TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: Making new musical connections with Christine Jensen

Christine Jensen. Photo: Mathieu Rivard

This year’s TD Ottawa Jazz Festival is billing itself as putting female performers front and centre.

Perhaps no concert epitomizes this more than the one that will feature a large ensemble assembled by the composer and sax player Christine Jensen.

On June 25, she will be the band leader of a group of musicians that includes Marianne Trudel (piano), Adrian Vedady (bass), Rich Irwin (drums), Steve Bilodeau (guitar), Tara Davidson (alto sax), Alison Ax (alto sax), Anna Webber (tenor sax), Claire Devlin (tenor sax), Richard Page (baritone sax), Jocelyn Couture (trumpet), Nick Dyson (trumpet), Emily Denison (trumpet), Rebecca Hennessy (trumpet), Mark Ferguson (trombone), Kelsley Grant (trombone), William Carn (trombone) and Colin Murray (bass trombone).

Jensen says she believes there has been a bit of an underground resurgence in big bands.

“People seem to want to find the voice of the large ensemble in jazz,” she said in an interview. “But I am thinking (about the big band) in a more contemporary context.

“We are not doing the traditional repertoire of Duke Ellington and Count Basie and that era.”

She said she wanted to do something to share a new voice of the music.

That means a band that includes young and old, male and female and one that is not rooted in one city or another.

The spark for this project came when she had a chance to direct a concert when the legendary Carla Bley fell ill and wasn’t able to perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

“If I really like something and I’m struck by something,” Jensen said, “I tend to want to bring it into my life instead of just doing the job and moving on.

“I hadn’t spent a lot of time with her large ensemble music. I love her small ensemble writing from way back whether she wrote for Paul Bley or whomever.

“And it struck me that there is a voice out there that we are not exploring enough.”

So the concert at the jazz festival will feature an entire program of living female composers.

“Not only that, I want this to be a voice of what our future looks like in music.”

The result is a “very big mix of younger musicians and older, wiser musicians along with females and males.

“My whole sax section is made up of the strongest young improvisers going and all of them are women except the guy on baritone sax.”

The women in the band are contributing the compositions.

“I’m trying to keep this idea of what is the future and where we are at now as opposed to revisiting the past over and over which we tend to do.” The canon of jazz is full of male composers, she said.

Jensen believes that broadening the reach of jazz and uncovering new voices is important work.

Another idea that was at the centre of her proposal to the festival’s programming director Petr Cancura was “to broaden our connections between Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal so it wasn’t one group of players from one area.”

Her own experience as a performer and leader is that whenever she leaves her Montreal home and goes somewhere whether Toronto, Norway or New Zealand “I love fact that there is a different sound wherever I go.”

The conclusion is that “the more we all communicate together the more the sound broadens.”

In particular, she hoped to highlight musicians from Ottawa especially younger performers.

“We really wanted to highlight the young Ottawa musicians who are becoming really strong voices in jazz such as Steve Bilodeau on guitar, Emily Dennison on trumpet, and Claire Devlin on tenor saxophone.”

She didn’t want to reveal too much about the music being played on June 25 except to say that “we are heading into more traditional, straight-ahead jazz and going into new music with contemporary techniques of composition that will feel a little more modern.”

It wasn’t easy finding repertoire by women composers that was universal enough for the band to be able to execute in a short amount of time.

But she persevered. “I did a presentation recently on Carla Bley’s music and was thinking ‘Why isn’t this person’s music better known? Is this what is happening to all of us — this quiet, hidden figure type of thing. It’s not going to go that way if we celebrate it as much as we can.” If there is a mission statement, that’s probably it.

Too often, she says, dead composers are celebrated over and over and the living composers are forgotten.

“There is a connection that must occur with us as improvisers and and as composers. So why not start here?”

Jensen believes that the Ottawa festival has always done a pretty good job presenting female players. Now she hopes it will be the norm more widely.

She believes there is a generation growing up who make music and they are coming from everywhere and they are expecting to hear different voices.

As for her: “I just wanted to see a new, diverse array of people on stage as opposed to what I usually see which is 17 men and maybe one or two women on the stage.

“I am getting really tired of that and this is the only way we are going to break it and get rid of this tenure that has been going on.

“The argument you get is ‘I’m playing with my friends.’ Well I’m playing with my friends and they tend to be 95 per cent male. I’m looking for a new experience.”

The question then becomes: Is this a one time thing? Or is there more.

“I have no idea. That is up to everyone, not up to me so much,” she said.

The idea could happen anywhere, she says.

But, she says: “The music is always first. That is very important to me. I’m not putting an all-woman band on stage just to do it.”

But when the diversity is there and there is a wide range of players on a stage, “I find the atmosphere changes in such a positive way. There is a different level of tolerance and respect in the room which I love. I see it with my students and I see it in other cities I have gone to, to work with students.

“I have also worked with all female ensembles and that is awesome too.”

Being a band leader has its burdens but Jensen knows all about that.

“It akin to having a family and being organized. You have your music. Is your music ready. Did you pack your lunch. It’s really not much different. It’s all about making sure folks are prepared in advance.”

It’s “my party, my rules.”

These days Jensen is focussed on composition although she does play in large and small ensembles and sometimes she performs with her sister She plays in small and big ensembles and something playing with her trumpet-playing sister Ingrid. “We just do crazy things together. We love each other dearly.”

Her husband, Joel Miller, is a talented saxophonist too but he didn’t make the cut for this concert. He’ll play with another ensemble at the festival.

“I had too many great female sax players.”

Christine Jensen and the Jazz Orchestra
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: Azrieli Studio, NAC
When: June 25 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.