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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    ’Harlem Valley’ inspiration

    Thor Jensen
    Guitarist Thor Jensen embraces new phase

    When he was in his late teens, Thor Jensen threw himself into studies at an unaccredited Westerly music school called “Hanging Out on Canal Street.” An already accomplished guitar player, Jensen gave lessons at Frets, the still-vital shop owned by luthier Zach Dustin, which was then housed in the refurbished and pan-artistic United Theatre.

    At the same time, Jensen sold CDs and gleaned wisdom in a different store in the same building – a now-defunct operation called Paul’s Music and More. The owner, jazz drummer Paul Marcil, provided Jensen with a marvelous array of tips, anecdotes, what-to-listen-to suggestions and an array of life lessons in general.

    “That’s what I did instead of going to college,” Jensen says in a recent phone conversation. “My education largely happened in Frets and Paul’s Music, and I don’t think I’d be a professional musician today without those experiences and being around those people.”

    That sentiment makes Jensen’s performance tonight in the United Theatre, in support of his new “Harlem Valley” album, a particularly celebratory homecoming.

    “I can’t stress enough the symbolic importance that building – the United Theatre – has for me,” Jensen says. “To see it completely remodeled and offering so much to the community is amazing. I’m excited to be playing this new music there.”

    “Harlem Valley” is an extraordinary recording and perhaps unexpected to those who associate Jensen’s work with Django-esque gypsy jazz, as per his time with the elite Stephane Wrembel Band as well as in the exultantly exotic world music group Hazmat Modine.

    But “Harlem Valley” is a very distinctive and personal album of emotive and evocative songs that blend rural blues, European folk, hushed balladry, slinky jazz-pop and Tin Pan Alley chordal sophistication.

    Superbly accompanied on the album by bassist Ari Folman Cohen and drummer Nick Anderson – longtime friends and colleagues from Wrembel’s group -- Jensen produced and recorded “Harlem Valley” at Cassandra Studios in Beacon, NY, with engineering help from owner Rob Kissner.

    Jensen wrote most of the album while living in New York’s Harlem Valley from the fall of 2018 through autumn, 2020, including months of isolation induced by COVID. The solitude and the beauty of the location was certainly inspirational, but he says he was also emotionally offset by the anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic.

    Too, Jensen’s songwriting for the album was fueled to a great degree on a professionally experiential level. In that sense, it would be easy enough to describe “Harlem Valley” and the United show as crowning achievements for the 39-year-old Jensen -- that he’s indeed arrived at an artistic plateau after years of practice and thousands of gigs. But that’s not remotely how Jensen regards his career.

    In fact, he feels he’s entering a fascinating new stage of his own artistic development and continuous education. Until this point, Jensen has focused on what might be described as guitar technique in service to other artists’ careers – a technical apprentice, if you will, joyfully making the conscious effort to improve as a player in demanding but exhilarating environments.

    As per “Harlem Valley,” Jensen has shifted his musical priorities to writing songs.

    Recently, Jensen moved to Nashville after doing sessions and performances there with the jazz/pop/country singer Sweet Megg and as a member of Ashley Campbell’s band. (Campbell is a multi-instrumentalist/songwriter/singer and daughter of Glen Campbell).

    Jensen says he’s become enchanted and fascinated by “Music City,” and his exposure to the culture of country music and its parameters and traditions has helped Jensen in his quest to master this new craft.

    “Harlem Valley” is a wonderful album, balanced as it is between two distinct creative periods of Jensen’s life and career, and it bodes well for his future. Here are some of Jensen’s remarks from last week’s conversation, edited for space and clarity.

    On the background and context of writing and recording “Harlem Valley”:

    Well, it’s a magical, breathtakingly beautiful place. It’s located near the border of New York and Connecticut’s northwest corner, in the foothills of the Berkshire and Taconic mountains. I lived there for two years and was so inspired by the natural beauty.

    At the same time, being isolated there when COVID hit was a terrifying experience. I went from playing around 350 gigs in 2019 and suddenly everything stopped completely. And, like everyone else, there’s the fear of not knowing if anything will ever come back. But I spent a lot of time writing and trying to not to be in a funk. One of the things I realized is that I’ve learned a lot over my career and, importantly, I subconsciously found my own voice – one that’s been clearly wanting to come out for a while.

    On life as a sideman:

    I’ve always immersed myself into music, but my approach to immersion is a little different. I’ve explored all these musical styles because I love them, and I value what I can learn from them. I certainly practiced and did my homework, but at a certain point I learn by osmosis rather than figuring out solos note for note.

    Stephane is an expert in music and that style of music – and he continues to study every day. To sit next to him and absorb what he can do has been a remarkable experience. Then, playing with Hazmat Modine, I studied (band leader) Wade Schuman’s unconventional musical styles and his mastery of onstage showmanship.

    I’ve learned from all the artists I’ve worked with. More recently, my experiences with Megg and Ashley are just the latest parts of what continues to be an amazing education.

    On his new songwriting focus:

    My latest immersion is to wrap my head around songwriting. Nashville is full of incredible players, so that’s cool, but I’m learning a new craft. Part of it comes from me getting older. How do I benefit from my experiences? I think that’s part of the reason I wasn’t fully ready to write because I think those experiences only start to manifest themselves years down the road. I think it’s time. I’ve been writing a lot these last few weeks and I’m really excited by this batch of songs. I feel very connected to “Harlem Valley,” but the new stuff is texturally very different, and I feel very much at home with them and where it's all going.

    On moving to Nashville and its country music scene:

    Post pandemic, I left upstate New York and was staying in Massachusetts with no work. Stuff was slowly opening back up, and Stephane was starting to play again in New York City. But I was wanting to dive into some other things. I made a record with Megg in Nashville and it was such a good experience. I played some shows down there and loved the energy. (Laughs). It’s a little cheaper to live there.

    It's very much a country music town. I feel a little bit like an impostor being there, but one thing jazz and country guitarists share is improvising over chord changes. There are a lot of traditional songs that everyone knows, and most of the material isn’t harmonically complicated – so you establish your musical personality by how you solo over the changes.

    I don’t love all the music – but I don’t love all of jazz or any musical style, really. I’ll tell you, though. Country music feels like it’s for everyone. The amount of country music fans in the world is huge, and they know all the words and sing along on all the songs. It’s an amazing and inspiring thing.

    On strategies to promote “Harlem Valley”:

    You got me (laughs). I wish you could still staple some flyers and then go play a show! Honestly, I’ve just been in Europe for two months, New Jersey, the Hudson Valley and New York City and Saratoga – all as a sideman. Most of my living comes from being a sideman, so this is sort of my first go at supporting my own album.

    Frankly, it costs a lot of money to record and support your own stuff. Maybe in the fall I can devote more attention to it. Most importantly, my emphasis will be to play in rooms that have an “audience” as opposed to a “crowd.” I’ll happily play to five people if I know they’re listening and want the experience – rather than a roomful of people shouting over the music because I happen to be playing where they’ve chosen to go for some drinks.

    On the experiences of having toured the world as a musician, and whether he would have believed it would happen back in the old days at Frets and Paul’s:

    I’ve worked my ass off, so I don’t feel I’m lucky so much as fortunate to be able to play music all over the world for people. It’s an unbelievable compliment that they come to see us play, even if it’s not directed at me but because I’ve been hired to play music as a band member. I can’t describe the amazing places I’ve been. The most recent was a tour all around the UK. What an amazing experience. And Wales? Man, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. So, no, if you’d told me 10 years ago this was going to happen, I couldn’t have conceived how mind blowing it’s been.

    If you go

    Who: Thor Jensen with Nick Anderson and Ari Folman-Cohen

    What: Performing at a release party for Jensen’s new “Harlem Valley” album

    When: 8 p.m. tonight, doors open at 7 p.m.

    Where: United Theatre, 5 Canal St., Westerly

    How much: $20, “Harlem Valley” is digital only for $9.99

    For more information: https://www.unitedtheatre.org, www.thorjensenmusic.com

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