The Sheer Force Of Artemis


The members of Artemis are drummer Allison Miller (left), pianist and musical director Renee Rosnes, bassist Noriko Ueda, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, clarinetist Anat Cohen and tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana.

(Photo: Keith Major)

For instance, on Miller’s composition “Goddess Of The Hunt,” she creates a propulsive context for strategic harmonic interplay among the three horns, in contrast with the supportive, loping groove that she sets on Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” arranged by Rosnes, a track with some of the brightest horn solos on the album.

Likewise, on Ueda’s high-velocity instrumental “Step Forward,” the ensemble functions as a decisive unit, with ferocious solos all around, only to fall back into gentle comping on Salvant’s tour-de-force performance of Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” also arranged by Rosnes.

Such profound musical discernment is not easily achieved.

In its eponym, the group finds an apt symbol for such virtuosity. Traditionally, the Greek goddess Artemis governs several contradictory natural forces—chastity and childbirth, the moon and the earth, the hunt and the hunted. Her superpower is her skill with a bow and arrow, her knack for hitting dead-center every time. Swap the arrows for instruments, and you have Artemis—jazz musicians with unswerving aim.

The members of Artemis joined DownBeat for a Zoom conference call in June, just as the coronavirus outbreak was abating in the New York City area, where most of the musicians had been living in lockdown. (Cohen dialed in from Rio de Janeiro.) On the call, they discussed the creative process behind the album, their views on inclusivity in jazz and what the post-pandemic future might hold.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You’d been playing together as a septet for a few years before signing with Blue Note last year. How did the band originate?

Rosnes: The first incarnation of the group was in 2016. A French promoter invited me to put together a band to celebrate Women’s Day for some concerts in Paris and Luxembourg. We decided afterwards that we wanted to do some more work, and in 2017 we did a summer tour—three weeks on the European festival circuit. And we just had a blast. So, we thought we’d explore the possibilities of continuing to play together.

Artemis is a commanding figure in Greek mythology. Why did you adopt her name for the band?

Jensen: What happened was, my husband [drummer Jon Wikan] and I were talking about our Norwegian Viking roots, thinking there might be some cool names from that [era]. But there aren’t—they were all horrible people [laughs]. So, we looked at the Greek gods and goddesses to see if we’d have any luck there. I was reading about Artemis—she has a bit of a dark side, but for the most part she’s pretty awesome. That powerful part of her, there’s that energy in [our] music. It’s just like on Ali’s tune “Goddess Of The Hunt.”

That particular track opens the album with such a solid musical statement. Allison, can you speak to its significance?

Miller: Writing “Goddess Of The Hunt,” I was thinking about each member of the ensemble and their incredible feminine power. I wanted to explore that sonically, how the strong traits of women would sound. Resilience, persistence, elegance. So, the rhythm section groove during the tune represents the persistence of women, the determination that we have. Next, there’s a harmony part with Melissa and Ingrid, in juxtaposition to the rhythm section. That’s the elegance, the mysterious quality of women. And then, when Anat and Renee enter with that angular melody, it’s like a pounce. You know, don’t mess with women, because we can really be fierce. I was thinking about all those things. And everybody in this band is such a badass that [the tune] just played itself.

The group synergy is unmistakable on this album. Even so, your distinctive musical personalities come through in the writing and arranging. For example, “Big Top” races just as hard as Allison’s tune, but the vibe is lighter, more whimsical. Renee, how did you conceive this one?

Rosnes: Initially, when I began to compose a piece for the recording, I was thinking about the perception—in the past, anyway—that female jazz players are novelties. I wanted to take that stereotype and repurpose it, to rob it of its power. I also was thinking about a circus metaphor, where [the composition] has different acts, as in a circus. I love the part towards the beginning where Allison is playing an amazing drum solo and the horns play little bits of circus motifs, almost commenting on what’s going on. It was so exciting to me, because I could completely see a high-wire trapeze act as [they were] playing. And in writing it, I was actually attempting to have the band reflect all of the qualities that Allison mentioned.

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