Countermeasure flex ‘musical muscles’ on new album Guest Sessions
Aaron Jensen is a composer, arranger, producer, vocalist, and artistic director for various festivals, ensembles, recording projects — and pretty much anything that needs his diverse and outstanding musical chops.
His creative offerings have been performed and/or recorded by Randy Brecker, Bobby McFerrin, Ron Sexsmith and Patricia O’Callaghan, just to name a few. He’s performed on stages all around the world as a member of several vocal groups, including Cadence. For the past four years, he was music director for the multiple Emmy-winning comedy hit Schitt’s Creek.
For a decade, Jensen has been the writer, arranger and musical director of Countermeasure, one of Canada’s leading a cappella ensembles.
Jensen joined us to talk about his work on Schitt’s Creek and Countermeasure’s exciting new projects.
Everybody’s still buzzing about what happened at the Emmy Awards. How did you get involved with Schitt’s Creek?
I’ve been involved for the last four seasons. For anybody who has watched the show, there is a ladies’ community choir called the “Jazzagals.” They called me up and asked if I would do some arrangements, teach them some parts, and that blossomed into a long-standing relationship. Over the course of those years, I did some orchestration work for their cabaret episode and some bandleader work for them. You’ll even hear a sneaky little quote of a Countermeasure original that I wrote, sung by Eugene Levy in the episode The Jazzaguy, which is a particular treat.
I love it. One of my favourite episodes is when Catherine O’Hara’s character Moira Rose is auditioning for the Jazzagals.
Do you get your own Emmy?
I feel like I’m working slowly toward an EGOT-adjacent thing. Like the Kevin Bacon of EGOTs — two steps removed from an Emmy, two steps away from Grammy winners. I’m adjacent to that. I still have a couple more of those to knock off before I get maybe a quarter of an award.
Countermeasure’s new release is called Guest Sessions. Why did you decide to add instrumental guests to an a cappella ensemble for this project?
It’s interesting. Even though there are instruments — one featured solo instrumentalist on each of the tracks — this still very much feels like a vocal album to me. That’s how I approached the writing and the arranging. It actually struck me that at each session when we were sitting down with the players, in their own different ways they talked about how they were approaching their playing as the equivalent of the 14th voice in the choir. It changed their approaches and how I wrote for them. It also offered an opportunity for me to learn and grow as a composer and a songwriter, having the chance to work with such heavy hitters.
Did you write with each guest in mind?
There’s one piece that I wrote for the Austrian theremin player Pamelia Stickney, which I had already written and Countermeasure had performed it. But with the exception of that piece, all of the songs were composed with a particular player in mind. I did a deep dive into their discography and really tried to lock into the core sound, their aesthetic and their skill set to give them an opportunity to really flex their musical muscles on the track.
Who was the biggest “get” on the project?
That’s hard to answer. There are huge names on the record. What I have to say is that I was pretty surprised by our hit rate. I can tell you that Randy Brecker was the first trumpet player that I contacted. He wasn’t third or fourth on the list. He was the No. 1 person that I wanted, and the fact that we heard back from him … People seemed to be really curious and interested. It challenged some of the players. They opened up about how it was nothing like anything they had recorded before. It didn’t take any coercing, to be honest. It was a delight at every turn.
The pandemic has changed your plans. Tell us a bit about how this past year has been affected when it comes to Countermeasure’s plans.
It’s the same story with all artists. All of our gigs have been cancelled. We were slated to perform at the Olympics in Tokyo, and then the Olympics were cancelled. We have a standing offer with the New Japan Philharmonic; we were in the process of developing an orchestral show with them. Who knows where the world is going to be by next year. We’re just taking things a day at a time. But this recording project has really been a bit of a lighthouse — a beacon of hope for us. While everything has ground to a halt, it’s given us something positive to focus on, to work on and to now release. Even though the album is freshly out, we had so much fun working on it that we’re already well into the plans for the second volume.
You’re going to be closing the show at this year’s SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival, which like so many others is going online. What do you have in store?
This was obviously intended to be a concert performance celebrating our 10 years together. That has turned into a video project. We’ve worked with some really exceptional videographers over the years who have come on tour with us and captured important events, so this has turned into a 10-year retrospective video. There are music videos, interviews with the groups, a lot of behind-the-scenes. It’s been really bittersweet — more on the sweet side, but it just makes me miss my friends, going through and seeing these videos and reliving these incredible memories. It’s a pretty special video and I think people will enjoy it a lot.