For a few years now, it’s been pedal to the metal for Christine Jensen, the Montréal-based saxophonist, composer and bandleader. Besides splitting her timebetween touring and recording sessions, whether with small or big bands, she teaches at McGill University and Université de Sherbrooke, while her compositions are played by musicians the world over. And her work is far from incognito, as attest the numerous awards and recognitions such as a few JUNOs, and the Hagood Hardy Award she received at the 2015 Montréal SOCAN Awards ceremony.
Born in Nanaimo, British Columbia – also home to Canadian jazz greats Diana Krall and Phil Dwyer – she grew up in a very musical family; as a matter of fact, her sister Ingrid is a renowned trumpet player who often shares the stage with Christine. “We didn’t have TV at home, but we had a piano and a record player, and that was our playground,” says Jensen. “We grew up surrounded with music and we shared the same influences, and that created a very symbiotic relationship between us. We understand each other without having to say a word, and we always make music with great pleasure.”
“Music always comes first for me, even it means that I have to take a step back.”
When she started out, she already knew music would be at the centre of her life, but she didn’t think it would be as a composer. Modestly, she pictured herself as a teacher, a role she happily plays nowadays. “I know it’s a cliché, but teaching truly is a learning experience for the teacher, too,” says Jensen. “I’ve never been very academic, but I love being confronted by all those young musicians; they force me to constantly question the way I approach music.”
Besides her penchant for teaching, Jensen has also made more and more time for another aspect of her busy career: composing for large orchestras, and directing them — whether her own, or, on occasion, with the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montréal. “It’s opened so many doors for me,” she says. “I’m mostly from a small-band background, which leaves a lot of space for being spontaneous, and improvisation, and I’ve kept that intimate and spontaneous approach in my compositions for larger orchestras.”
So, something like a “little big band”? “I guess,” says Jensen, laughing. “A large orchestra offers such endless possibilities! When I compose, I have this or that musician in mind, to the specific vibe they can bring to the piece – and I find that very inspiring. I imagine this or that part played by Chet Doxas, or Joel Miller [her husband], or my sister, and the way they play brings a new layer to the piece.” Fine, but does the composing side of her reserve the nicest solos for her musician side? “No, on the contrary,” she says. “Music always comes first for me, even it means that I have to take a step back.”
If you haven’t yet had a chance to see her onstage, there’s always her impressive discography, starting with Habitat, released in 2013. It’s an evocative, exhilarating record created with her big band, that the prestigious Downbeat magazine rated five out of five stars. It’s nothing short of a love letter to Montréal.
Besides the exceptional quality of her recordings, Jensen believes, like so many of her jazz peers, that the studio experience is completely different and, in some respects, inferior, to the magic of a live concert. “It’s hard, because I compose in a way that leaves as much space as possible to the musicians in order to make sure that each concert is different,” she says. “Jazz is a living matter, and you need to accept that on record you’ll only have but one version out of the infinite possibilities. But if you don’t want to become anxious about the recording studio, all you need to do is let go and live for the moment. What’s beautiful about it, though, is that once you get back onstage, you can go back to creating new moments.”
The way things are going, Jensen will no doubt keep on creating many more magic moments – for both her pleasure and ours.