Review: Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra + WDR Big Band at Jazzahead 2014 in Bremen

Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra in its home town, Montreal
Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra / WDR Big Band
(Jazzahead 2014 at Messe Bremen. April2014. Review by Oliver Weindling)

Whereas most of the showcase line-ups at Jazzahead were smaller units, "realistic" prospects to awaken the interest of promoters, it was a superb idea to give the huge array of jazz people from all over the world the opportunity to hear two fully-fledged big bands in action, one from each side of the Atlantic.

Canada Council for the Arts and Musicaction are owed a massive debt of gratitude for having enabled the entire Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra from Montreal to play in Bremen. It was also great to have the chance to appreciate a female composer-arranger, holding up the standard of arguably the most well known: Maria Schneider (whose band includes Christine’s sister Ingrid). The total investment involved hardly bears imagining: I can only hope that it works out economically over the long term. It will certainly have built awareness for the band and for Jensen.

Certainly it was a joy to savour. Christine's saxophone was more rarely to be heard over the course of their 45-minute showcase but no problem: it was as much about the whole band that was there. I think that I heard some of Kenny Wheeler's sinewy lines and harmonisations, unsurprising as he is a man who has profoundly influenced big band music both in his native Canada and, of course, his adopted home, the UK. Tumbledown, dedicated to Haiti after the earthquake, was particularly evocative.

Meanwhile, Cologne's WDR Big Band, the Mercedes 'S' Class of big bands, built on the event's link to Denmark with a concert on the final afternoon entitled, appropriately, "Danish Moods". It was a breath of fresh air to leave Jazzahead's main venue and go over to the BLG in the old docks area, which was buzzing anyway with people enjoying the Spring air.

The concert consisted of a broad-ranging experience of music by Palle Mikkelborg and Carsten Dahl, with a host of melody to enjoy. Mikkelborg prowled the stage as allowed for one of the greats of European trumpet. Dahl on piano and keyboards was beautifully adept. He was at home when funking it up or in tunes such as his To the Dying Ones, which was like an extended piano concerto. The band was conducted by Ansgar Striepens and arrangements were by Thomas Clausen.

It reminded me what could be achieved by a radio-supported band, thinking of the cutbacks to the BBC's own band, quietly administered last September, which now effectively leave it outside to rust.

The WDR band concert was a great way to end the 3-day "event" that is Jazzahead. Even if the whole of Christine's band can't come over often, it is to be hoped that she can one day bring her own slant and her important compositional voice to some of the top European big bands.

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