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A more equal music
Christine Jensen's Equal=Orchestra questions a stack of assumptions
In 2019 Petr Cancura, who programs the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, asked the Montreal saxophonist and composer Christine Jensen whether she would lead an all-women big band at that year’s festival. It made sense. Jensen is probably the most prominent resident large-ensemble bandleader in Canadian jazz. She is often the only woman in the band, but she’s also played in all-female contexts, often with her sister, the trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.
This time something about Cancura’s offer didn’t agree with her. She gave Cancura a counter-offer: She would lead a big band that was gender-balanced. Half men and half women.
Sometimes a modest idea provokes a thorough rethink of assumptions. Instead of segregating, women would lead alongside valued male colleagues. Jensen invited the Toronto saxophonist Tara Davidson and her husband, trombonist William Carn. Davidson would play lead alto. Davidson has been a fixture on the Toronto jazz scene for 20 years but she had hardly ever played lead alto in a big band. It’s the highest voice in a five-piece saxophone section. It sets tone and phrasing cues for the other reeds. It coordinates rhythmically with the lead trumpeter and the lead trombonist. It’s a leadership role. It doesn’t often go to women.
The piano chair went to Marianne Trudel, who is on the jazz faculty at McGill University with Jensen and who performs in contexts ranging from solo to big band. The new gender-parity ensemble, which Jensen eventually named Equal=Orchestra, had male players in key roles — bassist Adrian Vedady, drummer Rich Irwin, all four trombonists. But it plays music by women composers: Jensen, of course, but also Davidson and Trudel.
COVID-19 threw a wrench in the evolution of what would, by nature, be only an occasional project for all hands, but finally the Equal=Orchestra played a second concert, in Montreal a year ago. That concert was recorded. The resulting album, Equal=Orchestra, was released last week on the usual digital platforms. Video of the songs was released on Youtube. Here’s Trudel’s composition Soon, imbued with a melodic generosity that runs through much of her music:
How hard is it to be a woman in jazz, anchored as that music still is to late nights in clubs and long miles on the road? Obviously it’s never been impossible: from pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong in the 1920s to trombonist and arranger Melba Liston in the 1960s, women instrumentalists have always been present. Regina-born pianist Renee Rosnes was a fixture in a quartet led by saxophone legend Joe Henderson in the 1980s, in which Henderson was the only man.
But the weight of inherited assumption can be hard to shake. “Things are getting better, definitely,” Trudel said. “But it’s very present, still, in a subtle way. We’re still very few women doing this. And I’m so happy when there are initiatives like this to just basically give space.”
“The more elite it gets with the music, the fewer women there are hanging out,” said Jensen, who frequently tours abroad and has received commissions to write for ensembles around the world. “And there are reasons for that… You’re always playing with people who are better than you, and better than you, and when you start to become alone, you start to have a harder time.”
Representing as a woman in mostly-male contexts is something Jensen has always been willing to do. Playing with other women, as Ingrid Jensen does in the all-star collective Artemis, offers another perspective. “But to me, this other route is just so refreshing,” she said of the Equal=Orchestra. Everybody feels it, as a community, in the room. That there’s this new strength.”
I wanted to tell you about this project for a few reasons. First, I’ve been taking every opportunity to talk and write about Christine Jensen’s music for 20 years now, because she’s one of the most compelling voices in Canadian music. Second, because something of this project’s special atmosphere comes across on the album. Everybody, women and men, plays with particular care. The three composers’ languages are compatible, Trudel’s more impressionistic, Davidson’s perhaps more direct, but all in a similar, deeply engaging vein.
The proceedings are imbued with a sense of palpable, I’d say audible, gratitude — probably due as much to a trick of timing as to the gender makeup of the band. May 2021 was an early moment of relative respite from the pandemic. It was one of the first attempts by the presenting organization, the Orchestre national de jazz de Montréal, to stage a live concert during the pandemic. The musicians sat far away from one another and, when playing permitted, wore masks.
But the mood among the musicians wasn’t tentative. Playing with any frequency in a big band — line upon line of trumpets, trombones and saxophones, backed by piano, bass, drums and guitar — is almost a silly thing to do, given the vanishingly low likelihood of anyone paying so many musicians what their work is worth. Musicians do it anyway, for the companionship, the orchestral possibilities, the palpable link to the music’s Kansas City dance-hall roots and to almost every player’s apprenticeship in a high-school band room. COVID took that away from every musician in the world, on a few days’ notice, and by 2021 everyone was heartily sick of trying to compensate by editing together Zoom videos from their living rooms.
At the second Equal=Orchestra concert, “I felt the joy of coming together again,” Trudel said. “Of making music again.”
“I don’t know about you guys,” Davidson told Jensen and Trudel, “but I remember feeling a little choked up, several times during the performance. Like, ‘Yay, we got to do it, and here we are.’”
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One more thing that’s worth emphasizing about the Equal=Orchestra concept is that it was presented, in Montreal, under the aegis of the Orchestre national de jazz de Montréal, which would translate as the “Montreal National Jazz Orchestra.” Here’s another organization that could use a higher profile. It was created 10 years ago by Jacques Laurin, who was active as a bassist in the 1970s and 1980s before setting up shop as an instigator, organizer, manager, grant applicant and support pipeline for an array of Montreal musicians.
The ONJM is built around a big band with varying personnel, constantly rotating leadership, and mandates that change with each concert. But it provides something jazz hasn’t often had anywhere, and less often in Canada in the last 20 years: a measure of institutional permanence. Whoever’s leading it this month, whoever the guest artists are, whatever the idiom — pop to avant garde to repertory; Jensen and Trudel have each recorded albums of their original music as leaders of the ONJM — Laurin makes sure there’s rehearsal space, social media accounts, a mailing address for grant money, and a thread of conceptual continuity.
For musicians who are used to doing all the work if they are going to get any work, this is luxury. Jensen is used to organizational heavy lifting, but in our Friday conversation she sounded tired of it, and she’s earned the right to be tired. A symphony orchestra has a vast support apparatus so the musicians don’t have to worry about much except playing. Jazz musicians typically don’t. It’s one reason why, a week after its release, Jensen, Trudel and Davidson still hadn’t heard the Equal=Orchestra album. They’ve been too busy working.
“There’s a point where the organization actually has to have some sort of management,” Jensen said. “And none of us has management. So hats off to [Laurin] for this vision. It’s a long-term vision.
“That’s also why we can do this project of Equal=Orchestra. I can’t do it on my own. A single mom, trying to just make a living, putting that together? There’s no way.”
The group’s name, Equal=Orchestra, is more aspirational than accurate, the musicians acknowledge. There aren’t many musicians of colour in the band. There’s not enough of an age range. Jensen is in her 50s and her first-call colleagues are contemporaries, though the alto saxophonist Caoilainn Power, a generation younger, helped balance things out.
“It’s not equal. We’re trying to get to that,” Jensen said. “That’s kind of implied in the name.” But music is supposed to be aspirational. On a good day, the aspiration is part of the sound of the music. It sure is here.
This is the first entry in Positive Jam, a new arts section within the Paul Wells newsletter. I’ll post here infrequently but it’s an important outlet for me. If you’d rather not receive these arts pieces, you can opt out from Positive Jam and continue to receive the rest of the newsletter’s content.