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In the year of COVID-19, where once-thriving festivals and live music events are becoming increasingly distant memories, the story of how seven internationally acclaimed female jazz stalwarts joined forces to create the band Artemis stands out as a poignant triumph of will and spirit. Having first discovered and demonstrated their powerful chemistry on festival stages throughout Europe in 2017, the group — pianist Renee Rosnes, clarinetist Anat Cohen, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Allison Miller and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant — recently released its self-titled debut album on the Blue Note imprint.
Indeed, the group’s formation dates to 2017, when a European promoter tasked Rosnes with assembling a group of top musicians for a dozen or so appearances that would be billed as “Ladies in Jazz.” Subsequently Rosnes reached out to an array of seasoned, widely lauded talent. The fact that the group ultimately assembled for the tour had a distinctly international flavor — Rosnes and Jensen hail from Canada, Miller and Salvant from the United States, Cohen’s from Israel, Aldana’s from Chile and Ueda is from Japan — was more serendipitous happenstance than willful intention. Rosnes had performed previously with Cohen, including during a Japanese tour in 2011, and had also been joined by Aldana for appearances at the Village Vanguard and Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center.
“This was an extraordinary opportunity,” Rosnes says, “and I simply wanted to work with musicians I had long respected. Of those I had not yet played with, I was familiar with the careers of Noriko and Allison, and Ingrid is a longtime friend from British Columbia. Yes, there’s versatility as far as our origins go, and I love the fact that there was such cultural and musical versatility. But once we started playing, it was refreshing just to be on the bandstand with this amazing female energy, making music at this high level.”
“Those road trips, with their 5 a.m. lobby calls and other stressful elements between the shows, allow you to hang with people every day, for good and bad,” Cohen says. “It’s like a marriage, where there are tense moments amidst the camaraderie. But what we discovered was that not only was it a blast to be onstage with them and getting those great audience responses, but it was just as much fun hanging off stage, which is not always the case with groups on tour. No matter who you travel and play with, the bottom line is, you’ve got to be cool and easy to get along with, and you have to play your asses off. With Artemis, it’s all about presenting the excellence of seven women aspiring to be the best at their craft.”
During the European tour, the still-unnamed band was focused on gigging and no one spoke of extending it into a long-term project. But everything jelled a year later when the musicians regrouped for a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, a show NPR broadcast on Jazz Night in America. Blue Note President Don Was caught the performance and quickly got the ball rolling toward signing the band to the famed jazz label. By then, Jensen had conceived the perfect moniker to capture the group’s empowering vibe and forward-thinking mission: Artemis, who in Greek mythology is the daughter of Zeus and Leto and the twin sister of Apollo. “Known as the ‘Goddess of the Hunt,’ she is also an explorer, a torch bringer and protector of young children,” the trumpeter says. “Her character perfectly reflects the energies and wide array of tapestries that the band brings to the stage and our debut.”
While Jensen’s sensual, hard-swinging arrangement of The Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill” and the lush, soulful spin on Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” (featuring Salvant’s caressing vocals) are holdovers from the live gigs, the other songs Artemis brought to the rehearsal and recording sessions at Oktaven Audio in Mount Vernon, New York, were fresh to the repertoire. These include Rosnes’ slow-simmering re-imagining of Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” and Salvant’s gentle, torchy twist on the obscure 1948 Maxine Sullivan gem “Cry, Buttercup, Cry.” The album’s track list is rounded out by one original composition apiece from Rosnes, Miller, Aldana, Cohen and Ueda.
“By default, I am considered the musical director and producer, but I don’t really like those terms,” says Rosnes. “I function as more of an organizational force to bring the artists, songs and sonic elements together. Beyond further expressing our great collective energy, since we became a full-fledged band I wanted everyone’s compositional voice to be heard and their individual artistry showcased. Everyone had a voice in terms of what they enjoyed playing, and the goal was to take everyone’s feelings into consideration in putting the perfect set list together.”
Acknowledging the band’s spirit of open discussions and Rosnes’ role in directing them, Cohen says, “In every democracy, there’s a prime minister. In my own band, I never tell other musicians specifically what to do. You have to be sensitive to their individual personalities and abilities. If you give them freedom, they’ll bring in concepts you never could have dreamed about. Renee let us run the sessions for our own songs. When ‘Nocturno’ [the song that Cohen contributed to the album] came up, I led the band for two hours. Then I took that hat off and passed it on. It was all based on sharing ideas and helping one another achieve their original visions.”
Though Rosnes and Cohen insist they don’t consciously think about feminist-related issues when they’re onstage or in the studio, they acknowledge that Artemis can play an important cultural role in serving to expand people’s perceptions of what women can accomplish in a traditionally male-dominated field.
“As the song goes, the times are a-changing,” says Rosnes. “There seems to be a greater awareness these past years about the issues, with more women in high political positions and making progress in other professions, like chefs and astronauts. It’s only a matter of time before groups like Artemis won’t be viewed as the exception, and there will be even more women playing instruments besides piano. When I conduct master classes at universities, I’m encouraged by the large percentage of women playing jazz now. Artemis prefers to not concern ourselves with how others might want to label us based on gender. We want the music to speak for itself. If people listen with open minds and hearts, we trust that the sheer power of it will transcend all such limitations.”
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