February 3, 2017
By Ken Waxman
“I’m still a gun for hire as long as the music is good and the pay is right,” jokes trumpeter/flugelhornist Ingrid Jensen describing her recent career. But Jensen, 51, who was brought up in Nanaimo B.C., but lives in Westchester, N.Y., now has to spread her musical gun-slinging talents among a many locations. In demand as an instructor at various international jazz schools as well as teaching individual student, she is also a regular in-demand sideperson in large groups headed by the likes of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue plus smaller bands such as Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project, not to mention her own groups, most featuring her husband, drummer Jon Wikan. One band she’s particularly invested in premiers its new CD, Infinitude (Whirlwind Records) at the Jazz Gallery this month. Besides guitarist Ben Monder, an associate from the Schneider orchestra, the other person in the front line is Jensen’s sister, Christine, a respected Montreal-based alto saxophonist and composer.
“The idea was Christine’s,” reveals Jensen. “She would come down to hear me play with the Schneider orchestra, in the ‘90s and loved the way Ben comped when I soloed. But my idea isn’t being a soloist, but to add textures to the performances.” Infinitude, is actually the fourth CD the Jensens have recorded together. Another, 2011’s Treelines (Justin Time) with Ingrid as featured soloist with Christine’s Montreal orchestra, won a JUNO award, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. Yet before comparisons with other musical Canadian siblings like the folk singing McGarrigle sisters arise, it's crucial to realize that this collaboration is fairly recent. Jensen has been following her own path since she left Nanaimo for the Berklee College of Music in 1989.
That was the turning point in starting her professional career, Jensen reveals, although she modestly claims that most of the time she merely followed suggestions made by her elders. Exposed to jazz and swing through her mother’s record collection, a young Jensen entered Nanaimo’s excellent school music program – singer/pianist Diana Krall is another alumna – and since Christine, who is four years younger, was already playing piano and an older sister played trombone, she settled on trumpet after her mother suggested playing “that Louis Armstrong instrument that I loved.” She played the instrument throughout high school and community college and even worked in a local ska band, but didn’t commit to a career until she attended one jazz summer camp in the late 1980s. Pianist Hal Galper, one of the instructors there, said it was time she challenge herself and move east. She did so and immersed herself in the recitals, student jam sessions and classes at Berklee for the next three years. Graduating she spent three months relaxing at her aunt’s home in Copenhagen, Denmark, where every night she would bicycle to local jam sessions playing standards with other musicians. Serious dues paying came when she moved to New York for a year after that, a situation that was resolved when she was asked to join the Vienna Art Special – Fe & Males, a band which featured an equal number of women and men instrumentalists. “It was a battle of the sexes and my opposite number was a guy named Bunmi who was built like a linebacker. Luckily I had been studying with [brass instructor] Laurie Frink before that. She really saved my chops and my career,” remembers Jensen.
The Vienna Art connection soon led to her becoming the youngest professor in the history of the Bruckner Conservatory in Linz, Austria, which also gave her a chance to play with such jazz masters as Al Grey, Art Farmer and Clark Terry who were touring Europe. Terry helped line up her first leader CD with Enja records. Soon afterwards, when she realize that some of the Bruckner students were older than she, and it was time to concentrate on her own playing and composing, Jensen relocated back to New York, jobbed and recorded with such respected players as saxophonist Gary Thomas and drummers Victor Lewis and Bill Stewart. At the same time she joined the all-female DIVA big band which “gave us lots of potential to play until your face falls off”. Soon she was working steadily, worldwide, with her own and other bands.
Teaching was put on hold until about a decade ago when Thomas asked her to teach trumpet part-time at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory. She then filled a similar position at the University of Michigan. Today she teaches a few selected trumpet and composition students at nearby Purchase College, SUNY, and travels as a guest artist to other academic intuitions, where student ensembles play her compositions and arrangements. “When I teach the idea is for everyone to listen to come up with better ideas,” she states.
Her professional affiliation with Christine came about during this century, when she heard some of her sister’s compositions and decided to record them. “At that point they sounded like the compositions of Kenny Wheeler, who I was trying to write like at the time,” she recalls. Eventually she and Christine began playing and recording together, leading to the creation of the Infinitude band. All three principles write for the group, whose music Jensen describes as existing like the sculpture waiting underneath a piece of stone for the chisel to expose it. To give the band an individual sound, besides Mender’s electric guitar stylings, Jensen uses electronics attached to her trumpet. She initially began using loops to bring something different to the Schneider orchestra and has continued to use effects when warranted.
When it comes to her own bands, she has a group of players she regularly calls upon, some females, but mostly males. “I love to play with women if they have, say, the skill and stamina of Bill Stewart or Victor Lewis. But I don’t feel I should have to go backwards in the level of the music I play just because of political correctness,” she avers. Every player in Fe & Males was there because of his or her talent, not looks or for tokenism. That’s why, although she’s been part of many all-women ensembles, Jensen states. “You couldn’t pay me enough to be in an all-female band that isn’t any good – and I’d have to wear high heels.”
That said she’s still helping nurture other young female jazz musicians. For instance, during the past three years she has taught at Geri Allen's All-Female Jazz Residency in New Jersey. This camp for female instrumentalist aged 15 to 23 is designed to “give them more confidence and kick their butts,” she explains. The target ages are those during which when most female instrumentalists give up playing. “They’re more self-conscious in their playing,” she relates “It’s part of our body make-up. When boys play a bad solo they just go on to the next one, but girls aren’t like that,”
At least these budding players have role models like Jensen to show them what can be achieved.
•Vienna Art Special – Fe & Males (Amado 1992)
•Ingrid Jensen – Vernal Fields (Enja 1995)
•Ingrid Jensen – Here on Earth (Enja 1997)
•Christine Jensen – A Shorter Distance (Effendi Records 2002)
•Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra– Treelines ( Justin Time 2011)
•Christine & Ingrid Jensen with Ben Monder – Infinitude (Whirlwind Recordings 2017)
—For The New York City Jazz Record February 2017