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Feature: Jenna Cave and Divergence Jazz Orchestra


Jenna Cave and

Divergence Jazz Orchestra


By Dave Lisik

Published June 12, 2023

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The Sydney, Australia-based Divergence Jazz Orchestra is set to release its third album in June of 2023. Director and primary composer/arranger Jenna Cave has, as is typical with the DJO, contributed the majority of the music featured on the new album. Dave recently had a discussion with Jenna about the new album and state of the band. Jenna was kind enough to provide scores of all her new music, which he perused while listening to the album.


Cave grew up in Australia’s capital region of Canberra, located about halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. She started learning to play the saxophone at age 11 and joined the school jazz band at 13. Enticed and inspired by the freedom jazz improvisation offered, music study became a central focus of her attention in high school. Jenna’s first of many gigs leading a jazz quartet happened at 16.


After high school, Jenna studied at Australian National University, the local university with a music school in Australia’s capital. She developed some physical issues caused by saxophone playing, which made it impossible to complete a jazz performance degree, but this major setback was the catalyst that nudged her toward composition.  


“I really had my heart set on music being my path and was pretty heartbroken. Eventually, the jazz lecturers took pity on me and offered, in lieu of the performance major, the chance to study a more in-depth curriculum of jazz arranging and composition. This hadn’t been offered to anyone at the undergraduate level before. Up until that point, I had taken the standard two years of jazz arranging and harmony classes that were a required part of the degree, but it wasn’t until I really put in the time to be creative with writing music and I started writing for actual musicians that I discovered what an amazing and fulfilling thing creating my own music is.”


One of Cave’s most significant mentors, whom she describes as a “wonderful teacher,” was Miroslav Bukosky, trumpeter, composer, and “creative musician who really inspired me.”


“I was encouraged to bring my music to be read by different student ensembles every week. Much to my surprise, I fell in love with large ensemble composition. When lessons started with Miro, I was the allocated arranger for a student ensemble he led with four horns and a vocalist. Later, I worked with another student group he led called the “ANU recording ensemble” which varied from 10-12 pieces, horns and rhythm, and had a focus on original student compositions to be recorded and performed. I later started writing for the student big band. I’d bring drafts/in-progress works of my charts to the ensembles to be played, where I could hear what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes, Miro would suggest changes to voicings then and there by giving the players different notes to play so I could hear. 


“I remember our individual lessons involved a lot of sitting together at the piano, Miro crossing out my chords to suggest better alternatives or adding alterations to them. Miro was just so passionate about music and he shared that joy with me. He would lend me his CDs to listen to. At the beginning, large ensemble jazz like Oliver Nelson, Maria Schneider, Gil Evans, Wayne Shorter, and Carla Bley. But later, a variety of things to encourage me to develop my ears. I still remember how transfixed I was the day he played Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” in our lesson, how I felt when I first heard Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe” on Miro’s recommendation, and the plethora of West African music Miro introduced to me.


“In the second of my three years learning with Miro, he told me to join the recording ensemble on alto. He also encouraged me to keep playing – even if I didn’t have the physical capacity to practice much. Even though he’s primarily a trumpet player, he also taught me to be a much better saxophone player, how to use my air to develop a much better sound, and control on my instrument. He’d just give up his time to do this stuff.”


Jenna moved to Sydney in 2008, where she continued her composition studies as a master’s student at the Sydney Conservatorium. At the time, the director of the Conservatorium Big Band was American, Bill Motzing, originally from Pennsylvania. Bill was a graduate of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and the Manhattan School of Music, and had an impressive list of musical accomplishments that included playing with Kai Winding, Gerry Mulligan, William Russo, and Blood Sweat and Tears, as well as composing and conducting across a wide spectrum of styles. 


Motzing clearly had a profound effect on Cave as a young, emerging composer, and her experiences at the Conservatorium would shape her musical choices long after graduation. “Bill was a lovely teacher and he taught me a lot. He directed the Sydney Conservatorium Big Band and was very generous, allowing me to hear the music I was writing played by an exceptional ensemble. In that big band, I met a bunch of musicians who were studying on the jazz course at The Con, one being trombonist, Paul Weber.”

“I also wanted to form my own group because, when you’re the leader, you get to create the culture, and feeling safe and respected was a big one for me.”

Through casual conversations, Cave discovered that she and Weber had similar ambitions to form a big band and they decided to collaborate. Like many composers, Cave’s motivation to lead and conduct a jazz orchestra (always a logistical, financial, and artistic challenge) was born partly out of frustration created by many performances of her own work that didn’t quite match her vision.

“By the time we started the Divergence Jazz Orchestra, my music had been played by heaps of different university and professional bands in various cities. That was great on some level but I would always feel frustrated not being able to actually direct the ensembles and get exactly what I wanted out of the music. I think Paul had similar feelings but from a player perspective; he’d played in many big bands but had plenty of ideas about how he’d do things to get the most out of the musicians if he had a say.”


Being a woman in jazz also played a significant role in Cave’s desire for artistic control. “As a young, female musician, I found myself in a lot of situations where the culture was neither welcoming nor respectful, so I think I also wanted to form my own group because, when you’re the leader, you get to create the culture, and feeling safe and respected was a big one for me.” 


 In 2012, a year after graduating from the Con with a master’s degree, Cave, along with Weber, formed the Divergence Jazz Orchestra. Most of the original members were upper echelon students from the conservatorium or musicians that Weber played with in other bands. Key personnel from the early days included bassist Dave Groves, drummer James McCaffrey, guitarist Luke Liang, trumpeters Dane Laboyrie, Matt Collins, and Will Gilbert, trombonist/composer Brendan Champion, and saxophonists Justin Buckingham and Evan Harris.


“Paul knew a lot more local horn players than I did at the time, as he was from Sydney. I wanted to form the band as a vehicle for my own compositions, but I also loved the idea of supporting and promoting other local composers and celebrating our own musical culture. The aim of the band became to perform and record my music and music by other Australian jazz composers that we enjoyed.”


According to Cave, having her music performed consistently and at a high musical level by the Divergence Jazz Orchestra has been an integral to her development as a composer. “I believe having your music played well is an essential part of the compositional process. You learn what works and what doesn’t, what brings out the best in certain musicians, and you grow as a musician thanks to the artistry of those you make music with. But most importantly, bringing people together to perform is the payoff. It’s not just an intellectual pursuit then. It’s something that connects a whole ensemble of people in a meaningful way, and inspires me to keep writing.”


Divergence released its first album, The Opening Statement, in 2013 and the follow-up project, Fake it Until You Make It, three years later. Cave believes that the 

sound, personality, and culture of the band has changed considerably over the eleven years since its founding. The new album has only 5 original band members on it, with none of the original rhythm section musicians. 


“As we’ve all grown as musicians over this time, individually and as a group, the level of musicianship has really gone up. We’ve explored a lot of repertoire over that time, done a lot of gigs, and there are generally excellent musicians from the scene ready to step up when we need new players. When we started the band, I was 28 and everyone else in the band was male, most in their early 20s. They were lovely and hilarious young blokes, but I did often feel a bit like the exasperated school teacher trying to manage the behavioral problem class at the local boys school. There was a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and some great playing too on the first album The Opening Statement, which was really just a mixed bag of seven pieces I’d written in my 20s. “Fake It” had 11 pieces, six I’d written and a number from other band members. I guess we were sounding more like a real band then and we were all having a lot of fun doing it. I didn’t feel quite like the school teacher anymore. The culture was collaborative and respectful, and the general mood of the music we were playing was uplifting, positive, and optimistic, with a range of stylistic influences.”


After their second album, the band experienced a substantial change in personnel, including a move towards more gender balance. “We finally made some waves in bringing a lot more females into the group, some established players and others who were younger musicians appearing on the scene. This just seemed to continue to make things better musically and in terms of the vibe in the band."


“With our new album, Shadows and Light, the collection of compositions reflect both the shadows and the light of the human experience. Compositions from myself, album co-producer and guest soloist Paul Cutlan, my former teacher Miroslav Bukovsky, and our former pianist Andrew Scott take the listener through moments of darkness, fear, hope, reflection, exuberance, joy, and optimism; a meditation on what it is to be living fully. It was all masterfully captured by sound engineer Ross A’Hern.”


Commissioned by the Sydney Improvised Music Association, the album’s opening track, “Long-Lost Frenemy,” is an original composition of Cave’s, featuring guest soloist Paul Cutlan on tenor saxophone and guitarist Yutaro Okuda. The chart has a vintage jazz/rock vocabulary that, for me, immediately evokes memories of attending jazz festivals as a student in Canada. Jenna writes a considerable amount of carefully-crafted, understated, and well-balanced counterpoint, and there’s a noticeable amount of care put into the often-overlooked detail of solo backgrounds, a trait found in the music of the best composers. Cave has good instincts when it comes to adding subtle variation to repeated material to keep things moving while still being cohesive.  


“Delicatessence” was composed by Miroslav Bukovsky and arranged as a joint effort between himself and Cave, his former pupil. It’s a beautiful, dancing piece and, in Cave’s words, “as per the title, expresses the delicate side of things.” There are moments of surprisingly attractive harmonic colors and the entirety of the chart makes use of varying levels of flute and clarinet doubles in the reed section. 


The introduction to “This Too Shall Pass” is one of the strongest highlights of the album and is among the more immediately modern of the charts on the album. The chart showcases Marie Le Brun’s beautiful vocals and solos from Will Gilbert on flugelhorn and Yutaro Okuda on guitar. About the piece, Jenna says, “I wrote the original song as a reminder to myself, and others, to always hold onto hope when our minds go to dark places – when things feel impossible. I explored some more orchestral textures and some freer solo settings in this one, with the moment of release, when I have metaphorically pushed past the anxiety, at the climax of the guitar solo. I’m really happy with how that piece turned out.”


“Divergence” commissioned Paul Cutlan to compose “The Darkness of Silence” in 2016. Cave points out the chart’s “menacing heavy rock influence” contributing to it being one of the band’s favorites on the recording. She describes the through-composed chart as “a Trump-era statement on why we must always use our voices where we can.”  She added, “Paul is an amazing compositional mind who contributed so much. And the recording features guitarist Yutaro Okuda letting loose.”


“Willoway” is a serene meditation on nature from composer Andrew Scott, with lead trumpeter Matt Collins setting the pace for some beautiful ensemble playing. There’s a nice cohesiveness to the environment created for this chart even when the texture changes, close to the end, with a series of hits in the brass (that I could have enjoyed hearing for longer with some additional development). 


“Orange and Olive Trees” is another original by Cave which she calls a “fun odd-time exploration” inspired by listening to Don Ellis while traveling through Greece in 2017. The band deserves particular commendation for navigating the complex changing meters (13/8, 11/8, and 10/8) and making it feel comfortable.


“Onwards, Upwards (and Sideways)” is a bluesy medium swing that Cave wrote as a commission for Sydney’s St. Catherine’s College jazz band during the pandemic. The uncertainty created by COVID is subtly hinted at in the title. Clearly evident in this particular track is Cave’s depth of traditional big band vocabulary and her ability to write an accessible chart while not sacrificing the quality of her contrapuntal ideas.


The album closes with Miroslav Bukovsky’s “For Woody,” arranged by Cave, who comments, “This one is a bit of an Australian jazz classic originally recorded by Ten Part Invention.” After a short, but skillful, opening piano solo by Adrian Keevil, Paul Cutlan on sopranino saxophone, trumpeter James Power, and tenor saxophonist David Reglar do an admirable job of keeping up with the brisk tempo.


Anyone who has been involved with a big band and has had to navigate the logistical and financial realities of writing and presenting jazz music with a large ensemble will relate to the level of challenge involved. Cave recalls that when the band was starting out, “We played at whatever venue would take us.” 


The band’s first gig was at a pub at the end of Cave’s street called The Bald Faced Stag. “It had a performance room attached that was mostly used by heavy metal bands. We ignored the stage and stage lights and just set up on the floor, playing acoustically and with amps, and got a good crowd of friends and people from the jazz community.” In an unfortunate set of circumstances, the manager in charge of booking the performance space and the bar management weren’t the same people. “The night of our first gig the bar had also booked a very loud blues/rock band in the next room, with only a curtain dividing the rooms. I think we mostly ‘won’ the sound battle, except during our ballads which were overpowered.” 


Live performances present multiple challenges for any bandleader. However, as Cave mentions, recording a big band and releasing an album presents a whole other set of issues with countless, often unforeseen hurdles as a band begins to establish itself.


“Availability of recording studios in Sydney big enough to record a big band, with a piano, and within our budgets has been half the battle. We tried slightly different things in terms of sound production on each of the albums, which has largely been a process of learning what works as we go. The first album was recorded in a huge film scoring studio, Trackdown, and the engineer, Dan Brown, did an amazing job tucking us in a corner and reducing the natural reverb as much as possible, with rhythm section in their own booths. For the second album, I took the lead of our engineer Christo Curtis (who edited and mixed the first album) and we recorded at Studio 301, which was a very big room with a high ceiling and everyone was in the room together. The sound in the room was great and Christo’s main philosophy is to capture the sound of an ensemble rather than just individual instruments. But I did learn from that one that I preferred bass and drums recorded in their own booths, as their subtle details are difficult to bring out in the mix without isolation. For the new album, I recruited Ross A’Hern, as we’d worked with him in live settings before and loved his work. I’m happy with the sound he’s got, again embracing the philosophy of capturing the sound of a combined ensemble.”


“Memorable gigs over years were our first gig playing a with a sound engineer at the Sound Lounge in 2013 (with guest Judy Bailey), our first professional jazz festival gig at the Capital Jazz Project festival at the Street Theatre in Canberra in 2015 (with Miro as a guest), a number of gigs presented by SIMA (Sydney Improvised Music Association), playing the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival doing a feature of my music and Canadian Chelsea McBride’s music in 2017, many gigs at the jazz club, Foundry 616, that have all blurred together in my memory, and some mid-pandemic gigs at the Petersham Bowling Club (one with Nadje Noordhuis as a guest soloist), where everyone was rusty but we were just so happy to be out making music again.”

“There’s still so much that I want to explore as a composer writing for a jazz orchestra, I don’t think I’ll ever be ‘done’ in terms of trying to express myself better in this medium.”

Since the Divergence Jazz Orchestra recorded Shadows and Light in early 2022, they have been adding a significant amount of additional vocal music to the band’s repertoire in order to feature singer Marie Le Brun. Some new charts have been coming from the writing talent within the band, with some additional work penned by saxophonist Alana McPherson.


“We’ve been exploring more female Australian composers recently too, like Gemma Farrell and Sydney local Bonnie Green. I mentored both of them as they were arranging their pre-existing works for big band. We seem to have had a shift in personnel in the past year with some exceptional younger players joining us for gigs, including trumpets Harrison Ball and Tom Avgenicos, and saxophonists Tessie Overmeyer and Jayden Clark. Naturally, changes in personnel always begin to shift the sound and direction of our music. I always find it creatively inspiring working with new people who bring their own voices and experience to the music.”


In addition to the hit that artists and musical organizations took during the COVID pandemic, Jenna has also been experiencing the joys of motherhood and dealing with the challenges brought about by a recent family tragedy. “I’m a solo parent to a five year old daughter who is an absolute joy, and my husband died thirteen months ago. With motherhood, and again with widowhood, I’ve gained a much more grounded perspective on why I want to make music – because I love it, it brings myself and others great joy and comfort, it connects people, and that’s it. Concepts such as career progression, recognition, or producing a certain amount of creative output, mean little to me now. Realizing this is a huge relief, to be honest!”


When asked where the band is heading next, Cave offers: “Time will tell, but it’s going to keep going, I know that. I want to keep a focus on presenting works by Australian women (alongside works by men), and to encourage and mentor more women interested in developing themselves at big band writing. I’ve just finished an arrangement for Nadje Noordhuis of one of her pieces to use when she runs college big band clinics. We’ll definitely be giving that one a blow on future gigs. Nadje writes great tunes. Given not all jazz composers orchestrate for big band, I also like the idea of arranging more works from Australian women for the group. In the past year, I’ve written six new songs for a sextet recording project called Grief, Hope, Love, which documents different stages of working through my grief and healing after my husband took his own life. I’d like to eventually arrange some of these for the band. I have much to learn about orchestrating a big band with a featured vocalist. There’s still so much that I want to explore as a composer writing for a jazz orchestra, I don’t think I’ll ever be ‘done’ in terms of trying to express myself better in this medium.”  

Divergence Jazz Orchestra
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