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Sisters Share A Drive to Succeed in Jazz

  • Ingrid Jensen directs Grant Neubauer, '14, on how to play the intro to a slower, more introspective song during a practice session at the Hopkins Center on the Dartmouth campus Hanover, N.H., on Feb 3, 2014.  Jensen and her sister, Christine, are in residence at Dartmouth through February 8th. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Ingrid Jensen directs Grant Neubauer, '14, on how to play the intro to a slower, more introspective song during a practice session at the Hopkins Center on the Dartmouth campus Hanover, N.H., on Feb 3, 2014. Jensen and her sister, Christine, are in residence at Dartmouth through February 8th.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ingrid Jensen, left, consults with her sister Christine over a part of a song during a practice session with Dartmouth and Hanover High School students at the Hopkins Center in Hanover, N.H., on Feb 3, 2014.  <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Ingrid Jensen, left, consults with her sister Christine over a part of a song during a practice session with Dartmouth and Hanover High School students at the Hopkins Center in Hanover, N.H., on Feb 3, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sisters Christine, left, and Ingrid Jensen practice with Dartmouth and Hanover High School students for their upcoming performance in a practice room at the Hopkins Center on the Dartmouth Campus in Hanover, N.H., on Feb 3, 2014.  <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Sisters Christine, left, and Ingrid Jensen practice with Dartmouth and Hanover High School students for their upcoming performance in a practice room at the Hopkins Center on the Dartmouth Campus in Hanover, N.H., on Feb 3, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ingrid Jensen directs Grant Neubauer, '14, on how to play the intro to a slower, more introspective song during a practice session at the Hopkins Center on the Dartmouth campus Hanover, N.H., on Feb 3, 2014.  Jensen and her sister, Christine, are in residence at Dartmouth through February 8th. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Ingrid Jensen, left, consults with her sister Christine over a part of a song during a practice session with Dartmouth and Hanover High School students at the Hopkins Center in Hanover, N.H., on Feb 3, 2014.  <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Sisters Christine, left, and Ingrid Jensen practice with Dartmouth and Hanover High School students for their upcoming performance in a practice room at the Hopkins Center on the Dartmouth Campus in Hanover, N.H., on Feb 3, 2014.  <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

In a small rehearsal room in the Hopkins Center, jazz musicians and sisters Ingrid and Christine Jensen are putting four students from Dartmouth College’s Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble through the paces. The students are working methodically through two pieces composed by Christine Jensen, Sea Fever and Tree Lines, that will be played during the ensemble’s winter concert in Spaulding Auditorium Saturday evening.

Ingrid Jensen gets up from a chair occasionally, holding her trumpet close, to demonstrate passages in the music, while Christine Jensen sits, cradling her saxophone in her lap. Their instruments seem to be extensions of their bodies, another limb perhaps.

The student musicians sound polished and clean, but perhaps a little inhibited, too wed to the music as written. That deference is something the two women, who are in residence this week at the college and will appear as guest artists with the ensemble, want the students to get away from.

“We’ll talk about that through the week, how not to play the music on the page,” Ingrid Jensen said.

“What are you thinking about when you’re playing?” she asked the quartet of musicians: freshman Andy Shea on string bass, graduate student Grant Neubauer on piano, Carlos Dominguez on drums and Hanover High School senior Becky Zegans, also on piano. “Are you reading, or are you listening?”

Although the Jensen sisters, who are Canadian, have flourishing solo careers (Ingrid in New York City, where she’s lived since the 1990s after studying at the Berklee School of Music in Boston; and Christine in Montreal, where she settled after graduating from McGill University), they play together frequently, either in concerts like this one or as part of the band Nordic Connect. Saxophonist Joel Miller, who is Christine Jensen’s husband, will also play with the orchestra Saturday night.

Older than her sister by three years, Ingrid Jensen has played with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra and with such highly-regarded musicians as Terence Blanchard, Clark Terry, Marc Copland and Dr. Billy Taylor. Her musicianship was praised by the late pianist Marian McPartland as showing the “brilliance and fire of a true virtuoso, following the spirit of the muse as she creates.”

Apart from playing the saxophone, Christine Jensen leads small ensembles and larger orchestras, and has made a name for herself as a composer and arranger. Her 2011 album Treelines: The Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra was awarded the 2011 Juno Award, Canada’s equivalent to the Grammys, for Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year. Downbeat magazine, one of the bibles of jazz criticism, gave Treelines a 4 ½ star recommendation, out of a possible 5.

Don Glasgo, the director of the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble, evaluated their talent this way. “What I admire most about Christine and Ingrid Jensen is that they honor and respect melody and creativity above all, rising above clichés to create music, whether composed or improvised, which dances, tells stories and takes you on a journey,” he wrote in an email.

In an interview in the Hanover Inn, the two women sit in arm chairs angled toward each other, conversing with each other as much as answering a reporter’s questions and sometimes drifting into reminiscences of their childhood and adolescences.

Now in their 40s, the two women were raised in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, also home to the jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall. The Jensens grew up in a home where listening to and playing music were as routine as sleeping and eating. Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, The Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby were some of the greats whose sounds filled the house.

Their mother was an accomplished pianist, said Ingrid Jensen, but for a variety of reasons she had to “put away her dream of being a classical pianist.”

The two sisters were determined not to let their passion for music be circumscribed by the kind of limitations that had hindered their mother, and they doggedly pursued music from adolescence on. “We started as innocents with dreams of playing,” Christine Jensen said.

But, as young women coming up in the jazz world, they faced resistance and skepticism from some, but not all, of the jazz establishment. While there have long been celebrated female vocalists — Billie Holliday, Anita O’Day, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, Cassandra Wilson, Nina Simone — the number of female instrumentalists has been relatively paltry, with such notable exceptions as Marian McPartland, and pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, who played with Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, and collaborated with Thelonious Monk and Gillespie.

Even today, a cursory scan of some of the country’s major jazz orchestras shows that instrumentalists who happen to be women are barely represented. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis, is arguably the most visible jazz orchestra in the country, but there is no woman on the roster; the same is true of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra. The Vanguard Orchestra, which plays at the famed Village Vanguard in New York, boasts one woman trumpeter. “It’s changing but I think it’s slow,” said Ingrid Jensen. “The numbers still show there’s an imbalance. … There were very few role models for me growing up.”

And there were few images of female jazz instrumentalists, said Christine Jensen. The images of swinging jazz musicians that predominated, said Ingrid Jensen, were of African-American men in sharp suits who hailed from New Orleans, Kansas City or New York. Ingrid Jensen aspired to play trumpet like Miles Davis or Freddie Hubbard, but it wasn’t unusual to hear the following sentiment: “That’s a really nice hobby; now what are you going to do?”

“I had to go practice and play really hard to be better than anybody else,” said Christine Jensen.

Because of their own experiences, both women are conscious of acting as mentors to younger female jazz musicians. Ingrid Jensen tells them that they can “play strong or soft, bold or shy. There’s no one way to develop your voice. It’s a process, and there’s no easy way to do it.”

“You go through new cycles, new challenges and rewards,” said Christine Jensen. Her advice? “Keep your head down and just do it.”

Both mothers of young daughters, the sisters have had to adjust to the demands of raising children while maintaining hectic touring and recording schedules. But they have no regrets, they said.

“I feel much more focused on the issue at hand. The trivial stuff falls away,” Ingrid Jensen said.

“I did lose this one thing I had, which is I could go write music. I lost this freedom,” Christine Jensen said.

True, said her sister, but she’s learned to take time where she can. “I have an hour and a half right now, why don’t I do something that is more substantial with the time, rather than going on Facebook,” she said.

“It’s the chunks of times and how you divide it,” said Christine Jensen. “But the challenge is as nothing compared to the reward.”

“Time management is the new theme. We’re thrilled to be able to do it all. It’s a serious gift and a privilege,” said Ingrid Jensen, before frowning down at her phone where a text message awaited from her husband, the latest on an urgent topic concerning their daughter.

“Where are the snow pants?” the message read.

The 38th annual Dartmouth Winter Carnival Concert with the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble will be performed this Saturday at 8 p.m. in Spaulding Auditorium. Tickets are $10 , $9 for Dartmouth students. For information and tickets call the Hopkins Center Box Office or go to hop.dartmouth.edu/Online/140208_bcje#.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com