Christine Jensen ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Christine Jensen ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Christine Jensen is looking forward to working with noticeably different musical voices in the jazz orchestra she'll lead at the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival.

The saxophonist and composer has generally looked to a familiar group of Montreal musicians for her JUNO-winning jazz orchestra. But the orchestra she'll unveil next Tuesday in the NAC Studio contains musicians from Toronto and Ottawa as well, with many more women players, and will showcase the music of five women jazz composers besides herself.

It's a an 18-piece big band Jensen has brought together especially for the festival. It's billed as the “= Jazz Orchestra & Christine Jensen” – a name Jensen is not altogether happy with. The '=' refers to the festival's focus this year on women in music; the orchestra has eight female and ten male musicians, a much higher ratio than average in big bands.

“I wish I could rename it. But at the same time, it was all about trying to get an equal balance of gender diversity or gender balance between the band on the stage in a large ensemble. So that was the equal part and I’m the artistic director of it.”

Prominent in the orchestra are noted Canadian jazz musicians: pianist Marianne Trudel on piano, saxophonists Tara Davidson, Anna Webber, and Allison Au, and trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy – plus younger musicians Emily Denison on trumpet and Claire Devlin on sax. Jensen said having more women in the orchestra creates “a really strong, balanced community in the music.”

“I really enjoy it when there are more women on stage working together in these large ensembles. It really changes the dynamic a lot.”

It's also a three-city orchestra. From Montreal comes drummer Richard Irwin and trumpeter Jocelyn Couture from Jensen's own orchestra, plus bassist Adrian Vedady, Trudel, and Webber. From Toronto come Au, Davidson, Hennessy, and trombonists William Carn, Kelsley Grant, and Colin Murray. From Ottawa come guitarist Steve Bilodeau, trumpeter Nick Dyson, trombonist Mark Ferguson, and baritone saxophonist Richard Page. Devlin and Denison are both originally from Ottawa but now live in Montreal.

Jensen said she and festival programming director Petr Cancura picked the orchestra members. “We really wanted it also to not be a Toronto-centric band or a Montreal-centric band” but also include Ottawa.

“It’s a bit of a triangle between Ottawa and Toronto and Montreal. So it’s not a band that’s been together before. It’s a new band. And it’s great because the Ottawa Festival is giving us the opportunity to try something new and experiment.”

She also wanted to include creative younger players like Denison and Devlin, “so there’s going to be this nice sort of mentoring that can happen within the orchestra.”

Another consideration was whether the musicians would already be playing other concerts at the festival. “So a celebration of the voice of these musicians that are creating new music at a really high level and we’re lucky to have them so let’s take advantage of this opportunity of presenting something. That's going to really reflect a new tone or a new voice in the music.”

The orchestra's members are already “working individually on all our parts and sharing of music,” Jensen said. They'll have a full day of rehearsals Monday before the Tuesday concert.

Emily Denison ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Emily Denison ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Jensen has won two JUNO awards for recordings with her own large-scale jazz orchestra, is one of three conductors of the 18+-member l’Orchestre national de jazz de Montréal, and directs the student Orchestra I at McGill University.

She emphasized that this jazzfest orchestra will reflect more than her own musical voice. “It’s going to be a concert of shared sound! Definitely.”

It's a “repertory” ensemble, she said, with Trudel, Davidson, Hennessy, and Webber also contributing compositions. Hennessy will bring in a new piece, Jensen will add in some of her newer compositions, and Davidson will expand a piece from her nonet with William Carn.

“It’s like building new repertoire. One of my goals with this orchestra is just presenting new repertoire with a different point of view that we don't hear enough. So it’s not just my music, but the band I put together. It's about sharing ideas collectively.”

They'll also include a piece by American composer Carla Bley.

“I’ve somehow become trapped in her music in the past year (laughing) because last summer she was supposed to play at the Montreal Jazz Festival with l’Orchestre national [de jazz de Montréal]. Unfortunately she became very ill just before, and there wasn't enough time to reschedule or cancel, and they instead decided to ask me to come and conduct all of her music. And I was just like, well I really like her music and I know a little bit about it. The next thing I knew I was spending two weeks immersed learning an evening’s worth of music and realizing how prolific she is.”

“And then I just recently did a presentation on her large ensemble music at a composers symposium I was at. It is really quite remarkable how strong her voice alone is in this music and how she comes off of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus into her own voice. And that, when I say “cover voices”, this is one of them. We don’t play her repertoire in repertoire bands enough.”

Jensen will bring a new all-female New York Quartet to the Montreal Jazz Festival next month. She said she had originally tried to bring that group to the Ottawa festival, but the dates didn't work for the other musicians. At the same time, she said, Cancura wanted “to get a band that would play repertoire that had a lot more content from female composers in jazz, which is not done enough. And to also include some really great improvising musicians that are also just great bandmates to work with.”

They brainstormed, and Jensen was inspired by her experience putting together a new jazz orchestra for the Oscar Peterson International Jazz Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in February.

“I put together a band from Toronto – and it was kind of fun because I got to start from new and it’s so interesting because you when you get to start from new you get to start with a new pool of musicians and I discovered so many great talents by doing this. And some of them will be in this band as well. It totally inspired me to really think about a bigger picture and not just doing the norm that I’ve always been doing which is asking my friends who we should play with and we get the same people all the time (laughing).”

Jensen agreed that an orchestra with a large number of very capable women musicians was a role model for young women jazz musicians.

“I think that’s a really big part of it, for sure. For me, growing up, I didn't really see a lot of women in big bands that were playing instruments, like wind instruments especially.”

Jensen teaches at McGill University and is a regular clinician with student groups. She said that getting more women into jazz and playing in orchestras and big bands “all starts in the classroom. And it starts at a young age. It starts with the visual. The visual and the sound and knowing that anyone can do it. So just as young as possible getting the exposure of seeing, again, that more gender balance on the stage. It’s so important. It’s happened in the classical world more and I think in jazz and pop it can happen some more.”

“But there’s also the girl bands which are cool too because they have found a safe space to work in that they’re really comfortable with, that has its own direction.”

Claire Devlin ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Claire Devlin ©Brett Delmage, 2019

In 2017, Jensen was a guest artist in a concert with the Seattle Womens’ Jazz Orchestra. “That one, that’s a real community. They work really hard to promote the voice of women in music, again, which is sometimes neglected in jazz. If you think about, like just put out the words “jazz orchestra” or big band repertoire, who are the names that come up right away? So it’s breaking that stigma of what it should sound like based on the past, although those are really strong fundamentals we need to work with but where can we take the music again with the addition of female voice.”

One factor that has led to more women playing in classical orchestras is the introduction of blind auditions where those judging can't tell whether a musician is male or female. Jensen said she wasn't sure if that could work yet in jazz in Canada.

“I don't know if we’re there yet because it’s still a very small pool. I think in the States it’s getting there. We also don’t have these national organizations of funding in jazz. Everything’s very individually supported. So in that sense it’s a little harder to throw down a blind audition on any ensemble in jazz because it’s generally we have the freedom to do what we want. That’s the point of the music. Sometimes (laughing). You want to play with people that you identify with somehow.”

“So we don’t have that administrative angle to blind auditions. However we do have ears and we have to keep looking around us and supporting voices that may not get covered if we don’t do things like this.”

Jensen said she's been drawn to larger jazz ensembles, and the density of their sound, since she was a teenager.

“I used to play in them, and I thought it was so exciting to be in the music and to be an inner part of the music. And then I started to become a bit more of a soloist or playing the lead lines of some of the parts and realizing what a tremendous force the sound of a large ensemble can give you. And how you have so much more choice in sound the more people you put on stage. But it’s also organized music so you have to organize it a little bit, in order to get your message across as a composer. So it’s really, I came into it as a player and I came out the other side I think as a composer.”

“Also this is music that comes from the dance band, and that’s how I started playing it. We were playing dance band music in the 80s (laughing), my sister and I, in a local band. It just stayed with me. And I have never been able to shake it. I love playing small ensembles also equally. But there’s something really fun about putting together a larger group of musicians and really working on creating a mood and a sound that is under a microscope a little more.”

The '=' Jazz Orchestra

  • Christine Jensen - musical director, saxophone
  • Marianne Trudel - piano
  • Adrian Vedady - bass
  • Rich Irwin - drums
  • Steve Bilodeau - guitar
  • Tara Davidson - alto saxophone
  • Allison Au - alto saxophone
  • Anna Webber - tenor saxophone
  • Claire Devlin - tenor saxophone
  • Richard Page - baritone saxophone
  • Jocelyn Couture - trumpet
  • Nick Dyson - trumpet
  • Emily Denison - trumpet
  • Rebecca Hennessy - trumpet
  • Mark Ferguson - trombone
  • Kelsley Grant - trombone
  • William Carn - trombone
  • Colin Murray - bass trombone

The '=' Jazz Orchestra performs in the NAC Studio at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 25, 2019.

Read related stories on OttawaJazzScene.ca