Project O: Pushing Creativity, Hoping for Longevity
“ Every night when we ”
Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen , keyboardist Gary Versace and drummer Jon Wikan comprise the core of Project O, which also has regular contributions from tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake. The primary keyboard is Hammond B3 organ, a popular instrument once again, and it is the springboard for the group’s interaction. But, its members contend, not in the standard way. It’s more modern than Jimmy Smith or players in the jazz mainstream because of the broad musical influences of the group.
“You’ll definitely know within half a minute that it’s definitely not one of those cats,” said Wikan.
“There’s a lot more of the free elements of jazz that come into our group,” says Jensen, who, with Wikan, spoke recently with All About Jazz. “We’re all kind of versed in the entire gamut, from rock and roll to Coltrane to whatever. We seem to want to cover all these different areas without having to put ourselves into a category. That’s why I think this band’s going to be around for a long time, because we really enjoy playing together.”
The evidence is in the new CD Now As Then , a lively documentation of where the group is at this moment. It’s a collection of originals and other music (not particularly standards) that shows great group interplay, lively and dynamic soloing and a bright future for the band. It’s also remarkable in that it was produced by the group, with its own money, and kept out of the hands of record labels though it is being distributed by Justin Time records).
So there’s two things going on here. An exciting new band that has great promise if the direction on this CD is any indication. And a group showing that artistry doesn’t have to be squelched in the corporate system as it exists in the music industry today. The latter may be just as important as the former. Especially if the group is to get the sound it wants and the concept it wants across to the people without losing any soul to the corporate controllers. If this project succeeds, Project O might be a blueprint for others with a similar vision.
But ultimately it’s going to be the music and its ability to reach an audience that will tell the story. And regardless of what happens elsewhere in the industry, this group appears to be showing they can do it their way – in the office and on the bandstand – and make it count. Don’t bet against them, as a listen to Now As Then will attest.
“We’re always coming up with new stuff, depending on where the gig is and where we’re going. We’re already talking about recording again, we’ve done so well with this record. It’s barely been released and we’ve almost recouped everything, because we did it our way,” says Jensen.
The recording shines, with different moods and feelings, thoughtful and probing solos, and a cohesive, listenable feel. It’s expertly executed and the group is rightfully proud of its production values. Jensen’s writing is particularly stirring (her playing is always stellar), both with the tunes she penned, “R Hour” and “Silver Prelude/Silver Twilight, both with Wikan, but also her exquisite arrangement of “The Night has A Thousand Eyes’ which runs through a series of different feels.
All three players at the core – Jensen, Wikan and Versace – have a solid résumé of people they have performed with. They still have outside projects an d each is involved in music education. Versace, who wasn’t available during the interview, has played with the likes of Tim Ries, Kenrda Shank, Dave Friesen and is doing organ work with some others. Wikan comes from more of a rock background, but has adequately broadened into jazz and gives a guiding force to Project O’s music in the absences of a bassist. He adapts to all the moods Project O is into.
And Jensen’s trumpet is a good addition to any of the groups she’s out with, be it Virginia Mahew, Maria Schneider or any number of groups on the scene. She’s a lively player with a strong melodic bent and a strong, lush tone.
This band hopes to be around a while, and not just become a cadre of players that put together a couple CDs then went elsewhere.
All About Jazz: How long has Project O been together?
Ingrid Jensen (IJ): Officially, about two years.
Jon Wikan (JW): We recorded our record in May of last year, so that would be our very first experience playing as that band.
AAJ: You weren’t gigging before that?
IJ: In separate situations, as a trio. We worked a lot with Gary Versace when he was playing piano. I’ve been playing with him for about four years. Jon’s played with him in a bunch of situations. He’s the O in the band, Gary Versace. He started playing organ sort of as another outlet to find his voice. He just found that there’s so many great piano players, and it takes so much work to try and get the piano itself to speak in its own way. Although he can do that, in my opinion. He started playing organ more for fun and experimenting, and he developed his own fresh approach to the music, which worked well with our taste and where we wanted to go musically.
JW: Me and Gary had moved here at the same time. We had just finished doing a summer camp. We both were out of work and we got together in Gary’s little apartment, just drums and organ. And we said, ‘Let’s find a way to fuck this music up, but yet still have it be swinging.’ So we sat there and came up with arrangements in all different time signatures. Demented arrangements. I started recording these little sessions. Sometimes we would bring the organ over to my place and leave it there for weeks. And have various tenor players come over and Ingrid come over. I brought a mini disk to Ingrid, and she said ‘Wow. I want to play with you guys and try this out.’ That’s how the concept evolved. Then she hired us on a gig, and we recorded that as well, and listened to it and said ‘this is really fun.’ That’s how it evolved into the three of us. And the guests are the last thing we had.
AAJ: Did you have Seamus Blake in the beginning?
IJ: Seamus was part of the core, actually, before I even played with them.
JW: Seamus came over just before the Monk competition [the Monk International Jazz Competition which Blake won last year]. I’d been bugging him to play for about a year or two. So he came over to the pad. We didn’t actually play with organ, but we did some of the tunes that we recorded, just for fun. I brought a mini disk of it back to Ingrid and said, ‘Listen to this.’ Then we kind of went, ‘Wow. We should have him play with the organ group.’ So we asked him and he said yes.
AAJ: In the old days, the tenor sax and organ were kind of married in those organ groups.
JW: For sure.
IJ: Trumpet works pretty good too. The Woody Shaw recording with Larry Young is pretty good.
JW: It’s pretty rare to have trumpet though, compared to the guitar.
AAJ: The sound of the organ really boosted you guys in this particular group?
IJ: It was a very organic relationship that started all this. It wasn’t like we sat down and said, ‘Let’s start a band. OK. Jon, you play the drums. Ingrid, you play the trumpet. Gary, you play the organ.’ It just evolved out of a lot of the more adventurous music we were all bringing to the table. We’re making a lot of use of the orchestration possibilities within the music. When we play gigs together, we also incorporate the piano into the band. Sometimes, I’ve even been comping a little bit on piano. But we’ll do things where Gary will switch over. It gives the ear a break from the electronic sound. We go very acoustic and make use of every possible color that we know of so far. We also discover some too, when we get together and play live. The orchestration thing is a big part of it, because it inspires us to play in a fresh way and it doesn’t sound like Jimmy Smith, or even Larry Young, for that matter.
AAJ: Joey DeFrancesco sort of spearheaded the return of the Hammond B3 as a young kid. Even though there were players before, he sort of put some juice back into it.
IJ: Totally. He made it sound fresh again, in his own way, without going retro.
AAJ: The organ group is something you see as going on for a while?
JW: Yeah. This is going to be very different than Joey, or Larry Goldings. You’ll definitely know within half a minute that it’s definitely not one of those cats. It’s more modern sounding.
IJ: There’s a lot more of the free elements of jazz that come into our group. We’re all kind of versed in the entire gamut, from rock and roll to Coltrane to whatever. We seem to want to cover all these different areas without having to put ourselves into a category. That’s why I think this band’s going to be around for a long time, because we really enjoy playing together. Every night when we’re playing on the road we come up with completely different interpretations of the music. We do things within the music that may not exactly be what the chart says. We change things up pretty well every gig, which also keeps it really fresh.
AAJ: You guys play standards as well, but not always straight.
IJ: Yeah. We do Kenny Barron’s “Voyage,” a more contemporary standard, and we do a thing I wrote on “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” that goes through some different metric modulations. There’s a tune by Mary Lou Williams, called “Gloria.” It’s a reinvention of her tune. And then we all are writing for the band.
AAJ: Jon, without the bassist, does that change your approach?
JW: It’s definitely different than having the bass pumping away. Because there’s a certain percussive quality about a bass that you can lock in with. But with the organ, it’s not an actual percussion instrument.
IJ: Gary’s not playing the foot pedals all the time either.
JW: He does now. He wasn’t for a long time.
IJ: But he doesn’t play them on every beat. He uses them more to accentuate chords.
AAJ: So you hold down the bottom, as well as the rhythm.
JW: You have to be non-codependent. You have to be better with the time, I guess. I have to work on the songs with a metronome and stuff.
IJ: We’re always coming up with new stuff, depending on where the gig is and where we’re going. We’re already talking about recording again, we’ve done so well with this record. It’s barely been released and we’ve almost recouped everything, because we did it our way. The organization way. Self-organized.
It’s pretty interesting. Out of all the records that I’ve done in my life, I’ve never had or seen so much control from the artist’s side, and that might be a frightening thought for those who are supposed to be running the industry. A bunch of good, established and not-yet-established players get together and pool their funds, pool their music, pool all their ideas. We used all our funds to help produce the record, as far as liner notes go. We recorded it very inexpensively. The irony of it all to me is that in many ways it’s a better record than the records that get all the hype that are out there. That’s the feedback I get from other people. ‘That’s a good record from beginning to end. The liner notes are great, the production’s great. Who did it?’ We did it. Ourselves. With our friends and our own money. And we own it. And it’s very exciting to see the industry not have to control the music so much.
AAJ: People don’t have very good things to say about the major labels anymore.
IJ: Gee I wonder why. Look at the industry. It’s a mess.
JW: If we were on a major label, they might say something like, ‘All right. Now you’re going to do a record with strings.’
AAJ:Maybe stuff like this will make the record labels change.
IJ: Well, we don’t really care [chuckle]. Because we have this wonderful deal. Some of the records I did in the past sold OK I guess. And so Justin Time, which has great distribution and is a great label, they immediately licensed it from us. We gave it to them for five years and it’s going to get worldwide distribution. And there’s no, ‘You need to change this song,’ or ‘You need to put this here.’ There’s none of that. It’s like, ‘OK. We’ll take that.’ It’s like going into an art gallery and having them say, ‘OK. We’ll take your picture and put it up and try and sell it.’
We’re relieved in a way. There’s no middleman. That’s when the music was the best, was when people had no idea of how things were supposed to be. They were just in love with these artists. They were passionate about what they did. They came to their gigs and listened to what was going on around town and then documented.
AAJ: They had A&R people who were into the music. They weren’t accountants and bean counters.
IJ: It’s frightening how hard it is to connect with people who are supposed to be in charge of this industry at this point.
AAJ: Any goals for the band?
IJ: There are some stars out there, bigger fish, that we would like to have as guests with the group.
JW: We would love to have Michael Brecker.
IJ: And Joe Lovano. I think they would really enjoy playing with this type of direction we’re going with here.
AAJ:Ingrid you grew up in Canada, but heard a lot of jazz.
IJ: Yeah. I’m from Nanaimo, the town on Vancouver Island that the famous jazz singer is from [Diana Krall]. We had a pretty happening environment out there, musically. There were some bad teachers out there that probably have better record collections most musicians who’ve worked at record stores. Really great taste and solid players. They had us sitting in playing with them since we were very young. My sister as well. [Christine] Within the school we had a very heavily jazz-influenced band program. Improvising and playing jazz and really getting your improv chops together were more important than anything else. So it was kind of a weird, freaky program that put out all these great musicians.
We also had a big band in town that was made up of these teachers. Also some of the local pros. If you were able to read through a chart good enough and showed some kind of spark in your eyes for the music, they would recruit the young person. So I was in that band for five years and my sister was in it, Diana was in it, a bunch of other people. We all went through the process of playing swing music and more contemporary stuff, like some Thad Jones, Rob McConnell and things that were more up to date. That was my early education.
I went to school in the Nanaimo for a couple years an got some things together, then I went on to Berklee for three years on a scholarship and a grant. Played a lot there, met a lot of people. Moved to Denmark in hopes of hanging out with Thad Jones, but by the time I’d gotten there, he had passed. I have family in Denmark, so I spent a couple months there just woodshedding and really getting my horn together.
Moved right to New York for a year. Worked at the Waldorf Astoria and played in the subway. [laughter] Quite the contrasting little life I had for about a year. At that time I studied with Lorrie Frank, a really great trumpet teacher and she really helped me out a lot, getting my stuff together. That was in the early 90s. Then I got a teaching job in Austria, and I moved over there for a couple years and ended up playing a lot in Europe in a lot of different situations for almost two and a half years. Then I moved back to New York. That’s when I started playing with DIVA and eventually Maria Schneider. The Enja record deal had a lot to due with my process. I really wanted to be back in New York. I was living in Europe when I did all those records.
My mom was an influence too. She also was a pianist and she brought us up listening to the Basie Band, the Ellington Band. A lot of singers. A big part of my background is from the real standard repertoire and learning the verses, the original chords to the songs and all that. Because all of us played piano around the house. Mom was a really great pianist.
AAJ: How about on trumpet.
IJ: Louie Armstrong was kind of like a normal sound around the house. Not only because of my mom, but we had really great radio stations around town. When I first started out I was really into the Dixieland bands because I got to lead my own Dixie band. I listened to a lot of Louie and a lot of Bix Beiderbecke. I had a teacher that was really into Bix. Now I understand why. It’s a really great foundation to have that feeling in your playing. I went through the whole process of the guys, from Dizzy, through Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Clifford Brown, Chet Baker, Art Farmer. Clark Terry was a very heavy influence because when I heard him, I just fell in love with his approach and when I met him, in junior high, and saw him live it just through me over the top.
Then I went through all the other guys. Booker Little. Kenny Wheeler. And all the Miles stuff. I had to stop listening to him eventually, because it was just too good. He just played too good. And I wanted to play like that, so I had to stop and take a break. Nowadays, I find I’m not listening to trumpet players. There are some great trumpet players out there, Dave Douglas and Tim Haggans. Some of those guys are really playing beautifully, but for the most part, I’m more drawn to almost other forms of music. More world music. And taking more time to write and figure out my own way to express myself through the instrument.
AAJ: Jon, in your background, you played with a lot of singers.
JW: A fair amount of singers.
IJ: Singers like Jon.
AAJ: Where did you hear jazz.
JW: I was born in Alaska on a tiny little island. So I didn’t get any jazz or anything. The family moved to Seattle when I was young. I went through the band program. In seventh or eighth grade, someone gave me a Louie Bellson tape, one was Rob McConnell, Basie. I fell in love with that. I was coming up in heavy metal bands, as well as listening to Basie and all that stuff. I got bitten by the bug, so I joined the jazz band. I was a terrible player, actually [laughter]. But I knew I wanted to go on in jazz, so in high school I started to take lessons, the year before I went to college, which was at Central Washington University, which is the same school guys like Chris Speed and a bunch of guys went, this little school in the middle of the desert. I studied classical percussion there.
It was a long journey. I moved to Seattle in about 1995. I started working with Ernestine Anderson before I got out of college. The Mills Brothers. There’s a lot of singers.
AAJ: It’s different backing singers.
JW: It depends who it is. Mark Murphy is really a kick to work with. Anything goes, really. If you’re hearing it, do it. And do it with a lot of force and feeling, no problem. Other singers are like, ‘keep it down. Keep out of my way.’ Ernestine was kind of like Mark Murphy. ‘C’mon baby, give some serious groove and lay into it.’ Hit those drums.
AAJ: Who influenced you on drums?
JW: There’s the heavy metal part of it, because I came up in the 80s. There’s Kiss and Iron Maiden’s drummer. Van Halen’s drummer. His brother Alex was the drummer. But then there was the jazz side. At the very beginning there was Buddy Rich and the Count Basie drummers, like Sonny Payne. Mel Lewis was a big influence. Jeff Hamilton. Carl Allen, who I studied with, and Chico Hamilton, who I studied with. Then there’s Philly Joe and Roy Haynes and all these guys. And now, I’m really into Tony Williams and Jeff Watts, Al Foster and Victor Lewis.
AAJ: You guys both have other things going on besides Project O.
IJ: We are all busy with millions of different things.
JW: I’m going out with Maria Muldaur
IJ: Gary is going out with John Abercrombie, Cheryl Bailey. He’s playing with Chris Potter and a bunch of those guys.
AAJ: What do you guys think of the jazz scene in general? Is it easier, harder? Are things better in Europe?
IJ: I used to go to Europe about once a month when I first moved to New York. I see a cutback in that. That’s because they’re going through a transition. I feel like in many ways we’re going through another transition as a result of the way the industry has gone, and the CD burning and all that stuff has changed the finances of major labels and minors. I think the industry has made some mistakes focusing more on vocalists and not taking care of the instrumentalists. What’s going on now is more instrumentalists do have to work harder to get their music out there. Unless they’re being pumped up.
On the positive side of that, I feel like doing something like what we are doing out here is something that just can’t be tossed in the garbage can. It can’t be deleted off the screen. There’s a little more depth to it and a little more strength in what we’re doing as independents. I still believe it’s what you make of it and how much you get yourself out there, and how much your reputation speaks for what you’re doing.
JW: From a local New York side, it’s pretty rough. I was working more when I first moved here. And now we have a series of things that happened. 9/11. And the economic collapse of America has really affected New York, little restaurants and clubs. Doing gigs for $20, $40 because clubs are struggling. Maybe it’s starting to turn around now a little bit. I know it affected Seattle for several years. We’re talking on a smaller scale, rather than the jazz festivals and stuff. And even those have been cut back financially. Talking to people, they’re still working, but for less money.
But, we’re still making music. People are getting jobs, day gigs, or teaching more. Gary Thomas down at Peabody [Conservatory of Music in Baltimore] says people are just begging to get teaching jobs. Great musicians that are usually touring. It’s definitely changing.
Visit Project O on the web.