for me to process a piece of music for a group of this size, so I have to find large chunks of time to sit down and get into orchestration mode once I have a sketch of the piece to be expanded for orchestra.
3. You’ve mentioned that much of the music performed in the CBC concert is inspired by your west coast upbringing. Can you elaborate on that and talk about how you transform a life experience into a musical composition?
I am trying to capture my thoughts and feelings through the music, and I feel that the further I am away from my native land (being the west coast of Canada), the more I can step back and paint a description of the natural beauty through composition. I think that is why I am drawn to the paintings of Emily Carr. She painted what looked like the trees in my back yard growing up. Dancing Sunlight, which is to be recorded on the album, is inspired by one of her Cedar tree paintings. In musical terms, I try to capture an emotion through the use of rhythmic and melodic motives.
4. You talk about musicians translating your work. Can you explain that in more detail? In other words, what happens to a composition once you turn it over to a group?
This is what I LOVE about jazz. As much as I compose and arrange for the ensemble, I am confident that the soloists will take liberties in further composing my works through their improvisations, taking the music to places that are beyond my imagination. Each piece has at least one section that I have designated for a soloist to improvise over a basic structure. It is their turn to paint the rest of the picture that I have started with the accompaniment of set structures. The members of this ensemble have a long history with me at this point. I have worked with the rhythm section for a number of years in my small-group formations, and I have played in so many ensembles with the brass players as well. There have been many hours of attending reading sessions, rehearsals and demo recordings by the horns, and they have been part of my sound concept since I imagined writing for this size ensemble while attending McGill for my undergrad. Of course my partner Joel Miller is in the saxophone section and has contributed his compositions and arrangements to the group as well. You might just see one of his pieces on the album! In their translations there is a really high level of listening, communication and execution of parts. Ingrid is the icing on the cake, as she is the greatest instant composer that I have ever worked with, and we have such a long history of shaping our sound together. She really has not only translated but transported my compositions outside the stratosphere, and I can’t wait to combine all of these elements together on a recording.
5. Can you tell us more about your recording plans and the concept for the CD?
Well, I head into the studio with more than enough music to record. I get a whole three days, which is a huge amount of time for jazz. I will record the band in Montreal and bring Ingrid up as guest soloist from NY for a majority of it. My producer and engineer is a wonderful musician in Montreal by the name of Paul Johnston. The concept is to record my most recent compositions for orchestra, and most of these are inspired by my west-coast upbringing. There is definitely a green theme. I plan on going really independent on this one. That means more financial risk on my part, and a lot more artistic control with the entire product. My next step will to be getting effective distribution to the largest audience that I can promote the product to…that will take more time and financial investment on my part as well, but I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead.You can hear the Christine Jensen Orchestra concert-on-demand on the CBC Radio 2 website at http://www.cbc.ca/radio2/cod/concerts/20090211jensn and you can learn more about Jensen at her website http://www.christinejensenmusic.com/index.html