Louise Dam Eckhardt Jensen is a fiery alto saxophonist originally from Denmark who spends a good portion of each year in New York. Over the past decade, she has worked with figures such as Peter Evans, Tom Blancarte, Weasel Walter, Brandon Seabrook, Kevin Shea, Erica Dicker, Matt Nelson, and many other figures on the New York scene. She has three exciting performances booked in New York this Summer and also has five new records, all with different bands, to be released in the latter half of 2016. Ms. Jensen’s work in improvisational music possesses a deep resonance with her life philosophy, which she discusses along with many of her musical projects in the interview below. She also talks about the political meaning instilled in her songs through her defiant critique of contemporary society both in the United States and Europe.
July 3 – Alto Saxophone Trio: Louise D.E. Jensen, Tamio Shiraishi & Chris Pitsiokos at Downtown Music Gallery
July 16 – Louise Jensen-Tim Dahl Duo at Earwax Records
–Ondskabens Lethed (English translation: The Ease of Evil) – solo saxophone & vocals (to be released August 2016)
–Pantoffeltierchen, with violist Erica Dicker (to be released in October 2016)
–Untitled duo album with tenor saxophonist Matt Nelson (to be released in October 2016)
–Sweet Banditry’s second album (in process)
–Untitled duo album with tenor saxophonist Simon Spang-Hansen (to be released in December 2016)
Cisco Bradley: How did you get into playing free music? And how did you come to connect with the Brooklyn scene?
Louise D.E. Jensen: I remember Weasel Walter once asked me, “How the hell did you end up playing free improvised music?”
I’m from the Danish countryside, from a town of about 2000 people and I just needed to break out. I’ve always been rebellious, it’s kind of in my nature, I think, or my parents must have raised me that way. There’s no way to tell.
I played music since I was five and knew that this was my call from very early on. I went to a preparatory school for the conservatory at the age 14, which was very young at that time. I got introduced to jazz there. I remember my teacher was shocked that I didn’t know who Charlie Parker was, so I searched the music section in the town’s only shop for TVs and radios and found a Charlie Parker compilation. I listened for hours and knew that despite the fact that I had no clue what was happening, this was great music. When I finished high school, I moved to Copenhagen, thinking that it must be a pretty amazing place. I was greatly disappointed. There was something missing. People were really introverted and there wasn’t a thriving music scene the way I wanted there to be. It was a very small scene; I had the sense that the musicians were comfortable the way things were and didn’t need to be curious.
I actually had no idea what I was doing when I googled Amsterdam Conservatory at the call center I was working at in 2002 and got accepted at the audition. So I moved to Amsterdam, didn’t have a place to live, and ended up staying all kinds of places in the city before I found a room. I think my new friends down there thought I was pretty funny. And then I started at the conservatory thinking I would stay there for one year but realized that the place had that influx of international artists and there were basically people from every corner of the world. I felt at home.
This wasn’t long after the Yugoslav Wars ended in 2001, so many of my friends at the Conservatory from the Balkans were greatly affected by this and had moved away from home to start a new life. I felt like everyone was rebelling against something and had strong political opinions and it affected my outlook on many things. Also, there were some people who were doing improvised music and I got obsessed more and more in trying to break all the rules within the music. It definitely also stems from the fact that my education was very conservative and taught in a very dictatorial way.
After Amsterdam I started touring with a Dutch singer as a free improvised duo. We were touring a lot for two years and I kind of lived out of a suitcase. I learned a great deal about touring in general and what I was looking for in music and realized that we didn’t share the same musical or personal values.
I didn’t really know that much about Evan Parker, Barry Guy or Derek Bailey and all of that more established stuff. I was from the more conservative jazz scene, but desperately wanted to break out and would go crazy with my bands trying to break out musically.
Well, after a couple of years after graduating I moved to Berlin.
Cisco Bradley: So, to you, your music is very much about personal rebellion?
Louise D.E. Jensen: I guess at that time, yeah. But I value good craftsmanship as well. This is super important. Also I’m really obsessed now with Derek Bailey and John Butcher. I never listened to their music when I was younger. My superheroes back then were (and still are) guys like Dewey Redman and Wayne Shorter. I’m 36 now and can’t stop listening to Derek Bailey and I will say to myself “Oh… whoa, they’re doing this? I didn’t know.”
I try to break out of the rules that I’ve been forced to follow in some ways, I guess. And it’s also very political.
Cisco Bradley: Political in what way?
Louise D.E. Jensen: It’s like my whole life is an improvisation. So it’s also in terms of the way Tom Blancarte and I live our lives. You hear “Oh, you can only live one place.” Like for instance we go back and forth between Europe and the States constantly. We can do these things if we are smart about how we do it. And the way we raise our daughter, “You can’t take your daughter into concerts or tour with her.” Of course I can do that and in fact, she loves it!
It’s about not being fearful of anything. It’s also about just taking chances. Being curious about everything around you, not only music but everything, and not compromising. I don’t want to compromise and I never will. I mean, there’d be little sacrifices here and there but overall, never. I’ve worked a lot of odd jobs in order to go where I want, so I could play the music I want. I could have had a more comfortable life, I could have applied for grants and been in Denmark or Scandinavia… do it the safe way but then I’m also relying on a system. But I want to be my own. I always want to have freedom and integrity as an artist. And also in Denmark everyone says, “Don’t go to the Danish countryside to live, because it’s like why would you do that in the first place?” It’s abandoned, very conservative but close to Europe, there’s cheap rent. Tom said, “Let’s go there and try to make improvised music happen. Try to do something in that area while we’re here. Make impossible things possible.”
Cisco Bradley: So, you went to Berlin after Amsterdam?
Louise D.E. Jensen: Yeah for about two years but I traveled extensively in that period. Had an ex-boyfriend and we broke up and I broke up with all my previous bands. Wasn’t into it. At the time, I felt sick and tired of it all. I went to New York right around the time I first moved to Berlin. So I rented a room here in Brooklyn at the YMCA. In a way you can say I lived in Berlin for two years but also I was visiting Tom every other month. We both got completely broke from all those plane tickets.
Cisco Bradley: Where were you living?
Louise D.E. Jensen: In Greenpoint. I rented a room at YMCA for a month.
Then I got in contact with Peter Evans and he took me out to a bunch of stuff. And one day he took me to a birthday party of guy named Tom Blancarte and the rest is history. And so, Tom, Peter, Kevin Shea, and Brandon Seabrook became my first friends here. They were all at the birthday party. They mean a great deal to me.
Pretty much two month after Tom and I met we decided to get married here in the States so we didn’t have to worry about visas, etc. We had this plan that if we didn’t like each other after two years we’d just get divorced but if we still liked each other we would have a big party in Denmark in the Danish countryside. So we had that so everyone flew over. Yeah, it was pretty awesome.
Cisco Bradley: So how did you know Peter?
Louise D.E. Jensen: He wrote something on MySpace I guess. Actually can’t remember now.
Cisco Bradley: On your MySpace page?
Louise D.E. Jensen: Yes. And then somebody told me about him and I got curious just like I was curious about so many other musicians.
Cisco Bradley: What year was this?
Louise D.E. Jensen: That’s 2007, 2008. And then there’s a guy who doesn’t play much music anymore named Ryan Snow who knew him from college.
Cisco Bradley: Trombone player?
Louise D.E. Jensen: Yeah. And he said, “Oh, you should check him out.” And when I came over here I contacted a bunch of people and Peter was one of them and we became good friends. So Peter introduced me to Tom and a bunch of other musicians and that is how it all started. I moved to New York in 2009 when my K1 visa was approved.
Cisco Bradley: So then once you got here permanently what happened for you?
Louise D.E. Jensen: Yeah, but then I started experimenting with my playing. I had been a little conflicted because I’d been doing a lot of quiet improv in Europe and so I was trying to break out of that and play really crazy and loud, but I realized that I am both of those things. So I was just constantly exploring and playing but with a variety of people.
And I think it is around the time I started Sweet Banditry with Kevin and Brandon and Tom. Tom and I started the Home of Easy Credit and I started playing with Tim Dahl and Weasel Walter. I got really interested in metal. Then I started touring a lot in the States and Tom and I decided to have a kid. I got pregnant and then I started reflecting upon more things. I began playing with all kinds of people, like Erica Dicker, Matt Nelson, Ricardo Gallo, Dan Peck, Michael Evans, Andrew Drury, Mike Pride, and Ron Stabinsky…
Cisco Bradley: So why the shift? You said you were touring…
Louise D.E. Jensen: Because Tom and I were starting to move part time to Europe. We did residencies; we spent a month in Estonia, we spent a month and a half in Texas last year, and then we spent three months in Denmark, and then we spent three months here. And then we’ve been doing tours on top… Before and after I got pregnant and after I gave birth we toured the States quite extensively. As a change we thought that a residency somewhere in an unknown place like Tallinn would be cool to explore. Recently, we’ve been spending a lot of time in Texas doing a bunch of stuff down there because his parents live there and we can stay there for free.
Cisco Bradley: Can you walk me through some of the details. Before you got pregnant you mentioned you were touring? Was that with Weasel?
Louise D.E. Jensen: No, that was with Tom, with The Home of Easy Credit. Sometimes six weeks in a row or something like that.
Cisco Bradley: Where did you go?
Louise D.E. Jensen: A third of the States. So we started in Texas in El Paso… New Mexico, Arkansas … the West Coast. We also did a tour in the south. We started in Oxford, Mississippi when my daughter was just a newborn and then Tennessee…. We played in the garage of one of the composition professors at Brigham Young University. We did all kinds of stuff.
Once the baby arrived, I wanted to do a lot more, so we just had to figure out logistics. It was still possible, it just takes more work.
Cisco Bradley: Let’s talk about your other band. How did Sweet Banditry come together?
Louise D.E. Jensen: Kevin Shea, like Weasel Walter, is some of my favorite drummers. Kevin is really rebellious and a true artist. I love people who you can’t really define musically, who are themselves and don’t sound like anyone else and don’t try to. There’s something about Tom, Kevin, and Brandon, they are all amazing independent musicians and fit so well together they because do not compromise. They are unique artists.
I started writing these protest songs and composed little melodies open for interpretation and improvisation.
Cisco Bradley: Protesting what?
Louise D.E. Jensen: How fucked up Danish society is.
Cisco Bradley: The lyrics are in Danish, right?
Louise D.E. Jensen: Yup. It’s about when you have a society that really works. You know, you have things taken care of. It means that you also have a society that fosters really lazy people, very spoiled and which can be very ignorant of the surrounding world.
It’s a real anti-immigrant place. That’s what my solo album is going to deal with. It deals specifically with the whole anti-immigrant, anti-refugee culture. The thing about growing up in a very small society and that we are actually so privileged but we can’t see it. So I’m just trying to wake people up. I don’t know how they will receive it necessarily. But I want to go in where it hurts and I want to write lyrics about things people generally don’t want to talk about.
There’s all this injustice, all these things, and a lot of the music out there doesn’t really reflect it. I don’t want to play saxophone just to copy someone else. I want to be inspired. People like Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis. These people for instance inspire me to just find my own path. I think that’s really, really important.
With Sweet Banditry, it’s a way for me to say things with lyrics that I’ve wanted to say for a long time, combined with saxophone.
Cisco Bradley: Who do you see as the intended audience for your music? Are you aiming specifically for Denmark?
Louise D.E. Jensen: No, with Sweet Banditry, despite the fact that it’s in Danish, it doesn’t matter with this band. I want people to have the opportunity to listen to this music. They don’t have to like it—old, young, conservative and non-conservative. I want people to know that this exists, I think. There are so many amazing musicians working on this kind of music and most people have no idea it exists. The society we live in is unengaged and divided. And it also raises the question: why are we doing this, playing this music, being musicans? Do we want people to look at us? Is it the attention we crave? Is that why we do this? Is because we want to belong to a specific group of people or want approval? For me, that’s not why I play music. I just can’t help it. I remember Weasel once saying that he doesn’t know how to do anything else, which sums it up I think.
Cisco Bradley: What are the reactions you’ve gotten?
Louise D.E. Jensen: I think people don’t know what to make of me actually. Some people don’t like it obviously. You can’t necessarily categorize my music and that for some people can be frustrating. Also I think people might be a little intimidated by it all. I’ve had a lot of people who don’t like the screaming or want me to go in one direction or I have had Danish musicians saying, “Why are you writing these kind of lyrics?”, sometimes even when they are actually trying to be extreme themselves. I think I make people uncomfortable. I guess that’s the purpose – to make people uncomfortable and to open things up for discussion. People don’t have to agree with me.
Cisco Bradley: Is there anything that you did to develop your vocals, the vocals that you do, or was that kind of natural?
Louise D.E. Jensen: I always loved singing but somebody once told me that I couldn’t do it. I guess that pissed me off. And then Tom was introducing me to the whole metal world and I got attracted to it and then I started doing that.
Cisco Bradley: It’s always important to be growing as an artist, right?
Louise D.E. Jensen: Always, of course! And I think the moment you stop then there’s something wrong. The moment you stop being curious, what is the point, right?
Cisco Bradley: So what’s the new direction you are going with Sweet Banditry?
Louise D.E. Jensen: Miles Davis has always been a big inspiration to me. All his different musical directions. I have been listening to Miles, Weather Report, Slayer and Mahler lately and got a lot of compositional ideas for the album. The new music I’m writing also reflects upon American society and is a little bit more melodic, more composed, but is fucked up as always. The compositions draw upon music I am interested in at the moment.
And then I also have a duo album coming out with Erica Dicker, a duo with Matt Nelson and then my solo album is going to come out. I am also doing a duo with Tim Dahl, though we haven’t recorded it yet. And then Tamio Shiraishi. I really want to be doing more stuff with him.
Cisco Bradley: What kind of ideas are you exploring with your solo work?
Louise D.E. Jensen: Do you know Colin Marston, the recording engineer? He’s my favorite engineer. I really love the way he approaches the sound of the saxophone. I really love being out there and just recording experiments with my projects. The solo album is a combination of pedals and then acoustic stuff and it is a reflection upon the whole Syrian refugee crisis. That’s the theme because it was really on my mind when I recorded. My solo work is oftentimes centered around trying to approach the saxophone as a brass instrument.
Cisco Bradley: What have you been working on with Erica?
Louise D.E. Jensen: Visiting a lot of unexploited territories.
Cisco Bradley: Are you searching for spontaneity with the stuff that you’re creating?
Louise D.E. Jensen: Definitely! Erica is such a craftsman-musician, open-minded and very spontaneous. We explore these new sides of ourselves that we haven’t explored before. And it’s a way of me being quieter and letting the violin come out more and… Yeah, we’re just experimenting. I can’t really define her playing. I am a big fan of hers.
With Erica it’s really sophisticated and the wildness manifests itself differently. And with Matt, it’s really loud and in your face. He’s one of my favorite saxophonists in the city.
Cisco Bradley: How about Tim?
Louise D.E. Jensen: I just love his playing. It’s like a kind of slow metal or something.
Cisco Bradley: Slow metal? I’ve never heard that term before.
Louise D.E. Jensen: Don’t know if it has been used before, haha. Everything is in slow motion. Intense, yet slow, and I’m screaming a lot. I remember we played at Trans-Pecos one time and I think I really scared people.
Cisco Bradley: Is that what you want?
Louise D.E. Jensen: I want what is the best for the music, but if you don’t dare to talk about the things that really hurt I might scare you with my direct musical approach. I want to explore that side to its full extent. My marriage is that way, my friendships, and the music. I want to know everything. We explore all sides of life so that we can be complete. And I think when people don’t want to go there, they find me scary. It is as if I am holding a mirror up in front of them
And there’s also been the thing, the last couple of years, of people kind of expecting me not to play … because I’ve become a mother and people think I don’t have the time anymore. I’m not a person who wants to just leave our daughter with someone for two weeks and then go on tour. She has to be with us! So I guess that is why some people think that I won’t play much around town. We went on tour with Sweet Banditry last year where we had a friend of ours from Estonia with us and she was babysitting her while we played. I am a full-time mother but also a full-time musician and Tom and I can make it work. We have to improvise, find ways to make it all happen and we do.
And Freyja my daughter knows the Sweet Banditry music for instance. I mean, she’s… Nothing scares her. She’s just like— That’s her world. That’s her mother doing all this weird music. It makes her feel safe.
I want to be a cool role model for my daughter so she can go out and find her path one day… I don’t want her to think that I just… Yeah. I want her to go out and not be afraid of improvising, to engage herself.
That’s one of the things that’s actually really sad about musicians, and I have talked with other people about it. It’s hard for women to have a family and be a musician at the same time; they are often discouraged.
I’m still breastfeeding, although it has slowed down, but it keeps her happy, healthy and safe. She often says “Mom is playing saxophone and Mom is singing this weird stuff.” She is part of us and our lives as musicians, too. Of course it would be nice if we could have someone to babysit her, but in New York it’s really expensive to have a babysitter. We just can’t afford it. So it’s really rare that we have someone taking care of her. So that’s why she goes with me and Tom or I have a friend taking care of her during the performance. In Europe it is different.
Right now I’ve been alone with her pretty much for three months here in New York while doing concerts and rehearsals and stuff while I also prepared for my citizenship test. But it makes her a pretty awesome kid. I mean, she’s never cranky and she’s super happy. That’s her family. I think it’s just improvised music, that’s the way for us – to choose our own path and not to be scared I think. This is unknown territory.
Cisco Bradley: Thanks for sharing all of your personal reflections on your music and the creative process with all of its challenges.
–Cisco Bradley, May 30, 2016