Review: Christine Jensen and Nikki Iles

Alan Ainsworth is impressed by saxophonist Christine Jensen's London debut in a varied, engaging set at the Pizza Express with pianist Nikki Iles

Probably less familiar to British audiences than her sister Ingrid – this was after all her very first London performance – Montréal-based saxophonist and composer Christine Jensen (pictured right by Alan Ainsworth) managed to squeeze in this gig following a stint tutoring at the National Youth Jazz Collective Summer School and before flying home the following morning. If a hectic schedule and quick rehearsal with British pianist Nikki Iles the previous day might have taken its toll on some, there was no sign of it here as Jensen co-led the group at Pizza Express Dean Street through a varied and engaging set of original compositions, contemporary works and standards.

For a group that had never previously played together, a surprising number of shared influences and experiences emerged. But if there was one reason prompting Jensen and Iles to bring this transatlantic collaboration together for a one-off performance it must surely have been their shared admiration for the legacy of Kenny Wheeler.

Jensen has often referred to the influence of Wheeler, particularly in her original works for big band, while Iles mentioned his name more than once and fondly introduced her own tune Negomi as the kind of play on words favoured by the Canadian (Anglo-Canadian?) in his own titles. Perhaps not surprisingly the group kicked off with Compensation, a Wheeler composition which immediately introduced the trading and rapid-fire exchanges between Jensen’s tenor sax and Percy Pursglove’s trumpet which was such a strong feature of the evening.

Nikki Iles had assembled an impressive lineup for Jensen’s visit. Birmingham Conservatoire’s Pursglove (“I would have hired him just for his name” quipped Jensen) was on cracking form, exploring the full range of his instrument’s capabilities in some stand-out moments whilst being constantly attentive to the other players. Bass player Dave Whitford showed why he is in such demand and rose to the occasion with an enthusiastic workout on another Wheeler composition, Mark Time. James Maddren – who just seems to get better and better no matter the context – provided the band with insistently propulsive yet subtely varied backing; two exciting solos by Maddren really whipped up the audience.

Jensen’s last two albums (Treelines and Habitat) showed her as a composer for larger forces. At Pizza Express she had the chance to demonstrate her writing for small group. Margaretta, a piece for Swedish pianist and sometime collaborator Maggi Ohlin, built on Scandanavian-influenced folk themes which were beautifully reflected in Pursglove’s mellow lines at the start and Iles's fluent inventions throughout. Upper Fargo, which Jensen chose to end the set, was an uptempo number with a catchy riff which really brought out the driving force of the group underpinned by Iles's insistent bass figures and Maddren's pyrotechnics. Not surprisingly the band was called back for an encore in which Jensen delivered a melancholic Wheeleresque chorale – a striking and unusual ending.

There is a conceptual dimension to Jensen’s writings; she has explained how a sense of place, or architecture, can influence her compositions. As a player Jensen shows that she has absorbed lessons from other influences, notably Coltrane and Shorter. Her playing is as insistent as was theirs but with a well-developed sense of the overall ensemble sound. She told me that her next project – possibly appearing as an album next year – will be a series of pieces for big band each dedicated to one of her musical influences. She would like to come back to London to play some of this big band work – let’s hope this comes off.

It would be wrong not to mention the role played by Jensen’s co-leader. Nikki Iles played a big part in pulling the group together, but her playing was just outstanding. From her own compositions like Tideway, an atmospheric piece capturing the impressions of the coastline around Norma Winstone’s home which segued into a Latin groove, to the lyrical Negomi Iles showed why she is such a respected figure on the British jazz scene.

This gig was a one-off: it would be a shame if this were to be the only time the Anglo-Canadian Group played together.

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