Jim DoxasMTL Jazz Notes

As a musician, I constantly strive to find a balance between practicing and performing as well as some small ensemble composing. Like many other musicians, I believe that my identity is most genuinely displayed when I am “in the moment.” This excitement of living in the moment is much more challenging to channel through the art of composing and orchestrating for ensembles. In this article, I am profiling two very talented and distinct voices: Christine Jensen and Joe Sullivan. They each balance performing and composing in both small and large ensembles. When one describes jazz music, large ensembles or big bands are often ubiquitous in terms of what many perceive as jazz. Even in other styles of music such as classical, baroque, or contemporary compositions, the layering of voices can create a rich and resonant sound.

Think back to the 30s and 40s and recall the sounds from the masters like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Though these sounds and textures may have changed and evolved over the recent decades, the size and structure of the ensemble still has a strong identity and relevance in today’s musical fabric, as demonstrated through Joe Sullivan and Christine Jensen’s bodies of work.

composer Christine Jensen

Saxophonist and composer Christine Jensen has an active career as a player and composer/arranger

Saxophonist Christine Jensen was raised in a musical household in Nanaimo, British Columbia, and has been based in Montreal since 1990. An active national and international touring schedule keeps her busy as both a player and composer/arranger. When describing her compositional process, Christine emphasizes the importance of developing form, explaining, “My love of improvisation gets me started, and that takes a combination of skills. Whenever I’m composing for large ensemble, that puts me in more of a composer meets arranger and orchestrator situation. It is more like directing a movie set versus hanging out in a poetry slam. I primarily compose without lyrics, so I really have to serve the melody first, and that’s complicated. Therefore, I can only hope that through my journey of putting pen to paper in sharing my sounds; somehow, I am presenting a narrative that will captivate the listener, and the first listener is me.”

It is interesting to hear Christine talk about her approach. When I am behind the drums playing her music, I hear her cinematic timbre. Her music, to me, always stimulates my imagination and conjures up dramatic scenes in my mind. This sense of adventure is something I also hear when listening to and performing Joe Sullivan’s compositions.

Originally from Timmins, Ontario, Joe Sullivan has been living in Montreal since the late-80s. Joe comes from a very musical family and began playing the trumpet at age 15. He is a prolific composer for both small and large ensembles. His music is witty, exciting, and always feels good to play and listen to. It’ll keep you on your toes!

Following his studies on jazz trumpet and composition, Joe describes his development in large ensemble composing: “After I’d been out of school for awhile, I put a big band together just as a project and started learning how to write for it, just trial and error. I’d write a couple of charts then get my friends together to play them. Once I had enough music for a gig, I started doing some club gigs and so on.” One of the characteristics of Joe’s music is that he prioritizes groove. He went on to explain this importance, stating, “Grooves are the most important thing in jazz, and this doesn’t change between small and large groups. I always think about the groove of every piece and try to get a balance there.”

Each of these wonderful composers has “a sound” – one that is distinctly individual. Joe articulated this concept perfectly: “Personalizing compositions is more of a life-long pursuit than something you do piece-by-piece.” Large ensemble composing is an art unto itself. The skill and knowledge required is a lifelong commitment. How the different instruments and sections work together and intertwine with various aspects of blend, range, and timbre is no easy task, however, when done masterfully, it is an impressive sound.

“Grooves are the most important thing in jazz, and this doesn’t change between small and large groups. I always think about the groove of every piece and try to get a balance there.” – Joe Sullivan

Jim Doxas is an award-winning jazz drummer who has performed with many of North America’s finest musicians, and has performed on more than 150 albums. He also lectures and teaches percussion at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music and at Concordia University. To learn more about Jim and his music, please visit: www.jimdoxas.com

Editor’s Note: Jim performs regularly with his own group and with other first rate jazz musicians at the UpStairs Jazz Bar & Grill at 1254 Mackay, just below Ste-Catherine St. I’m happy to report that the club has re-opened with live music, restaurant and bar service, following public health guidelines. Please visit: www.upstairsjazz.com for show information, or call 514-931-6808 for reservations. 

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