The composer talks: Jenna Cave with Samuel Cottell

With Divergence Jazz Orchestra founder



I’m standing in the cold on Glebe Point Road waiting for Jenna Cave. We’re meeting at Da Capo Music store to have a coffee and chat about the composer-saxophonist’s latest projects, and her Divergence Jazz Orchestra celebrating its five-year anniversary.

Though we’ve talked before and even had a few jam sessions together, this interview was always going to be something different. After we order coffee (and cake, of course), I turn on the recording device and we simply talk about music, composing, life as a musician, finding your confidence and leading your own path. There are no planned subjects, just two friends talking about music. And here’s what happens.


SAMUEL COTTELL: It’s Divergence Jazz Orchestra’s fifth birthday, congratulations. Tell me a bit about what’s happening.

JENNA CAVE: Yes! We’re celebrating five years. Well, it’s a bit over five years since our first performance, which was around July or August 2012 – but better late than never!

S: Take me back to Divergence’s first performance, five years ago.

J: It was in a pub.

S: A pub?

J: Yes, it was at the Bald-Faced Stag at the corner of Parramatta Road and Balmain Road. They used to have a lot of jazz there. We just wanted somewhere to play for our first gig and I lived on that street so I went and asked, but now it’s really set up as a venue for hardcore rock bands! They had this big stage with these big lights, so we actually just played on the floor in front of that.

It was actually really funny, because there were people that organised the shows – from, like, a booking agency, I guess – and then there were people that ran the bar, and they didn’t necessarily communicate that there was only a curtain separating. So on the night we did our first gig, we were in the kind of performance room, and then in the room a curtain away there was a really loud blues-rock band playing at the same time!

S: Was that your first time conducting as well?

J: I’d done a little bit of conducting before that, but not much.

S: How did that feel conducting a jazz orchestra that you’d had a hand in assembling?

J: It was a challenge, mainly because of the noise from the other band playing at the same time. I remember the ballads being the most difficult, as I could definitely hear that other band as well as I was trying to conduct a slow ballad, so that was interesting.

S: Well you’ve come a long way since then! So what other material do you remember playing on that first night?

J:  The first gig, we did a bunch of my charts, mostly my charts. We did a piece by Nadia Burgess called Thirty-four Degrees South which had been performed by a few other bands before – it’s a cool, up-tempo swing number. Also, Cameron Earl, who is a trumpet player now living in Melbourne, had composed some pieces for big band. So I got him to bring one of his pieces, and we played that as well.

S: You started the big band as a vehicle for playing your own works, which is obviously difficult to get done – and I guess it’s a pretty crazy idea to start a big band in Sydney! How did you do that?

J: I’d been focusing on composing music for big band. Most of the pieces had been performed before but I really wanted them to develop. If you just give a piece to someone else to play, it’s very different from when you’re working with a band and actually developing it. For example, it might not quite be what you imagined. So I really wanted to have that aspect of actually working with the band and working together, especially with jazz-based stuff where you want it to be a collaborative thing. I don’t want to just be a dictator: if someone’s got an idea for a feel here or anything, then that’s great, I’ll take on the idea.

S: That’s a really interesting point, because jazz is about improvisation and people having their own ideas. So how does that play into the big band? I mean, you’ve got most of it notated, right?

J: Well, because there are so many musicians and things need to be a bit more orderly, you can’t just cue everything with that many people. Yes there is more notated stuff, whereas, say, if you were playing that in a small group, you might not even notate it – you might just have a description or something.

S: I guess that’s how the art of arranging started. The big band was invented and they were like, ‘oh, you have to organise this’.

J:  Yeah. Well, in Divergence anyway [there’s a new chart] I brought in earlier this year, and it moved between different sections. Then someone in the band had an idea and said, ‘well, when we go into this section, why don’t we have the rhythm section and just have solo sax?’. I thought it was a good idea, so we tried it. If I didn’t like the idea, I would’ve just said ‘oh, nah’.

S: So, you’re collaboratively composing, in a way?

J: Yes! After rehearsals, I’d go home and say to myself: ‘Yeah, that was a good idea. Write it that way’. And in the end, it makes the piece, and ultimately the performance, better. There are lots of things such as little suggestions on the feel of a piece. Often I can hear the band in my head and I can hear a ‘feel’, but I don’t necessarily know exactly how to express that in words. I might write out a little guide of what the ‘feel’ is, but sometimes people will come up with something clearer or better ideas and I think, ‘that’s great, we’ll go with that’!

S: That’s a good approach.

J: All sorts of things like tempo get discussed as well. When you’re writing something at home, you don’t really know how it’s going to sit with the band: so, ‘okay, we’ll do it faster than that’, or so many things like that. Then, when people do their improvised solos, they’re doing whatever they want.

S:  I think tempo’s interesting. I just finished composing a piece for piano and saxophone, and there’s this section in the middle that’s slow. And when I improvise in it, it’s really nice on the piano, really slow. Then we did it with the saxophone and I was like, ‘God, that’s dreary’. It was really funny. In my imagination, it was like, ‘Oh, you know, great’. And then with another performer, sometimes what you imagine doesn’t work in reality.

J: Exactly. And sometimes, it’s like someone else might not have the exact same concept in their head of how you were thinking of it, or something might actually be really hard to play in time at a certain tempo; ‘mine might be a little bit faster’; ‘mine might drag’; little things…

S: So, in that sense, you’re not dictating. You’re not saying: ‘Here’s my score, that’s it’?

J: No! Because then you end up with music that’s not as good and it’s not very fun. For me, music making is about working with other people, and obviously – being ‘a composer’ – a lot of that is solitary. But it’s really important for me to have that collaborative thing because that’s what really brings it to life and that’s what gives me joy.

S: Take us through the process of the initial conception of a piece – how you get it, and then the working process to the final performance. What does that entail? Is composing solitary? You’re sitting at home…

J: Often it will just be walking around the house. I do my best composing on the weekends because I feel relaxed, and then I’ll just hear something in my head and it could just be a little groove or riff, or it could just be a concept. But it is usually in the way of hearing something. And then it’s really a matter of trying to get that down on paper and developing it, because sometimes you can hear it playing in your head and it’s really cool and cohesive – but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to then develop it, because it’s really just sort of abstract in your mind. To then sit down and kind of ‘nut it out’, it [takes] a lot of work to finally get to the goal of what you were going for. Sometimes, it might just take you somewhere else and it might not be exactly as you imagined and that’s fine, too, that was just a starting place. There are just so many directions it can go in.

S: It’s funny, I always get my best ideas in the shower. The trick is to capture it.

J: And then kind of run back…put a towel on…[laughs].

S: So do you start orchestrating straight away or do you come up with it down the line?

J: I have no hard-and-fast rules. Usually, I start at a piano with the melodic line and then have some idea of where the harmony’s going. Sometimes it might be a melodic line and a counter line and then kind of fill in what the chord symbols are. But, yeah, it changes.

Usually I wouldn’t start just with doing the voicing for a whole big band, because that would take you out of the flow. You’ve got some melodic ideas or harmonic ideas, but then doing voicing for a big band is quite detailed. So you could easily lose what you were thinking.

S: When I’m doing orchestration, I think in terms of vertical and horizontal ideas and then the voicing is sort of like a mechanical process, at times.

J: Yeah, you’re still being creative with them but there’s still a certain amount of concentrating and tweaking. There’s that kind of dry, analytical thing, which is part of it as well as being creative. So sometimes, you’ve got to get a sweep of ideas out so it’s better and then you know you’d maybe have a minute written and you’d orchestrate it. Then that may inform how the rest of the piece is going to develop. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything start to finish just as a melody, especially for a big band.

S: You’ve been sitting at home in your room with your cat and it’s very isolating. And then suddenly you’re in front of, what, 16 people – so composing suddenly becomes a social thing. What does that feel like?

J: It feels good! Obviously being one of the leaders of Divergence I find it a very comfortable environment and we choose nice people to play with us. Sometimes when I was younger, I’d bring people to bands when I’d never even met them before, and it’s quite terrifying because it’s a vulnerable thing. You’re putting this thing in front of them and it’s not developed yet, and you want some feedback – like anything when you’re being vulnerable you want to feel safe.

S: I think composing – writing or composing or anything creative – is inherently vulnerable. You spend all that time at home alone with this thing, and then you put it out in the world and it gets critiqued. How do you feel when you get feedback from the band that you don’t necessarily agree with?

J: They’re never mean! I guess it’s because they’re a group of people I trust. If something doesn’t quite work, I don’t take offense – but if they said it in a horrible way, definitely I’d be a bit upset! In that collaborative environment, though, the best way to work is not even thinking about it being my composition. It’s more just like any piece that we’re working on. I think that’s the best way because then it’s no longer about my own ego – it’s just music; how are we going to make it better?

S: It becomes a Divergence composition? A collective thing?

J: Exactly.

S: I think that’s nice – like you’ve done the groundwork, and they’re adding another layer to it.

J: Yep.

S: So, everyone’s really a composer, or an arranger; the arranging credit will be a whole page.

J: I guess in a situation of 19 people, there will still be people who make the final call which would obviously be Paul (Weber) and I. Sometimes, Paul and I disagree on things but that’s fine. So, we do have a bit of order in there, too – we’re not all equally contributing.

S: What does it feel like standing up there conducting?

J: It’s amazing!

S: You’ve got a gig, and you hear yourself being introduced by the club owner and then you walk out in front of the band. What does that first downbeat feel like?

J: It’s amazing standing in front of a big band and they’re playing at you! Obviously, it’s not like being a classical conductor and you’re in control of everything. There’s a bit of sway though and what I do does have some influence. It’s amazing being up there making music, especially when you’ve worked so hard to create that piece or it’s something that’s come out of you. It’s like nothing else.

S: What if something goes askew – do you panic? How do you have to bring it back together?

J: Sometimes there’s not much you can do. I don’t think we’ve ever had a complete train wreck in this band – but if there was, I’d just yell out something like, ‘D section!’. So, it’s good that I’m there if that were to happen.

S: Given that a big band can often function on their own, what role do you play as conductor? You don’t see that many big bands with an actual conductor. I’m thinking of Maria Schneider, I know she directs the solos a little bit.

J: I don’t really direct the solos. One of the things I do a lot of is control the dynamics (or attempt to) with my gesturing. I think a lot of big bands always play loud and there’s no need for it to always be loud. If you can play beautifully, it doesn’t have to be loud. I pull a lot of weird faces, and that perhaps helps to build the mood and the energy. Also, I’ve got to be there to cue entries. I don’t know exactly what it does, but it sounds different without me standing there.

S: So in five years, you’ve recorded two albums, done numerous gigs; you’ve had new people come and go…how do you feel you have evolved?

J: My skills as a musician have increased exponentially, working with that many people to bring stuff to life. Before that I didn’t really have skills in leading people and now I feel that I have the skills to lead a group of professional musicians, and get the best out of them musically. Part of that is about having an energy that will encourage everyone and get good music happening. I think my composing has certainly developed; every time you compose something, you get better with each new piece.

S: Do you feel different?

J: I felt like a young person, and now I feel much more grown up and I’m not scared to say what I want.

S: I guess it’s like raising a family?

J: I guess it would be a little bit. As a group, we’ve certainly come along way.

S: What are some of your highlights?

J: Making the last album was amazing, as an experience. With the first album, it was great, but it was incredibly stressful managing all of those musicians within the span of two days to get a record. Fake It Until You Make It, we knew what we were doing, and so we were free to make music. It was so much fun and we got 11 tracks down in two days. It was also a sort of documentation process, getting some of the material that we had done in live concerts recorded over a period of three years – between albums. A couple of gigs also stand out, particularly the one with Miroslav Bukovsky earlier this year. Actually, this morning I was looking through some videos from that concert, and it was so nice to have a great gig through SIMA. The sound was great, we were well rehearsed, we had new exciting material. I love Miro and his music, and we co-wrote an arrangement and it was so good to be able to do that together. He was my teacher and it was really nice to feel like I had given something back to him, in a way.

S: What were the main things that Miro taught you, as a composer and a musician?

J: Well, he taught me to let go, creatively, and he introduced me to so much music. Not just jazz, but all sorts of amazing things and helped me to open my imagination and let me develop creatively.

S: What you are doing is creating music, within a jazz framework. What do you consider genre to be – and how do you view your music considering this?

J: I got to compose and explore all of this music and it was never confined to classical or jazz, and no one ever said ‘you have to sound like Gil Evans’. I was never told I have to do anything to be a specific way. I found composing so liberating in contrast to learning saxophone where I was basically told to learn all of the Charlie Parker solos and that kind of thing. But with composing, you were free in whatever you wanted to create. It’s interesting; I’m now at a point in my own playing where I am feeling more free to just play however I want.

S: Well, that’s interesting – I heard that Charlie Parker didn’t practice all of his solos.

J: [Laughs]

S: You studied your Masters in composition at the Sydney Conservatorium with Bill Motzing. What did you learn from Bill?

J: Bill just had an ability to teach you [to] write music that was perfectly honest and musical. With Bill, I did a lot of counterpoint exercises. He would look at all the small things contained in the counterpoint, like where the voices could be balanced. Before studying with Bill, I felt I could write, intuitively, a good melody, but after studying with Bill I felt I had more control of my craft.

S: What appeals to you, aesthetically?

J: So much and that’s why I love listening to all sorts of things, and then you can adopt those ideas into your own work in whichever way you want.

S: In that sense, there are no boundaries?

J: Exactly. You can hear these ideas and they might have inspired you, and then you can put them in your music, even if they are something you don’t necessarily do musically.

S: Everyone keeps talking about the death of jazz. What’s that all about?

J: It all depends on what you define jazz as. I like to think of it as an approach to music.

S: Like a philosophy?

J: Yeah. It’s heavily rhythmic music that is about freedom, expression and improvisation entwined with the blues and that sort of thing, but you can do anything with it. I’m actually now at the point where I’m free. I’m performing in this free improvisation duo and we may not be very rhythmic all the time, but I don’t even care. I don’t know if you’d necessarily call it ‘jazz’, but we are taking the approach of jazz, to completely let go and make a beautiful, in-the-moment conversation with music. To me, that’s what it’s about.

S: Tell me about your new project – you’re returning to playing saxophone?

J: When I was younger, I had a lot of RSI problems and also this was tied in with anxiety. There was this expectation that if you were a jazz saxophonist, you had to play fast and loud and if you couldn’t do that then you weren’t very good. I don’t like playing like that. Other people can do that and it sounds fantastic, but I don’t hear that when I play. I got so terrified and tense with my own playing, but I was losing my passion for it and was practising like a maniac out of fear, and I ruined myself physically. I always felt inferior because I didn’t play a certain way. I practised all of those solos, like Coltrane and Parker, but I never wanted to play like that. Now, I’ve finally let go and I can play what I want. In order to get over the mental hurdles, I had to say ‘it doesn’t matter’. And, really, I came to the conclusion that it was the same as composing, in the same head space. I can write good melodies, so why not just improvise them? It doesn’t matter if I don’t play fast. Now that I’m 33, I feel that I am actually over that mental hurdle.

S: I remember when you had started to play saxophone again – you came to visit me in my office when I was teaching at the University of Sydney and we played Moonlight in Vermont and some of the new pieces you had just composed, and I think you sang, as well. That was a really nice music-making experience that I remember fondly.

J: Yes, it was. There was no pressure, and this is what I like.

S: Tell me about your improvising duo.

J: It’s with Keyna Wilkins. Shortly after I had started playing again, I put a post on Facebook and said ‘who wants to jam’, and she messaged me. We just met at her house and we jammed. I had never done free improvising with anyone before and we just had this free jam and there was no judgement. There was no preconceptions about how each of us had to play. There was an instant connection. Because she is also a composer we were improvising melodies. We then did saxophone and flute and I said, ‘let’s do a gig’. For me, it really helped me get back into performing and this was a really nice way to do it. You can’t tell me I’m not doing the wrong or right thing – we aren’t calling it jazz. The first gig was quite nervous, but we are now doing more of them.

S: I’m sure in five years, we’ll be sitting here again talking about your fifth birthday celebration of the duo!

J: [Laughs]

S: Are you going to play saxophone with Divergence?

J: Well, I think I am at the next gig!

S: You should, on one of your pieces! Next, you’re going to Melbourne soon as well to work with the Melbourne Composers Big Band?

J: Yes! It’s funny, the week I started Divergence, James Mustafa started the Melbourne Composers Big Band. So there is a nice synchronicity to be playing a gig of my music with them in the same year as Divergence celebrating their fifth birthday. So, it’s a featured concert and we’re playing all of my pieces. I’m really excited to take this music to another group of people and to play my music with these musicians who haven’t played it before.

S: What else is happening?

J: I’ve also got a new quintet. I’m playing saxophone and singing and we’re doing my music. We’re doing a gig in November at underground venue in Sydney. I’m really excited about that new group. I’ve got Will Gilbert, Hannah James, and Andrew Scott. They are just such wonderful and lovely people. I love their approach to music and their playing and I just love the idea of being both composer and improviser. This is a new project that’s started so hopefully that starts to build its own momentum as well.

Divergence Jazz Orchestra celebrates its fifth birthday with a concert at Foundry 616 on 23 September. You can learn more about Jenna and Keyna’s improvising duo From This Moment, hear some of their music, and stay posted on their upcoming gigs online.


Image supplied. Featured: Frank Crews.

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