An internationally-claimed vocal group led by a Toronto-based, Prince Albert-born musician is set to launch its third studio album this week, featuring performances from Grammy and Juno-winning musicians from around the world.
Countermeasure is a 13-member vocal group led by artistic and musical director Aaron Jensen.
While Jensen has won awards and had his music performed and recorded by Juno and Grammy-winning artists in the past, this new project is unlike anything he’s ever undertaken.
“This album is unique of all of our past recording in that we are doing what vocal groups by definition don’t do — perform with instruments,” Jensen said in a phone interview with the Herald last week.
Jensen is credited as the composer, lyricist and arranger of each song on the album, titled Guest Sessions. He also produced the album, which was recorded and mixed by Kai Koschider of Toast+Jam, Toronto.
Each track features a different Countermeasure soloist and a performance by a different instrumentalist.
Those instrumentalists include multi-Grammy award winners Randy Brecker on trumpet, Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and dobro player Cindy Cashdollar.
Brecker has performed on stage and recorded in studio with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra; while Glennie has been featured by Bjork and Cashdollar has played with Van Morrison and Bob Dylan.
Other tracks on the album welcome Juno-winning fiddler Natalie MacMaster and platinum-selling Quebecois guitarist Christian Roberge, formerly of the Lost Fingers.
Other guests are Austrian Theremin player Pamelia Sticken, who has played with Yoko Ono and the Indigo Girls; 88-year-old bandleader of the Preservation Jaz Hall Charlie Gabriel, who’s worked with Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin; and Toronto musicians Rich Brown, Kevin Fox and Michael Davidson.
Each song on the album was specifically written for one of the guest musicians and one of the singers of Countermeasure.
“The concept behind this album is that for each track, I composed a piece of music that showcased and locked into the sound and aesthetic of an eclectic array of instrumentalists,” Jensen said.
“The genres and sound from song-to-song vary a great deal.”
The songs range from jazz to art pop, to folk, soul, contemporary choral and even a cinematic piece.
“We saw it as an opportunity to challenge ourselves and learn from some of the great instrumentalists on the international stage,” Jensen said.
“It pushed me as a composer and really pushed the group as an opportunity to level up our own musical chops and to learn from people who come from such a wide array of backgrounds.”
For each piece, Jensen would start by listening to the discography of the performers to wrap himself in their sound and aesthetic to “write sensitively” for them, he said.
From there, since many of the pieces feature members of Countermeasure, who have been together for ten years, Jensen was able to tune into their stories as well.
“It’s’ a very different thing to write a song in a vacuum than to write for a friend and a colleague,” Jensen said.
A lot of these songs are not only written with a particular voice in mind but also inspired by conversations I’ve had with these singers.”
That includes a song sung by alto soloist Qwyn Alexis, featuring Michael Davidson on Vibraphone, called Hold On. Released as a single, the song explores the excitement and challenges of bringing a child into the world, based on a conversation she had with Jensen.
Another song, written for soloist Daniel Boyle and featuring percussionist Evelyn Glennie, called For Alice, grapples with the loss of Boyle’s father a couple of years ago.
“They’re very tailor-made for the instrumentalists and also for the singers.”
While the full album doesn’t drop until Friday, the singles have received positive reviews, with one of the tracks even nominated by the International John Lennon Songwriting Competition for best Jazz Song.
It’s an award Jensen took home in 2011 as well.
The process took two years from writing the first song to tracking the last piece. While Jensen is excited, the album release is not what he had originally anticipated.
“There is a bittersweetness to the fact that as a singing group, we haven’t seen each other now for four or five months,” Jensen said.
The band was set to tour in North America and Japan to promote the album, including an October stop in Prince Albert. Those concerts, though, have been postponed due to COVID-19.
“That has been tempered, though, by the fact that up to two months ago, these were songs that only existed in my mind and in the minds of the group members,” Jensen said.
“To have listeners who are enjoying and appreciating this music is incredibly rewarding.”
Tentatively, Countermeasure is preparing for a shared bill with the New Japan Philharmonic in May of 2011 in Tokyo. The group has accumulated quite a following in Japan.
“It’s been really amazing to see a fan base grow in a country that feels so far away,” Jensen said. “There’s been a lot of new engagement.”
As for what the future holds, the band is taking a wait-and-see approach. Jensen hopes that he’ll only have to wait a year before coming home to P.A. to perform again.
“We’re hoping we will be back a year later. We’re hoping it’s just a delay, but as is the case with everybody in the world, we’re just seeing what the future holds.”
Guest Sessions will be available to purchase or stream through all major music services Friday.
Even if you’ve never heard of Countermeasure, you’ve probably heard Aaron Jensen’s music.
In addition to writing for artists such as MacMaster, Glennie, Heather Rankin and Ron Sexsmith, Jensen has had his works performed by celebrated choirs Elora Festival Singers, the Swingles and symphony orchestras in Brazil, Italy and France.
Regular CBC viewers, though, might be even more familiar with his work. Jensen served as the musical director, music producer, bandleader and composer for CBC’s Schitt’s Creek for its final four seasons.
He’s also worked with Andrea Bocelli, Bob Ezrin and Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies and contributed to platinum-selling, Grammy and JUNO award-nominated albums.