Christine Jensen's Multiple Personalities Expand Her Musical Repertoire

Canadian jazz saxophonist Christine Jensen has begun using a full "jazz orchestra" of up to 18 players, opening new horizons for her. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Jensen about her new album, Habitat.

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(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Christine Jensen says she has multiple personalities. She's a saxophonist, a composer, leader of a jazz group and more recently, the conductor of an 18-piece jazz orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

RATH: That requires yet another personality - a businesswoman to make a generally unprofitable venture work.

CHRISTINE JENSEN: It's not like the pop industry, where it's an investment that's going to most likely pay off. It is really hard to get it to the public unless you're touring all the time and obviously, with a big band, that's really hard.

RATH: Christine Jensen's latest album is called "Habitat." This piece, "Intersection," is the first time she'd ever attempted to write specifically for a big band.

JENSEN: At the time, I was playing a lot with sextets and quintets, and everyone said oh, that piece is so nice. You should arrange it for a big band. And I'm like, oh, my God, that's so much work. Eighteen people - that's a lot of people to think about.

Gradually, once I got comfortable doing a few things, I challenged myself to write something that creates a journey, and I was basically trying to find a concept where I was featuring many different soloists and different corners of the piece. So you hear a bit of small group to large group to solo piano. There's a lot of different textures in this piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

RATH: You're a great saxophone player, but this is not the typical jazz big band that you think of where, you know, the person is fronting and playing their own horn. You actually, when I've seen you, most of your - times, your hands are too busy conducting to be picking up a horn. Is there something about this music? Is it too difficult to conduct and play at the same time?

JENSEN: There is definitely a challenge there. It depends, I guess - you know, I think of an album; each piece, to me, is a short story and maybe I'm involved in it as a player, maybe I'm involved in it as a conductor of the music. And that word - conducting - is a very strong word for me.

So I'm in the music as the composer, conductor and sometimes, the player. But I also feel that the large ensemble jazz setting, for me, is also balancing that beautiful, spur-of-a-moment thing that happens in jazz with the soloists and with the rhythm section. And then there's this ensemble writing. So where I place the soloists or myself is all about finding a fine balance between the two things.

RATH: Well, there's one track, we get to hear you play soprano sax on. That's "Sweet Adelphi." What is it like - I know you've talked about the headspace of a composer and the headspace of an improviser being almost distinct. So what's it like smashing those two together?

JENSEN: Well, that's, I guess that's when I get to be in the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET ADELPHI")

JENSEN: "Sweet Adelphi" is also kind of one of the first pieces I wrote for Ingrid and me - my sister; she's a trumpet player, Ingrid Jensen. And I was sitting - I remember, distinctly remember sitting on the street, which is Adelphi Street in Brooklyn, in Fort Greene. And it was a beautiful spring day, and I just wrote the motive down super fast. And she was in the other room going oh, that's really pretty. Keep going.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET ADELPHI")

JENSEN: There was a few other pieces on this album where I thought I would be able to play. The first track is called "Tree Lines," and I originally thought my sister and I would be having this big conversation over this piece but in the end, I really had to conduct more than play, at that point.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ SONG)

RATH: Well, talking about your sister, Ingrid Jensen, for people who are not familiar with jazz, she's a fantastic trumpet player, has been on the scene for a while. So as you're working as the architect of this music, how do you deploy Ingrid, like in a tune like "Tree Lines?"

JENSEN: Oh, that's a good question. "Tree Lines," I found, was something where I was working on character development a little bit and how you have to balance between the soloist and the ensemble. It's a tricky thing. I think that's why some of my songs are a bit too long. (Laughter) But I find - deploying her is a great word. Every take we do I'm just trying to lay out some things for her so she can have this freedom to do what she likes on top of my music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREE LINES")

RATH: Let's talk about the track "Tumble Down." That's about your travels in Haiti. Can you talk about what inspired that piece?

JENSEN: That, I wrote quickly out of the spirit of the moment, of the sadness I felt when I heard about that devastating earthquake.

RATH: This was the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

JENSEN: Yeah, thank you, 2010. And I'd been there the previous years - a few years back, 2007 and 2008. It was a visit where I felt there was so much hope and so much of a future, in terms of infrastructure, ahead of them. I think I met the most beautiful people in my life from all my travels by going to Port-au-Prince.

And then, you know, a few years later, I'm sitting in a residency at the Banff Centre for Fine Arts, and I was trying to write some music. And I just I couldn't believe this earthquake had hit and kind of wiped out what I thought was some structure that was going to start happening in this place. So that, you know, it's amazing that there's a place this close to North America and how Third World it is, when you look at it, and to know that it went deeper into this dark place after an earthquake. But I do know that, you know, after meeting these people, they're so resilient and so positive and so beautiful that that's sort of the journey of that piece, for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "TUMBLE DOWN")

RATH: That's saxophonist, composer and band leader Christine Jensen. Her new album is called "Habitat." Christine, thank you so much. It was a blast talking with you.

JENSEN: Thank you for having me.

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