By Jeff Tamarkin
The multi-national, multi-generational Artemis was founded to showcase several of the most virtuosic, creative musicians on today’s contemporary jazz scene. Each member happens to be a woman—a fact that is noted virtually every time the septet is mentioned in the press. The members, however, would prefer that cease being an issue altogether.
“If you look at a photograph of the band, obviously we’re all women,” says Renee Rosnes, Artemis’ pianist and music director. “But the music transcends gender, and in terms of the art, we’re not even thinking about that—none of us got to where we are by thinking about that. I look forward to a day when that doesn’t have to be addressed; it’s just unnecessary. Think of how absurd it would be to see a band described as ‘all-male.’”
Rosnes is joined in Artemis by vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, clarinetist Anat Cohen, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Noriko Ueda, and drummer Allison Miller. They first came together for a European tour in 2017 and, with each being a bandleader in her own right, have performed as schedules allow. Artemis recently entered the studio to record its debut album for the venerable Blue Note Records. Due out in 2020, it will feature mostly new compositions by the members, as well as original arrangements of other works. The label’s president, Don Was, became a fan of Artemis the first time he watched the septet play.
“On a sunny afternoon in August 2018, I was among the thousands of fans at the Newport Jazz Festival who had their minds blown by Artemis,” Was says. “Although each individual member of this supergroup is a bona fide jazz titan, these incredible musicians dwell in the rarefied air of bands whose whole is greater than the sum of its already sublime parts. Their musical conversation is sophisticated, soulful, and powerful, and their groove runs deep.”
“It felt like the chemistry was immediate,” says Miller about the first time she played with her Artemis bandmates. “It was so much fun and so loose and swinging.”
“There’s a really amazing energy between all of us together,” agrees Jensen. “We just click. There are endless possibilities. It’s a bunch of fun people coming from a lot of different places who can somehow make it all work.”
When Jensen says “different places,” she means both artistically and literally. She and Rosnes originally hailed from Canada. Cohen is from Israel, Aldana from Chile, and Ueda from Japan. Salvant was born in Miami to Haitian and French parents, and Miller grew up outside Washington, DC. The spread in their ages is nearly three decades, allowing for a panoply of influences and experiences to flavor the music.
Rosnes was key to assembling the group. A couple other musicians were involved at earlier stages of the band’s evolution under a different name before the present lineup settled in. “I was aware of the level of talent and open-mindedness of each player and felt that together, we could really blossom as a unit,” says Rosnes. “I think we really hit our stride while touring with the current lineup, and it was then that we all decided the band was too important to not pursue.”
The music, Rosnes says, “came together organically. Everybody contributes pieces, and with Cécile there’s a whole other palette with vocals. I think what really makes it work is that the band has a sound.”
Adds Miller, “We’ve all been encouraged by Renee to go deep and write for the band and write for the sound of the band. It’s been really fun writing with each of these players in mind because they all have such personality and virtuosity. The music speaks for the band and the band speaks for the music.”
One other reason Artemis works for its seven members is that they enjoy one another’s company offstage as well as on the bandstand. That, perhaps, is where the gender factor does come into play.
“Every single person in Artemis has been through different circumstances where we were the only woman on a long tour,” says Miller. “That can be totally fine and fun, but I’ve been in situations where eventually—if I’m the only woman—I kind of feel lonely. I’ve felt like the band mom, being the one person with whom most of the men feel comfortable talking about their problems. That can be exhausting and a little isolating. With Artemis, all the personalities are incredible, and we all respect each other so much. Offstage we’re just like a bunch of friends hanging out.”
“We already have some nice times under our belt being on the road together,” says Rosnes, “so it’s a very comfortable situation and everybody’s quite open.”
The biggest challenge they face, with each musician constantly being in demand and involved in other projects, is finding the time to convene Artemis. “From the beginning, we’ve had to get the calendars out and block out time and say, ‘OK, this is going to be for the band,’ and book practically two years in advance,” says Rosnes.
But now, as Artemis continues to gel into a solid working unit, they’re all looking at it as a long-term commitment. They’re also looking at the impact they might have on others. Says Jensen, “Hopefully what we’re doing will empower younger women musicians to feel inspired to be leaders.”