= Jazz Orchestra + Christine Jensen
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre, Studio
Tuesday, June 25, 2019 – 7 p.m.

Women can wield a mean horn and write a fine jazz composition – and the '=' Jazz Orchestra concert at the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival showed them fully exercising those abilities.

Directed by saxophonist Christine Jensen, an accomplished composer in her own right, the 90+-minute show featured jazz pieces written by six women. They were performed by a big band brought together especially for this one-time concert, with eight women and ten men.

It was an compelling and highly rewarding evening.

Jensen had asked four other women in the band to provide music for the orchestra. She added two of her own pieces, plus one by noted American composer Carla Bley. It was consistently complex music, with several musicians doubling on different instruments and constantly changing combinations of sounds – as Jensen told the audience, “There's such a huge spectrum of notes and music with this band!”

The musicians came from Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, and many of them had not played together before. They only had a day's rehearsal together, but appeared confident and enjoying the music.

Bley's “On the Stage in Cages” set the tone for the show with its multiple passages and layers, and its ambitious design. 13 minutes in length, it allowed several soloists to shine: tenor saxophonist Anna Webber, trumpeter Emily Denison, alto saxophonist Allison Au, and trombonist Mark Ferguson. It was an attention-getting and often-jagged melancholy piece in many contrasting voices, with Webber's noir-ish full lines on tenor and Ferguson's finely-controlled and valedictory trombone particular standouts.

Tara Davidson originally recorded “Code Breaking” with her quintet. Toronto musician Andy Ballantyne expanded it for Davidson's and William Carn's nonet, and then rearranged it again for this 18-piece orchestra. It was a vivid composition, featuring a pointed and intense alto sax solo from Davidson, a slow and emphatic trombone solo from Carn, a fast, grooving drum solo from Rich Irwin, and repeated floods of sound from the entire band – becoming brighter and brighter and more intense before ending abruptly.

Jensen told the audience that one of her favourite collaborations in her life was with pianist Marianne Trudel, in groups like l'Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal. “We've gone deep into some of our music together.” The orchestra performed two of Trudel's pieces from her suite “Dans la Forêt de Ma Mémoire”, which she premiered with l'Orchestre National in 2014.

The opening of “Vent solaire” reminded me of the faint rustling of animals in a forest. Mysterious and magical, it first had Trudel playing on muted strings inside her piano in quick, separated salvos, followed by otherworldly flute lines from Webber and light chiming piano notes from Trudel. The trumpets built up, like a burgeoning wind, along with light sunny guitar from Steve Bilodeau. Then it swerved 180 degrees into a fast and atonal vibe, with a raw-edged trumpet solo from Rebecca Hennessy and an ominous and powerful tenor sax solo from Webber – before swerving again to Davidson's serene flute and a final fanfare from the whole orchestra.

Trudel's second piece, “Soon”, began as a rousing and hopeful piece, expressed through Jensen on soprano sax and Trudel on piano over the orchestra. Partway through it became chaotic and disturbing, with squeaks and terrified-sounding vibrating sax lines, pounding drums, and commanding piano – and then it returned to its original feel. Trudel's piano and Vedady's echoing bass created a happier mood, eventually enhanced by trombone and soprano sax into a flowing and satisfying anthemic close.

“Swirlaround” was a piece Jensen had played in several different contexts, including her latest album with her sister Ingrid, Infinitude. It was a melodic and full-bodied piece which involved the entire orchestra, and in particular Steve Bilodeau on guitar and Jensen herself on soprano sax. The music soared and dipped as the two alternately soloed over the orchestra: reflective saxophone from Jensen and knife-edged expressive guitar from Bilodeau. Then they played together, their lines complementing and twining around each other until the music slowly faded away. It was a beautiful piece where all the pieces fitted well together, and deserved the very strong applause it received.

Anna Webber conducted her own composition, “Climbing on Mirrors”, which featured Au on alto sax, Davidson on flute, and Jensen on soprano sax. It was a dramatic piece which opened with hypnotically-circling riff and built that riff into a steadily more lively full orchestral sound, over which the soloists played elegiac and intense long lines. Near the end, the pace picked up, with Irwin driving it the accented rhythm on drums, and the entire orchestra joyously called out in bright fanfares and then slowing to an immersive melody. The piece ended with Vedady's taking up the melody on bowed bass and the orchestra singing wordlessly along, with great solemnity. The audience gave it very strong applause and cheers.

Rebecca Hennessy contributed a brand-new composition, “Dig Up the Stories”, to this concert. A thoughtful piece, almost Debussy-like in its opening, it included a warm alto solo from Davidson, shimmering flute from Webber, and swept to a sad yet optimistic close.

The concert ended with Jensen's “Wink”, a piece I've heard played in large and small ensembles. This version included a growling and muted trombone solo from Kelsley Grant with strong and echoing drums behind, a flying-fingered and assured tenor sax solo from Claire Devlin, bluesy electric guitar lines from Bilodeau, and a trumpet solo from Jocelyn Couture whose notes seemed to bounce off the ceiling. Brassy and a bit funky, the tune ended the concert in a burst of energy.

The audience had been applauding strongly throughout the show, and immediately responded with an extended standing ovation. Jensen hugged Trudel and Bilodeau, and the entire orchestra appeared elated.

I hope Jensen will continue to collaborate with the musicians in this orchestra; there was clearly a simpatico among many of them. Not many musicians have the daring to undertake such challenging and complicated pieces, and perform them so well. What they showed in this concert is that showcasing talented Canadian women jazz musicians is not only laudable – it produces excellent results!

Set List

  1. On the Stage in Cages [Carla Bley]
  2. Code Breaking [Tara Davidson, arranged for big band by Andy Ballantyne]
  3. Dans la Forêt de Ma Mémoire: II. Vent Solaire [Marianne Trudel]
  4. Swirlaround [Christine Jensen]
  5. Climbing on Mirrors [Anna Webber]
  6. Dig Up the Stories [Rebecca Hennessy]
  7. Dans la Forêt de Ma Mémoire: VI. Soon [Marianne Trudel]
  8. Wink [Christine Jensen]

The '=' Jazz Orchestra:

  • Christine Jensen - Musical Director, saxophone
  • Marianne Trudel - piano
  • Adrian Vedady - bass
  • Rich Irwin - drums
  • Steve Bilodeau - guitar
  • Tara Davidson - alto sax
  • Alison Au - 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
  • Colin Murray - bass trombone

Photos of this performance are not available because the Ottawa Jazz Festival denied OttawaJazzScene.ca's request for news media accreditation for founder, journalist and photojournalist Brett Delmage for the 9th consecutive year.

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