Artist Blog

Christine Jensen: Character Development in Composition

I grew up in a house full of love of melody. My mother was an accomplished pianist, performing everything from Chopin to cowboy tunes, and I was pushed through piano lessons that were full of the works of classical composing masters. My sister Ingrid was always interpreting melodies on the trumpet, and my oldest sister Janet was consistently keeping us in check of the current Top 40 hits on the radio, all full of melody. These are all scenes that added to my character development as a musician. Once I switched to saxophone I started playing in the school big band, where I aspired to play like Phil Woods and Cannonball Adderley as a soloist. They really knew how to project their gorgeous sounds through phrases full of melody.

Through my university studies, I was pushed to be the best player possible, and was given the tools to improvise by understanding concepts of jazz harmony. The lights went on once I really applied myself to voice leading between each vertical harmonic movement. It was so exciting to hear rich harmony connect through close relationships in jazz, and a bonus seeing it move on the piano. My ears opened up, shooting me into the world of composition. If I were to sum up my life as a musician, I am constantly intertwining the act of composition and improvisation, with composition being improvisation slowed down, and improvisation being composition sped up at lightning speed. Masters of improvisation always humble and inspire me for this reason.

All jazz composers that I have really researched have developed their own process. I hope I can share a bit of mine here. I am only scratching the surface on elements that I try to apply in my process of creating a new story.

Some starting notes about character development in my approach to composition:

  • I love creating melodic statements in the way that they become leading characters in a story. Once I have created a character statement, I look toward my harmonic and rhythmic palette in terms of support. However, melody, rhythm and harmony are all interchangeable in terms of the conception of my character. For example, I may first come up with a harmonic movement or a rhythmic idea that is the basis in creating the piece. I credit my lessons with Jim McNeely, both privately and with BMI, where he encouraged me to be aware of character entrances (and possible exits).
  • As an eternal student in the study of composition, I am constantly trying to expand my palette of colour through harmony and rhythm. I want each character to take a voyage that is full of interesting twists and turns in its development. In my journey as a jazz composer and improviser, I continue to research harmonic and rhythmic approaches that are beyond my comfort zone. This includes ear training through transcribing sounds that interest me. For example, I might try to challenge myself with tempos that I have not explored enough, rhythmic feels that are deceptive to the ear, and harmony that I am not comfortable soloing over. I have some technique to rely on, but I really enjoy combining it with the risk-taking of attempting the creation of something new. At times I must remind myself that even if it is a total failure, I can take satisfaction in the fact that I tried.
  • Applying orchestration techniques add technicolor to my story. The more I learn about orchestration, the more colourful the journey for my character development.  Balance and weight are two things that I focus on in large ensemble especially. How much density can occur and what is the weight between various instruments? For example, the drums can overtake any sort of light woodwind and muted passages if not balanced properly. This means studying the various techniques that the percussionist can apply to highlight the delicate passage you may have orchestrated. Understanding instrument range and timbre can also support the journey of the piece. This is where score analysis is essential.
  • Some of my favourite music contains the strong element of counterpoint. This is when the characters really get into two or three-part conversation that flows because of phrasing ideas (please see excerpt of Red Cedar that is included). This is also where I might apply more atonal concepts, with focus on rhythm and melody over harmony.
  • Most important, FORM is always at the top of my mind. How will my form evolve?  My character or characters will navigate through an introduction, a large body of the piece and a conclusion. There are countless variables in navigating form.  Where do I balance the structured composition with the important act of improvisation within the form? I do not always pre-conceive the form, but I do create a wish list of what should happen in my story in terms of development. Repetition, variation and new material being introduced is always being questioned as I work through my form.

I have included an excerpt of Red Cedar, from my recording Treelines. This is an example of my melody in full character development, with 2-part counterpoint at letter B (melody and bass line), and Three-part counterpoint at letter C (melody, supporting melody line, and bass line).

Here are my top three composition book desert island picks that I love to go to because of their content that contains insight into the process of the jazz composer:

  1. Inside the Score – Rayburn Wright
  2. The Jazz Composers Companion – Gil Goldstein
  3. Modal Composition I & II – Ron Miller

(Excerpt: 1:18-2:23)

Score: Click here to see the score


About the Author:

Montreal-based saxophonist, composer and conductor Christine Jensen has been described as an original voice on the international jazz scene, while being regarded as one of Canada’s most compelling composers. She is a recent winner of the Downbeat Critic’s Poll for Rising Star Big Band, Arranger, and Soprano Saxophonist, as well as being a recipient of the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s 2017 Oscar Peterson Prize. She currently leads her own jazz orchestra as well as other diverse ensemble projects featuring her saxophone playing. “Jensen writes in three dimensions, with a quiet kind of authority that makes the many elements cohere. Wayne Shorter, Maria Schneider and Kenny Wheeler come to mind.” –Downbeat.

Jensen has won two Canadian Juno Awards for her recordings with her jazz orchestra, including Habitat (2014) and Treelines (2011). Four of her albums have been nominated for jazz album of the year with Quebec’s ADISQ awards. Habitat received five stars in Downbeat, along with being included at the top of several international critic’s polls, including Jazz Album of the Year in 2014. She was also profiled on NPR’s All Things Considered for her work with Habitat. She has topped 2014 critic’s polls for Album of the Year with CBC, Downbeat, NPR, Ottawa Citizen, and JazzTimes. A two-time recipient of the Hagood Hardy Prize for jazz from SOCAN, she has also received two Quebec Opus Awards for her big band recordings and concerts. Her recent collaborations as conductor and composer with Orchestre National Jazz Montreal have included conducting Terence Blanchard, Oliver Jones, the music of Carla Bley, as well as recording her suite Under the Influence, which won the 2017 Prix Opus for jazz recording of the year.

As a leader, Jensen has released three small ensemble recordings between 2000 and 2006. Along with her sister, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, she has co-led Nordic Connect, where they released two recordings, as well as touring Canada, US, and Scandinavia numerous times. Over the past two years, they have toured Canada, US and Europe extensively with Infinitude, featuring NY guitarist Ben Monder.

Jensen’s music has taken her all over the world, where she has received numerous commissions and conducting opportunities with jazz orchestras in Canada, the US and Europe. Recent residencies include Frost School of Music, The New School, Dartmouth College and MacEwan University. She works extensively with her sister Ingrid, and her partner saxophonist Joel Miller on projects of varying sizes. Collaborators have included Phil Dwyer, Ben Monder, Gary Smuylan, Geoffrey Keezer, Lenny Pickett, Gary Versace, George Colligan, and Donny McCaslin. She has studied with Kenny Werner, Jim McNeely, Dick Oatts, Remi Bolduc and John Hollenbeck.

Jensen has released three recordings for jazz orchestra on Justin Time Records:

Jensen’s published works for jazz orchestra are available at Whitewater Music Publications: