As a girl Ingrid Jensen desperately wanted to be a singer, but she was too shy. Not wanting to give up on music altogether, her solution was to aim to be another kind of vocalist, via an instrument. Eventually she tried the trumpet. “Oh!” she recalls thinking. “You can combine all worlds with this thing.”
Now the New York-based Canadian is among the world’s leading jazz trumpeters. The long road that led to this point was not just one of mastering an instrument she never intended to play, but of being driven to find her own voice on it. This, she says with delightful understatement, “takes a little more time”.
Being on tour in New Orleans when we speak about finding one’s own voice makes Jensen cast her mind back to Louis Armstrong, jazz’s first soloist. “If he were alive today,” she says, “he wouldn’t want to hear me try to play his ideas – as far as I know from hanging with [trumpet great] Clark Terry, who knew Louis Armstrong and who said, ‘Louis would like your playing, cos you’re you.’ I take that as a high compliment that I’m on the right track somehow or other by trying to not be on the track. By trying to stay off the track I’m finding some kind of crazy track of my own.”
Jensen is in Australia with her saxophone-playing sister Christine to headline at the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival (SIWJF), collaborating with, among others, the Mike Nock Trio. Despite growing up in the same home the two sisters did not start playing together until they were in their twenties. Prior to that Christine had been more preoccupied with classical piano than jazz saxophone, while Ingrid, the elder, was already in various bands, including a big band that numbered Diana Krall among its members.
When they did start making music together, however, the rapport was instant. Ingrid says the mutual trust allows them to take risks in spontaneously reinventing the music on the page, with each sister knowing the other will go along with an idea. “There is a lot of unspoken direction that happens on the bandstand,” she explains, “cos we can just look at each other and know what the other one’s thinking.”
Jensen was blissfully unaware of any sexism or even of the paucity of female trumpeters when she was starting out. Now she is much more conscious of the issue. “I think I had blinders on to a lot of what’s going on in society in general,” she says. “So without becoming too angry or bitter I just try to set the bar even higher for myself so that everyone’s getting a good musical moment out of it, rather than it being, ‘Oh, no, she’s not playing very well. Women can’t play.'”
She revels in the ongoing primacy of music in New Orleans at a time when the art-form is too often reduced to no more than being a cheap or even free commodity. “There are so many musicians here,” she says. “Everybody’s playing and everybody’s enjoying it. The tourists come down here, and they hear all this music, and it changes them somehow. We need more New Orleans atmospheres!”
Neither she nor her sister have worked with Mike Nock before, but Jensen has heard him on record and has no qualms about what will happen. “We’ll just play together,” she says. “Just like kids in a sand-box.”