8 March 2021
Jenna Cave and the Divergence Jazz Orchestra
© Noni Carroll
Jenna Cave is an Australian composer and arranger, bandleader, conductor and saxophonist. She composes music for large and small jazz ensembles with varying degrees of improvisation, as well as fully notated chamber music, cross-over works and songs. We asked her about these different facets of her career and her main project, the Divergence Jazz Orchestra.
Q: Your biggest project thus far, we can probably say, is the Divergence Jazz Orchestra, a big band you founded together with trombonist-bandleader Paul Weber in 2012 as a vehicle for original music. After a decade and two critically well-received albums you probably know better what you want compared to when you first got started. Were you inspired by particular international bands? How has this group, its sound and the music it makes evolved over this time, and how integral has it been to your work as a composer?
A: When I was younger I was definitely inspired by a lot of international groups to form my own jazz orchestra one day. Composer-led large ensembles such as the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra or Carla Bley Band were not only inspiring musically but also as role models, countless others such as Bob Brookmeyer's Europe-based New Art Orchestra, Kenny Wheeler's large ensemble albums (I think Kenny's may have been studio bands rather than gigging groups)... The list is endless, but hearing other people doing it, to an incredible level, gave me something to aspire to, absolutely.
With time, many band members have come and gone, and of course the whole feel of the band has evolved into something completely different to what it began as. You tend to gravitate towards those with similar artistic sensibilities and working styles, and we've really got a fantastic bunch of people. The standard of the band has gone up and up in general music terms, and the vibe of the music, I think, is honest and joyful and seems to have quite a universal appeal. We have developed a particular sound but I find these musical things hard to describe in words! The band does always change, subtly, when new members join: people bring their artistic voices with them, and that's what you want in jazz. My compositions have evolved over time to become more nuanced and, of course, have been shaped by the musicians in the band, with me writing to their strengths and then developing the pieces together over many rehearsals and performances into something much deeper.
Q: The orchestra has just had a show in Sydney with the normally New York-based trumpeter and composer Nadje Noordhuis as guest, courtesy of the pandemic bringing her - and many other expat musicians - back to Australia for a while. What has happened with Divergence over the past year, and what lies ahead for the band?
A: One year ago, I wasn't planning much for the band in the way of performances. This was mostly because my daughter was under two and not sleeping well, so I didn't have energy to spare for organising and performing gigs at night. We had done four performances the year before, while my daughter was one, and it was exhausting to say the least!
I had also just started chipping away at writing a new piece for Divergence, the first big band piece since having my baby, which took the better part of a year to complete due to the limited creative time mothering a young child allows, plus all the disruptions the year brought. Our only performance for 2020 ended up being in September at a community-run venue, the Petersham Bowling Club, with just 31 people allowed in the audience due to COVID restrictions. We all had such a great time, after so long not making music together, or with anyone else. We booked a follow-up concert for February 2021. Then, before Christmas, I saw on social media that Nadje Noordhuis was in back in Sydney and planned to stay a few months, so I thought it was an excellent opportunity to invite her along to be our guest soloist. Luckily venue capacity doubled a couple of weeks ago so we got to all play for a pretty full house, which was fun.
The new piece of mine that we premiered at the concert, This Too Shall Pass, featured vocalist Marie Le Brun (in addition to Nadje). In 2017-2018, I spent a bit of time writing songs for a smaller group (a quintet), which I loved doing, so I'd like to continue writing and bringing some more of my songs into the Divergence repertoire. I'd also really like to do some recording with the band, in the coming year or so, if we can get the funds together. We've got a small set of original music we've developed since our last album recording in 2016. The current vibe in the band is great and you never know when band members will have to move on, and then the moment is over - so it feels like it's time.
Q: For a bandleader-composer, you've spent a surprisingly big chunk of your time writing for string players. Would you tell us about this - is this music very different from your other work?
A: I have written some music for strings, which I guess I gravitated towards because strings are so expressive and beautiful and do a whole lot of things you can't do or say with wind instruments and rhythm section. In some ways I don't think the music I've written for strings is particularly different, I'm attracted to certain kinds of melodies and harmonies and a certain amount of rhythmic momentum. But of course, without a rhythm section, you write in a completely different way, there is more scope for independent melodic lines in each part to be really heard and to drive the music, and that's really so great to play with.
Q: Would you tell us about your other current projects and collaborations, please?
A: Apart from my aspirations with Divergence moving forward, in late 2020 reeds player/composer Paul Cutlan released a fantastic album called Living with his String Project group . This includes a piece that Paul commissioned from me called Sleep, In My Arms (see AMC Shop & Library for more details & score), which captured a moment in my experience of motherhood. I'm very proud of the little piece I wrote as it was such personal subject matter but I think I managed to project some very real and raw emotions I'd experienced straight into the music. I do also have a commission for a high school big band coming up (first commission of this kind for me), which should be fun.
Q: You grew up, studied and learned your 'trade' in Australia. How is Australia as a jazz country - in terms of the opportunities that it offers, and particularly for women in jazz? Is there an Australian sound or style, or Australian styles, within jazz?
A: Australia has a lot of incredible jazz and improvising musicians. I don't think the general level of music appreciation is there in Australian culture like it is in Europe and North America, or many other places in the word. I guess Australian musicians wouldn't have as much of a chance to travel and tour to nearby countries or work with international musicians as easily as those in the Northern Hemisphere, due to our geography. Even touring within Australia is logistically difficult and expensive due to a sparse spread-out population. Apart from all that, there is still enough going on that you can find like-minded people to make music with; put on gigs and find a modest audience, go and see local musicians play and be really inspired, and generally have a good time with it all. I'd say there are a lot of people doing unique creative things in Australia, with their own voices, but I wouldn't have the musicological know-how to put my finger on any particular Australian sound or style.
In regards to opportunities for women, it's hard to say and I can only speak to my own experience. There's been a general push in the Australian jazz scene to be more inclusive of women, and there have been various initiatives to support this. I've seen a lot of positive change in recent years. Originating in Sydney, there are specialised short courses in jazz for pre-tertiary level young women now offered in many of our cities. We've got a couple of International Women's Jazz Festivals in Sydney and Melbourne that have both supported me with commissions and presenting my music while showcasing many amazing women from around Australia and the world. This is extremely positive when we are trying to break down the tired old gender biases that work against women in jazz.
Going into the professional sphere, a lot of it has to do with individual people's attitudes, bandleaders and festival artistic directors deciding it's not acceptable to only present male voices, and simply choosing to open their eyes to the talent that is already there. Paul and I are pleased that while Divergence has developed over the years we have slowly built a team that's more inclusive with far more women members than when we began (seven regular members as opposed to one!). That's partly been possible because there are now more young women graduating with jazz music degrees. It makes it a much more pleasant environment for everyone to work in.
> Representative works by Jenna Cave: Sleep in My Arms (AMC resources - listen via Bandcamp); Now My Sun Can Shine Again (AMC resources - listen via Bandcamp); Orange and Olive Trees (AMC resources - listen/watch via YouTube)
© Australian Music Centre (2021) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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