Christine and Ingrid Jensen: “There’s no reason to compromise on the level of music just to make up for issues of integrating”

Selwyn Harris
Friday, November 29, 2019

Canadians Ingrid and Christine Jensen are among the most well-known siblings in jazz. Renowned instrumentalists and bandleaders in their own right since the 1990s, they’ve contributed to the bands of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue, among others. They speak to Selwyn Harris about their special relationship, musical inspirations and gender equality issues

Ingrid and Christine Jensen (photo: Randy Cole)
Ingrid and Christine Jensen (photo: Randy Cole)

Growing up in a musical family on the West Coast of Canada, the Jensen sisters have subsequently set out on separate paths of development as jazz artists. Though in every sense internationalists, the trumpeter/flugelhornist Ingrid, the older of the two at 53, has spent most of her time nurturing her craft in New York while 49-year-old saxophonist Christine has done the same in Montreal. Ironically perhaps, this situation seems to bring out the best in them whenever they do eventually come together.

“We say jazz music is a community, and it is a very communal music, but when you have family involved and you’re even connected from a genetic place, as I am with my sister, there’s a very rich exchange that happens between the two of us.” says Ingrid Jensen on a line from New York. “Some of it is spoken, some of it is seriously just communicated from a higher place without words. We happen, as well, to have similar tastes yet we have different influences because of where we spent our time developing our crafts. The older we get, the more we work on our own music and our own scenes, the more exciting it is when we meet up. It’s like a really great family reunion without any kind of extra drama. We have a lot of great collaborative energy between us.”

“We keep going at it,” adds Christine, who’s in Montreal. “It’s a relationship that we keep working on and strengthening. Sometimes I think of it like we’re off in our own corner researching through all the experience we have with other musicians and then we get together and have a unique thing because of sharing so much music together through our lives.”

They were working in tandem again in mid-November, leading the brand new Whirlwind Jazz Orchestra on a short tour of UK and Ireland that took in Southampton’s Turner Sims, Birmingham CBSO, and venues in Cork, Leeds and Sheffield before climaxing in the Purcell Room at the EFG London Jazz Festival. It was the US-born bassist and Whirlwind Recordings gaffer Michael Janisch who initially proposed they get together to arrange orchestral versions of originals mostly from Ingrid’s 2017 release Infinitude that featured guitarist Ben Monder. They both have form in a large ensemble setting. Ingrid has a wealth of orchestral experience running close to two decades in the distinguished orchestras of the Gil Evans-influenced Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue. Alongside Christine’s award-winning big band album projects Treelines and Habitat, recorded earlier in the decade, Janisch’s proposal was a no-brainer.

“Ingrid and I have tended to take quite a bit of our music and re-orchestrate it for large ensembles in both our careers,” says Christine. “So it made for a perfect fit and I just love working with anyone from the UK jazz scene because they’re all such amazing musicians.”

One they hold in particularly high esteem is the late Kenny Wheeler, a fellow Canadian who spent much of his life in the UK. Last year Ingrid demonstrated her kinship to the revered Wheeler with her elegantly smouldering, yet fragile-toned, trumpeter-flugelhorn on the stirring tribute album Invisible Sounds, partnering saxophonist Steve Treseler.

“You can put on one of his albums from the 1970s and it still sounds very much aligned with the relevance of our music scene today,” says Ingrid, following an endless outburst of superlatives about the trumpeter-composer. “It’s not just a stylistic thing. It’s actually beautiful art. Wonderfully enriching harmony, interesting melodies and daring solos that are not trying to fit in any specific genre. I would say free without being completely free music in that style, but definitely based on a feeling of playing music which I prefer to play, with some organisation but a lot of room for expression. We grew up with a pretty straight-ahead big band tradition when I was coming up in the high school system in British Columbia on the West Coast. But there was something about Kenny’s music which I had a connection to. It could be that Canadian landscape thing, or just the musicians who I was studying with at the time who were strong classical as well as jazz players.”

“He’s a huge inspiration for me, particularly his Music For Large and Small Ensembles,” says Christine. “He inspired me with his very lyrical qualities and interesting sound he gets from the quality of harmony and rhythm, which creates a kind of a template. I like working with templates and then being able to expand or contract these templates depending on the ensemble we’re working with.”

The European connection runs deep. For example, Ingrid spent a few years as a professor in a university in Austria after graduating from Berkelee and among other collaborations the two sisters co-lead the Scandi ensemble Nordic Connect.

“The older I get the more I realise that America has its music and that is jazz, while Europe has jazz but also has many other things going on that are progressive and being formed through our world-changing borders, for lack of a better term,” says Christine. “I think there’s a different approach to music because you have so many different cultural entities involved in Europe, whereas America’s more of a new immigrant situation and Canada sits between because we’re also French and English and we have a different social structure than the States. Maybe that’s part of my affinity to Europe too. But it’s hard to talk to you in England about that right now.”

Indeed it is. It’s only part of a disturbing new world order in which borders are rising at an alarming rate between states, ‘identity’ groups and political ideologies. Oddly enough in other areas the opposite has occurred with boundaries becoming more fluid, notably on issues of gender. Jazz isn’t immune from the demands of the zeitgeist and increasing the amount of women performing the music is now top of the agenda. Though I found Ingrid especially reluctant to split jazz musicians along gender lines, both of them are in a good position to have observed the changes taking place since emerging in the early 1990s, a time when female jazz musicians were more likely to be seen holding a vocal mic than an instrument.

“I think it’s changed drastically in the last 35 years,” says Ingrid. “I got to New York in the mid-1990s and nowadays I pull up my Instagram and see young female trumpet players all over the world logging themselves playing along with some pretty challenging solos. The social media thing has really accelerated the opportunities for people to feel validated as strong players. It took a long time, we’re not there yet. It’s going to take a long time before we see a balanced band, like a big band that’s half women, half men and possibly a number of other mixed genders in there as well. That’s taking time because this music is still fairly young. At least in the scene that I travel in, there’s no reason to compromise on the level of music just to make up for issues of integrating. But at the same time those of us who blazed a few trails here and there are very conscious of how things need a little nudge, to say the least, once in a while. In my teaching I deal with a lot of wonderful new energies, men and women who are really enlightened and don’t even see or hear the gender difference anymore. The attitude is getting better. There’s still those elder statesmen holding on to the way jazz is supposed to look. But that’s just propaganda from back in the day. I think that has to finally be replaced by images of beautiful sexy women playing their arses off, as well as men sweating onstage.”

“We have nearly half women in this [Whirlwind] band and I did a similar thing in Canada in July with a big band,” says Christine. “I think the younger generation feels like it has more of a connection, no matter how they describe themselves, to the music because of it.”

So do we draw the line at encouragement and support, or lean over into enforcement? It’s the latter in the case of many jazz festivals/organisations that are now signed up to a 50-50 gender balance by 2022. Yet, as is pointed out by drummer Jeff Williams’ wife/author Lionel Shriver in an article written a year ago for The Spectator titled ‘Jazz is Dominated by Men. So What?’, it’s a parity that’s still not at all reflected in the conservatoire intake and suggests compromising standards as well as risking discrimination against high quality male musicians.

“I think it’s dangerous territory actually,” says Ingrid. “As I said, it’s a very young music and it takes a long time to get good at it. That’s not to say that the 50-50 balance can’t work, but it depends on where you live and how much support there is in the school system or higher up, who is qualified to be leading a band or to be showing up and presenting music. The qualification should be that it sounds as good as the top level of music that’s out there, whether that’s by a man or a woman.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

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