07/23/07

Ingrid Jensen and Benny Green

Arriving home from this concert, I found an e-mail message from a musician friend:

“Has there ever been a better concert at the Seasons than the Ingrid Jensen one this evening?”

No. I have attended most of the jazz and classical events at the Seasons in its nearly two years of operation. I have heard wonderful performances in that former church, with its dramatic domed space and nearly perfect acoustics, but none better than when Jensen (pictured), the gifted Canadian trumpeter, and pianist Benny Green got together in a one-off collaboration. Creative sparks flew.

Jensen's quartet included Green on piano, drummer Jon Wikan and Vancouver, B.C., bassist Russ Botten. They were headed to western Washington state to teach at the Centrum Port Townsend Jazz Workshop and play in the Centrum festival. A convenient gig on the way to Port Townsend, the stop at the Seasons in Yakima grew into a memorable evening. Jensen and Wikan developed musical empathy even before they got married a couple of years ago. In their own groups, with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and with other bands, they have become one of New York's busiest musical couples.

The Seasons concert was one of those occasions when the combination of musicians, location, audience and circumstances elevated the proceedings. Jensen and Wikan had just come off vacation. They were relaxed and ready to play. Green is always ready to play. He was accomplished so young that he seems to have been around longer than his age makes possible, a phenomenon enhanced by his looking at least 10 years younger than 44. The Seasons audience is chronically attentive and knowledgeable. How they got so hip in a small city in the middle of an agricultural area with no jazz history to speak of, I cannot tell you. They know what they’re hearing and react in the right places. A bond quickly developed onstage and between the musicians and the listeners.

In what was essentially an ad hoc group, harmonic and rhythmic extrasensory perception emerged with the first piece, a fast “If I Were a Bell.” Jensen’s abstraction of an arrangement encouraged chance-taking in a round of solos by all hands, ending in a spontaneous tag inspired by the 50-year-old Red Garland ding-dong piano introduction to the Miles Davis recording of the song. When it ended, smiles decorated the bandstand. Then, through Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring” to the wildness of an impressionistic “Summer Night,” there was so much variety, so much inventiveness, that time flew. When it was over, I was surprised to discover that the concert had run a good half hour beyond its scheduled end.

It is impossible to analyze with accuracy what is responsible for a performance that rises above even the usual excellence of artists of the quality of Jensen, Green, Wikan and Botten. I have a notion that what fired it up in this instance was the depth and unusual makeup of Green’s accompanying chords in the first piece, and the way he applied them rhythmically. The harmonic changes in his comping stimulated Jensen to daring ideas that she incorporated in long, flowing melodic lines through the entire concert. The range and virtuosity of her trumpet and fluegelhorn playing are givens. I am emphasizing the lyric and melodic content of her improvisations. For a decade or more, I have listened to her develop as a soloist. This was, simply, the best I have ever heard her play. Green, at a nine-foot Steinway, matched Jensen’s brilliance. So did Wikan, in his ensemble work and in solo. This was my first opportunity to hear Botten at length. He does not engage in the fingerboard acrobatics that put many modern bassists into competition with guitarists. He plays good time and good notes, listens carefully to what his colleagues are doing, responds with appropriate support and improvises well when he is called upon to solo.

I steeled myself when Jensen bent down to set up an electronic loop device and felt relief when she used it to enhance, not dominate, the music. She combined the looping echo and repetition overlays with a Harmon mute producing judicious wah-wah effects in “It Never Entered My Mind.” Her performance took on an endearingly—well, loopy—aspect, complete with an extended quote from “Petrouchka” as she wrapped up her stunning solo on “Summer Night.” I don’t know whether in a recording studio this group could capture the camaraderie, looseness and stimulation they found on Saturday night. I hope that they will give it a try.

Review adapted from Rifftides.

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