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The Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra: a rich hour of evocative solos & fine ensemble playing (review)

The Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra with Ingrid Jensen
Laurier Avenue Music Stage
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Sunday, June 28, 2015 – 7:30 p.m.

The Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra played for one hour at the Ottawa Jazz Festival Sunday.

It was a very rich hour, filled with evocative solos, fine ensemble playing, and an overall abundant sound.

But when I later read that the 19-piece orchestra had played for nearly two hours at the Vancouver Jazz Festival, that confirmed how curtailed the Ottawa show felt. It was part of the early evening series at the Laurier Avenue Music Stage, where concerts were generally scheduled for only an hour to avoid sound bleed with the Main Stage and to allow time for sound-checking the late-evening shows. That time constraint led to a hurried concert.

The Ottawa show was the last stop on an extended tour which crossed Canada and went down into the U.S. Because the logistics and costs of taking 19 musicians on the road are daunting, it was a milestone for the orchestra. Jensen said the band had played nine shows in the previous two weeks – more than they had in the past five years.

Jensen's CD with this orchestra, Habitat [Justin Time, 2013], won the Juno award for Best Contemporary Jazz album last year. It was her second win; her first CD with the orchestra, Treelines [2010], also won a Juno. This concert included two of Jensen's compositions from Habitat, one from Treelines, and one so-far-unrecorded piece.

They opened with a piece in honour of, and co-written by, Canadian composer and sometimes-jazz-vocalist Joni Mitchell, whom Jensen described as probably the greatest musician ever to come out of Canada. “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” is from Mingus, Mitchell's collaboration with the renowned jazz bassist Charles Mingus, and I'd previously heard Jensen play it at the Montreal Jazz Festival with L'Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal.

An arresting opening for a fast-moving piece

Jensen's sister Ingrid opened the piece. Her trumpet solo was sharp and calling out – an arresting opening for a fast-moving piece, which also featured a fluid solo from tenor saxophonist Joel Miller, and full-out ensemble playing from the trumpet section starting with Bill Mahar. It was a joyous, adventurous start to the show.

Ingrid Jensen was clearly the star of the show, with her solos featured throughout. She's a well-known performer on the NYC scene, who also plays in Maria Schneider's big band, and has performed with Christine in many ensembles, large and small.

The next piece, “Treelines”, started cinematically with a steadily-building orchestral fanfare, and then Ingrid entered with a lovely, romantic trumpet line. She continued expressively, first over sparkling piano from John Roney, and then over swelling, but subdued, playing by the whole orchestra – and then alternated her trumpet lines with circling solos by an alto saxophonist. They played in unison, intertwined, and then Ingrid's trumpet broke out again to play lightly and bit atonally over reflective piano. The full orchestra returned, Ingrid played one last exploratory solo, and the piece ended in a strong, hopeful orchestral climax.

“Nishiyuu” was written in response to recent native protests, Christine Jensen said, and especially a group of young men who travelled from the north to Parliament Hill to tell the government about the conditions natives were forced to live in. She told the audience that she and Ingrid were raised in a native community (on Vancouver Island), and said that the journey of these Nishiyuu inspired her to write “this piece of hope”.

The orchestra includes a fine selection of Montreal jazz musicians, most of whom have led their own ensembles. However, Jensen rightfully singled out tenor saxophonist André Leroux, “one of the world's greatest tenor players”, who soloed in “Nishiyuu”. He opened the the piece with an extended solo, quiet and reflective, and then as the orchestra joined in, became more forceful. It was a complex, full-out piece, featuring a flute section and Ingrid on melodica as well as trumpet, and it gave Leroux the chance to move from simple, questing lines, to more evocative themes, to strong, emphatic statements.

Throughout most of the show, Christine Jensen primarily conducted the orchestra, rather than playing. But she joined in briefly on soprano sax near the end of this piece, adding a rough-edged accent to Leroux's solo.

The orchestra then immediately segued into “Western Yew”, which featured both Jensen sisters, in separate solos and in a circling duet. It was a lovely, contemplative ballad, also featuring Roney on sparkling piano, with an upbeat, anticipatory feel.

They closed with “Wink” (in French, “Clin d’oeil”), which featured many of the orchestra members. Roney opened it dramatically on piano with a fast, vibrating bass motifs and glissandos and then the trombones took over with a sizzling bluesy line. The piece included solos from Ingrid and Christine and several trombonists and trumpeters, but the centre of the piece was its fast, smooth, swinging vibe and the energy and joy the entire band brought to it.

This piece was also a chance to hear more of the entire orchestra and whole sections, instead of individual solos. One of the joys of big band music is the marvellous blending of instruments and the really large sound created by many musicians playing together. The time constraints meant the full band was featured less.

“Wink” was a strong closer, and was greeted with a standing ovation the instant the music ended. In response, the orchestra played a few bars of “Aulde Lang Syne”.

Although he had little chance to solo, this piece also showed off the beating heart of the orchestra: drummer Rich Irwin, whom Jensen recognized near the end of the show. In a big band, you need a powerful drummer and as Irwin showed here a few years ago with the Vic Vogel Big Band, he is very skilled at driving the energy of a large ensemble. He and (ex-Ottawa) bassist Fraser Hollins were essential to the powerful impact of this show.

A completely packed house, but on a side stage

The orchestra played to a completely packed house – just like Jensen's previous show with her orchestra at the 2010 Ottawa Jazz Festival. There were at least 300 people inside the tent and spilling outside, and most probably more. The audience – ranging from pre-teens to seniors – was riveted on the stage. There had been rain earlier that day but it had effectively stopped by show time and did not appear to have any effect on the attendance.

The Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra with Ingrid Jensen was not only an outstanding performance; it was also one of the rare chances we in Ottawa get to see a visiting professional big band playing modern jazz. Christine Jensen, in particular, has developed into one of the most interesting jazz composers and arrangers in Canada for a wide range of ensembles, both with this orchestra and with L'Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal.

So it was particularly frustrating that the Ottawa Jazz Festival shuffled the orchestra onto a side stage, and gave it so little time. The festival could have made that evening a true jazz night in Confederation Park, with Afro-Cuban Jazz & Beyond at 6:30 and Jensen's orchestra at 8:30. Instead, I and others had to leave the Afro-Cuban show early in order to line up to hear the orchestra.

And the act featured on the Main stage that evening? A forgettable, squishy emo-pop group from the U.S. called Beirut – which attracted only a small audience. What a lost opportunity!

    – Alayne McGregor

The Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra:

  • Christine Jensen - conductor, soprano saxophone
  • Ingrid Jensen (guest) - trumpet and effects
  • Jocelyn Couture - lead trumpet
  • Bill Mahar - trumpet
  • Dave Mossing - trumpet
  • Aaron Doyle - trumpet
  • Robert Ellis - trombone
  • Jean-Nicholas Trottier - trombone
  • David Grott - lead trombone
  • Dave Martin - trombone
  • Samuel Blais - saxophones, clarinet
  • Donny Kennedy - saxophones, flute
  • Erik Hove - saxophone
  • Joel Miller - saxophone
  • André Leroux - saxophone
  • Kenny Bibace - guitar
  • Fraser Hollins - upright bass
  • Richard Irwin - drums
  • John Roney – piano 

Set list:

  • The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines / lyrics by Joni Mitchell, music by Charles Mingus (written for Mitchell's Mingus album)
  • Treelines / Christine Jensen (from Habitat)
  • Nishiyuu / Christine Jensen (from Habitat)
  • Western Yew / Christine Jensen (from Treelines)
  • Wink (in French, Clin d’oeil) / Christine Jensen (unrecorded)

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the Ottawa Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist, Brett Delmage. Therefore we are unable to publish photos with this review.