Artemis, Jazz Group of the Year


Artemis is, from left, Allison Miller, Ingrid Jensen, Renee Rosnes, Nicole Glover, Alexa Tarantino and Noriko Ueda.

(Photo: Ebru Yildiz)

In some ways, it’s hard to believe that Artemis is only 6 years old. Not just for the group’s rapid ascent into the jazz firmament, but for its players’ cool-headed resilience in the face of tectonic change. First, there was the sudden spotlight of the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival and subsequent major-label record deal. Then the social justice movement and the jazz world’s reckoning with its inequitable treatment of female musicians. And the global pandemic shutdown, just as the then-septet readied its debut album for release. Throughout all of this, the group continued to steadily build an admired presence with the listening public. DownBeat readers noticed: This year they voted Artemis the Jazz Group of the Year.

In other ways, however, Artemis’ success is neither surprising nor unexpected. As individual artists, the group’s core members have long graced all manner of concert stages and recordings: Artemis musical director/pianist Renee Rosnes has released more than 20 albums as a leader and racked up multiple Juno Award nominations and wins. Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen has led almost a dozen albums, garnered one Juno, and is a first call for bandleaders like Maria Schneider, Terri Lyne Carrington and Darcy James Argue.

Drummer Allison Miller, with almost a dozen albums under her name (several featuring her long-standing sextet Boom Tic Boom) works just as easily with pop stars as with leading avant gardists. Bassist Noriko Ueda, winner of the BMI Foundation Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize, has fronted her own successful big band for almost two decades.

Alongside such prodigious self-directed output, these players also have contributed to well over 100 albums as side musicians working with some of the world’s most prominent artists. So, how could the combined talents of these formidable women be anything but blinding?

In 2020, the group turned out its first record, Artemis (Blue Note), an impressive showcase of smartly composed works written and/or arranged by its members. At the time, three similarly high-profile musicians were part of the band’s lineup: tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, clarinetist Anat Cohen and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, all of whom had been touring with the group since its formation for International Women’s Day in 2017.

This past May, as a follow-up to this debut, Artemis released In Real Time (Blue Note), another massive ensemble effort featuring the band’s latest configuration. Saxophonist Nicole Glover had taken over for Aldana just before the first album hit the streets, and multi-reedist Alexa Tarantino had replaced Cohen in 2022. Salvant, who received both MacArthur Foundation and Doris Duke grants in 2020, has been touring and recording seemingly without letup since these triumphs. Rather than signaling disruption within the band’s ranks, however, this shape-shifting — from septet to sextet and sometimes quintet — speaks to the eminence of its individual members.

“Artemis is an evolving band, and from time to time the personnel change, and may do so again in the future,” Rosnes wrote in an email to DownBeat, in between album-launch shows at New York’s Birdland in September. “Because we are a band of leaders with busy schedules, we have to carve out time well in advance to make sure we can tour.”

Notably, despite the exigencies of touring and leader projects, the group’s rhythm section and principal horn soloist have remained unchanged, suggesting that the group’s evolution augurs a deepening rather than a course adjustment.

“Since its inception, the sound of the band has become more defined,” Rosnes explained. “When we’re in the moment, there’s a laser focus that brings us into a zone of conversation, where one statement can alter the direction of the music. Trust and an open-mindedness to embrace each of our musical natures has led to some exhilarating music-making.”

Even as deep listening and ready responsiveness to each member in the moment affects the direction of the music, it’s hard to ignore Rosnes as the driver behind both the group’s creation and its musical path forward.

“As musical director, I mainly act as an organizing force for the band,” she said. “I do many of the arrangements, but every member contributes to the repertoire as well. In terms of rehearsal, each composer shapes and hones their own piece, and once we begin performing them, the music naturally morphs and expands in conception.”

Quite clearly, each of the originals on the new album carries the stamp of its composer — both in sound and backstory. Jensen’s contribution, “Timber,” for instance, derives from the trumpeter’s family ties to British Columbia, with its rugged, forested terrain. Her free, impressionistic intro invokes the wildness of this landscape, her clean brass sections conveying its majesty, and her sputtering solo revealing its imperilment. When Jensen plays, you can almost hear the intended words — part reverence, part warning.

Ueda, too, draws inspiration from nature on “Lights Away From Home,” recalling a meteor shower that she witnessed while camping on a remote New York island. Counter to this romantic imagery, the composition bustles with fast-twitch solos and delight-driven full band sections.

Miller, whose rhythmic deftness firmly establishes the ensemble’s gravitational pull, again offers a tribute to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, as on the group’s first album. Her composition “Bow And Arrow” remains tethered in a declarative big band swing, even as Miller pushes fluctuations in feel.

Likewise, Tarantino uses unflinching movement to create tension on “Whirlwind,” a fervent jazz waltz with a brooding head that changes color with each soloist; where Tarantino’s trilling flute conjures mystery, Glover’s deep tenor generates frenzied excitement — a reflection on Tarantino’s early days with Artemis. (Glover also writes for the group, though none of her tunes appear on this record.)

Rosnes’ two originals on the album, however, stand in contrast with each other, revealing different aspects of the pianist’s compositional self. First, the stimulating “Empress Afternoon” — previously recorded with tabla master Zakir Hussain on Rosnes’ Life On Earth (Blue Note) and rearranged for the sextet — evidences her extreme comfort with complex polyrhythms. And in what is arguably the most introspective track on the album, “Balance Of Time,” Rosnes embraces melodic simplicity as a vehicle for emotional vulnerability. “When I’m writing and discover a melodic cell that I find interesting, I place a lot of trust in my intuition and instincts,” she said of her writing process. “The art of composing is basically improvisation with the luxury of time and an eraser, and the process itself is a balance of time.”

For the album, Rosnes also arranged two compositions by jazz innovators who’d influenced her work. On the first, “Slink,” by Lyle Mays (1953–2020), she applies a coordinated, unison melody line that flows through the tune’s ever-moving harmonic spaces. One of those lines is her own smooth vocals; though Rosnes doesn’t consider herself a singer, she’ll use her voice “for orchestrational purposes” and the “certain magic” that wordless vocals add to an otherwise instrumental piece.

“I’ve always really loved Lyle Mays’ playing, and especially his writing,” Rosnes said. “[This tune] is one of his great compositions, originally featured on his first, eponymously titled, solo album in 1986. I rearranged it for Artemis, with the addition of the flute, Rhodes and the vocals on top, and the band played it like it had been in the book for years.”

Rosnes also placed “Penelope” on the album’s set list, recorded before its composer, Wayne Shorter, passed away in March. A staple of the group’s live repertoire, Rosnes’ take on the tune features rangy horn solos and dark chords in an irresistible slow dance — a denser, more structured understanding of the original.

“Wayne Shorter was a visionary thinker, a genius, a hero and an influence to a large degree for all of us in the band,” wrote Rosnes. “The experiences I had as a member of his band 30 years ago helped to shape my entire view of music and certainly who I am as a player and composer today. He opened up my mind to new ways of thinking about music, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t reflect on some lesson that I learned while working with him.

“I love that Wayne immortalized many women through his music — family members, friends and great women of history alike — through many of his pieces, including ‘Ana Maria,’ ‘Iska,’ ‘Miyako,’ ‘Joanna’s Theme,’ ‘Aung San Suu Kyi,’ ‘Sacagawea,’ ‘The Three Marias,’ ‘Midnight In Carlotta’s Hair,’ ‘Marie Antoinette’ and ‘Nefertiti.’”

This track, the album’s last, bears repeated listening if only to hear Shorter’s musical ideas channeled through these six musicians’ instruments. In coming to appreciate all that goes into their artistry behind the scenes — the arranging, the composing, the leading — it’s easy to forget that first and foremost these women are players. Players of the highest order.

Playing happens “in real time,” the album title reminds us. On the surface, this phrase alludes to the improvisatory abilities of these players and the ephemeral nature of music itself. Deeper still, though, it makes a statement about the strength required to face change — and about the women who take that on. DB

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