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For Unsentimental Reasons

Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and Her Contemporaries Cagily Update Jazz Tradition

Daniel Krall

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/15/2006

Ingrid Jensen performs with the Peabody Jazz Orchestra at the Peabody Institute’s East Hall Feb. 17. Gary Thomas and Exile’s Gate shares the bill with the Kush Abadey Quartet at East Hall Feb. 21.

When the Peabody Jazz Orchestra presents the music of Maria Schneider on Friday, Feb. 17, the guest soloist will be Ingrid Jensen. The trumpeter offers the perfect bridge between the Peabody Institute’s jazz majors and Schneider, who was voted the 2004 Jazz Artist of the Year in the Downbeat Critics Poll and the Jazz Journalists Association Awards—Jensen is both a part-time teacher at the Baltimore conservatory and a featured soloist in the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra.

“I’ve been in Maria’s band more than 10 years,” Jensen says. “And a lot of her pieces have changed up in the live shows since they were first recorded. So I’ll be able to bring those ideas to the mix, and maybe that will stir things up and spark some interaction. Maria goes outside the normal composition process and creates pieces that are more through-composed rather than the standard A-A-B-A big-band sort of thing that jazz so often gets trapped in. Her writing is just ridiculous—it covers tons of terrain, but it’s also very open and flowing.”

When Jensen played with the Peabody Jazz Orchestra in 2004, she cut quite a striking figure; her black-leather jacket and black bell-bottom slacks contrasted with her short, thick burst of blond hair. Unlike some guest stars, she played all the ensemble parts as well as the solos, but when she stepped forward to play a break on Thad Jones’ blistering bop tune “Fingers,” she took over the stage. She radiated a confidence that she could not only swing at that brisk tempo but also find new notes along the way. And when she switched to flugelhorn to solo on Jones’ ballad “Quiet Lady,” the surprising phrase endings hinted that the woman of the title wasn’t shy so much as deliberately enigmatic.

Jensen has appeared on Schneider’s last three albums: 2000’s Allegresse, which wound up on top-10 lists in Time and Billboard; 2004’s Concert in the Garden, which became the first self-released, internet-distributed record ever to win a Grammy; and 2005’s Days of Wine and Roses—Live at the Jazz Standard, which revisited Schneider’s earlier compositions with the new band and new arrangements. With their combination of orchestral sweep and avant-garde harmonies, these three discs represent some of the finest jazz of the decade, and Jensen enjoys prominent showcases on each. Schneider’s influence is obvious in the trumpeter’s own compositions.

“We’ve become very good friends,” Jensen says. “She encouraged me to write more and to trust my own instincts, which was great, because I wasn’t writing that much before. To play the trumpet well, you have practice all the time, so it’s a big juggling act between the composition and the horn. I don’t think my writing sounds like her, because she has inspired me to be myself.”

Last year Jensen released At Sea, her most ambitious recording yet. As the title of her pianist Geoffrey Keezer’s composition “Tea and Watercolors” implies, Jensen’s trumpet and flugelhorn have the translucent, impressionistic tone of late-’50s Miles Davis. On that tune, for example, she plays the central motif so that each repetition bleeds away at the edges like a watercolor brushstroke. Even when she steps forward to improvise variations on that theme, there’s an understated quality to her delivery, as if she were more interested in the mood of romance than the athletics of jazz competition.

Jensen, however, employs that sound in different contexts than Davis did. Her writing is more pastoral than urban, more ECM than bop, more romantic than cool. She is part of that school of jazz that has staked out the area between the retro-boppers’ worship of the past and the avant-gardists’ defiance of structure. These melodic modernists emphasize compositions that are more than just an opening head and a bridge; they write pieces that develop throughout and set stages for improvisation. This music demands players who can move easily between notation and open-ended solos and back again.

Prominent members of this school included the big-band leaders Schneider and Carla Bley, saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Chris Potter, bassists Steve Swallow and Dave Holland, Jensen’s own quartet, and her fellow faculty at Peabody, Gary Thomas and Mike Formanek. On At Sea, Jensen pays tribute to Swallow and Potter and their penchant for writing progressive music over the chord changes of old standards with “Swotterings,” a pun on their names. She used the chord progression from “I Hear a Rhapsody” to create a quirky, darting tune that sounds nothing like the old Jimmy Dorsey hit.

The album’s first four pieces were inspired by an Alaskan boat trip that Jensen and her drummer/husband, Jon Wikan, took on their honeymoon in August 2004. The opening number, Jensen’s title track, begins with Wikan’s cymbals imitating the wash of the tide and the leader’s trumpet suggesting the sound of bells and gulls echoing through fog and water. As the tune develops, it suggests the solitude and introspection often felt out on the waves at dawn or dusk. The second track, Wikan’s “Storm,” is a short, unaccompanied percussion piece that evokes the turning weather on the ocean. It segues into the third track, “Captain Jon,” Keezer’s tribute to the newly married drummer.

“The boat trip up to Alaska was like an extension of my childhood, because I grew up on Vancouver Island near the water,” Jensen says. “It reminded me how much I like being in the middle of nowhere—it was a nice contrast to the busy life I now live on the East Coast. It gave me a chance to listen to one of my favorite singers, k.d. lang, and it gave me a chance to explore a lot of melody. It’s a very changing environment out there—there are a lot of colors in the sky, and the water is always changing. I took those impressions and then explored them with my band in live improv. That’s a process I’m using more and more to write. Some passages became more airy and free, while others became more wild and tumultuous.”

Jensen grew up in Nanaimo, a bohemian community across the Strait of Georgia from Vancouver, where the high school emphasized the arts, especially music. All the music teachers in the district played jazz, and they organized a big band that played Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer charts at school concerts and swing dances on weekends. The chance to play such challenging music at such an early age yielded at least four notable jazz musicians: Jensen, singer-pianist Diana Krall, saxophonist Phil Dwyer, and Jensen’s saxophone-playing sister, Christine Jensen.

It’s not a coincidence that three of these four are women. Nanaimo is the kind of liberal West Coast town where gender equality is an assumption. The Jensen sisters grew up in a household where their music teacher mother and elementary school principal stepfather refused to acknowledge any limitations on what girls could accomplish.

“My mother was a very open spirit,” Jensen says. “She had a way of not allowing barriers into her home—it just wasn’t in her world. Her whole thing was, ‘Treat people how you want to be treated.’ My teachers were incredibly giving—they were always taping music for us and showing us licks. We didn’t do marching band. We just played jazz all the time. And there was a lot of encouragement from the community as well.

“It was mostly women, and there were a couple of guys who were the weaker players. It was the total opposite of what you see in jazz today. It wasn’t until I got to Berklee that I realized that most of the jazz world wasn’t like that. I don’t want to talk about the women issue too much, because it bores me and exhausts me, but if I were honest, I’d have to say I missed a lot of opportunities because I didn’t fit the stereotype of a trumpet player.”

Jensen graduated from Boston’s Berklee School of Music in 1989 and soon moved to Austria for two years of teaching and playing. She moved to New York for good in 1992 and made her recording debut as a leader with 1994’s Vernal Fields. That was the same year she joined the all-female DIVA Big Band and first started subbing in the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra. There were more solo albums—1997’s Here on Earth and 1999’s Higher Grounds—as well as appearances on albums by such jazz vocalists as Ethel Ennis, Chris Connor, and Roseanna Vitro. She co-founded the trio Project O with Wikan and organist Gary Versace, and they finally released Now as Then in 2003.

In 2001, tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, a member of the quintet that made Higher Grounds, invited Jensen to join the adjunct faculty he was assembling for the new jazz department at the Peabody Conservatory.

“I was reluctant because I was consumed by my own thing and by playing with Maria,” Jensen admits. “But Gary’s vision for the department was so strong that he drew me in, and now I really love it. He wanted the students to become strong musicians with individual voices rather than copying older styles. He wanted the teachers to all be working players who are traveling the world and going for it. As a result, it’s very much not like school—it’s more like professional musicians rehearsing, practicing, and finding their way.

“As a teacher, I like to create a feeling that even if someone is of lesser experience, they still have something to say. That’s something I got from my parents. Whether a student is a senior or a freshman, I hope they all feel they have to contribute to the moment. In New York, there are better players and lesser players, but it doesn’t matter so much if everyone believes they have something to say and are ready to go for it. Of course, it’s fun to play with the really top players, but I look forward to every playing situation, whether it’s with Maria’s orchestra or a bunch of fifth-graders, because if everyone listens really hard and goes for it, something amazing can happen.”

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