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Dena Derose: Keeper Of The Song

R.J. DeLuke By

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I've always tried to choose the stories that I connect with and feel that I can portray —Dena DeRose
Dena DeRose has established a reputation as one of the finest jazz singers today—though never exclusively that. As others have done—Shirley Horn, a predecessor, or Karrin Allyson, a contemporary, among others—DeRose, in addition to her alluring voice, is a highly accomplished pianist who accompanies herself. Often that's in a trio setting, but she easily extends it to larger groups when the situation calls for it.

She has ascended to the top of her field in a slow progression. She didn't win a competition at the Apollo Theater like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald in days gone by, nor was she vaulted by being the champion at a Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Hers is a story of hard work, perseverance, persistence and taking advantage of opportunities. In spite of critical acclaim and other accolades, she feels she's still on that journey.

"I'm from the older school," says DeRose, who has been living in Austria for the last 15 years, teaching there and performing across Europe, pre-coronavirus, although touring and recording has consistently included the U.S. as well. Prior to that, she lived in New York City, where she moved in 1991 and began to make her name. "Continually going up the ladder one rung at a time. I'm happy I did that. That was my path. I'm thankful for the process I've had and I just continue to do it."

It is a humility that serves her well and keeps her driven in the difficult field of music, particularly jazz. For DeRose, the first small steps in the journey started at the age of three, when most of us were happy enough to get food into our mouths without making too much of a mess and were wide-eyed at the sorcery that caused a balloon to rise in the air. At that age DeRose was playing an upright Steinway and taking lessons. She soon played organ as well, both in the classical music realm.

"My hands were small. I could not reach the pedals," she says. "My parents were very supportive. We didn't have money. My father was a construction worker and my mom was stay-at-home... and an ex-Ice Capades skater. That's what she did in the '50s and '60s before I was born. Lower middle class. But we had everything we needed. When I needed something, or my brother needed something, we had it. I had this piano. At three I was taking piano lessons every single week until I was about 17 or 18."

A few teachers wouldn't give lessons to someone so small, but her mother eventually found one. She learned to read music rapidly and went through lesson books that were conveniently available in a store below the studio where the lessons took place. "I think it was a good time to start because you don't know anything else in your life except for family. I don't remember anything besides sitting at the piano. I can still see the room where I took these lessons. A little lamp and a little chair my mom sat in while I did the lesson."

"At that age, you don't have clutter and you can focus. I got a lot of the basics done in the first couple of years. Then when I went to kindergarten in Catholic school, they had nuns that gave piano lessons. My mom signed me up and I went. They were playing 'do re mi' and I had already played the first lessons of Bach when I was four. So I was bored. My mother could see that. After six months she took me out. They were all so mad."

She continued to work at it and segued into other genres through the years before coming to jazz. She also had hurdles, like having debilitating carpal tunnel problems as a young woman that restricted her playing. That situation became a springboard for exploring her abilities as a singer. All part of the process she refers to.

It has led to a career that sees her playing in the best clubs and festivals in the world, and associating over the years with the likes of Scott Hamilton, Clark Terry, Benny Golson, John Scofield, Jimmy Cobb, Phil Woods, Houston Person, Mark Murphy, Marvin Stamm and many more. Her albums are consistently fine, providing interesting takes on tunes both well known and near forgotten.

The latest example is her current recording, Ode to the Road (HighNote Records). It's a tribute, of sorts, to the road warriors that musicians have to be, even though that has been cut off for the time being by the COVID-19 pandemic. It features her longtime trio mates Matt Wilson on drums and Martin Wind on bass, along with guest stars.

It was recorded in October of last year in Teaneck, N.J. "My idea was, I'm going to pay tribute to the people I knew on the road with my usual rhythm section. I'm happy with how all the songs came out. It was two days in the studio, five to six hour days. Really not rehearsing. I've never rehearsed for any of my CDs. Many of the songs I just brought into the studio. Playing with Matt and Martin, the trio is so connected. Right off the bat. We just are. We have the same musical message, vocabulary and the whole thing. Whoever comes in as a guest, it just works. It's really great."

One of the guests is the bebopper Sheila Jordan, a friend of Charlie Parker, who flexes her chops of "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm," while DeRose sings a harmonic line underneath, then becomes the pianist. Jordan was age 90 at the recording. There's an Al Cohn song, " Cross Me Off Your List," that DeRose remodeled. She says the saxophonist's version was called "No, Moore" (the name of a Cohn ex-girlfriend, not "No More," as many would surmise). DeRose had been doing it on the road and decided to add it to the album, her 11th as a leader.

There are originals, "A Tip of the Hat" and "That Second Look," with her lyrics. The latter was inspired by an Eliane Elias song written when the Brazilian was in the band Steps Ahead. Elias wrote the instrumental "At First Sight" that became one of the first songs DeRose transcribed in her 20s. She came across the transcription while preparing for the new record and included it. "The lyrics just came. They filled in very quickly. Nothing comes from nothing. We always get something from something. We have to have some inspiration. We take some ideas and mull through them a little bit ... Some originals, they take much longer. You have to work. You put them away. Take them out. Put them away. Take them out. These just sort of came out. That's how I knew it had to go on this record."

The album is outstanding, as are the performances of her treasured mates Wilson and Wind.

"Matt and I have been playing for close to 23 years together, on and off, but on all my recordings. That started 20 years ago, the first time I had Matt Wilson on a recording. But we had started playing together before that. Martin joined around 2005. Anytime I want to record, they are definitely my first choice," says DeRose. "I have other drummers and bass players I like to work with, but we just have such a connection, from note one. The minute we start playing, it's just there. However long it's been since we played last. Nowadays it's a long time. And me living in Europe, it's less. We haven't gotten to play as often as we'd like."

The special guests on the CD—trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Houston Person and singer Sheila Jordan—were mainly people she has played with on the road. She played with Pelt in New York and has toured with Person over the years, of whom she says, "The minute we played together it became such a great musical friendship."

One song on the CD, "The Way Were Were," from the movie of the same name, struck a particular chord with the singer. She was on a tour in Europe with Person. While in Paris, deciding on a set list, the veteran saxman pulled out the music for it. "I'm like, 'Houston. 'The Way We Were?' He goes, 'That's a great tune,'" she recalls. "I grew up playing that song on the organ when I was 10 years old, growing up in the '70s. We played that and I was crying. By the end of the first day of him playing it—oh my god. Every time on the tour when he would say, 'What tunes are we going to do tonigh.?' I would say, 'We have to do 'The Way We Were.'"

For the CD, it was the song she wanted to do with Person. "It was a first take. All of them are first or second takes. Nothing more than that."

The saxophonist was supposed to return to his Long Island home, but a strong rain storm delayed him, and DeRose coaxed him to play on "The Days of Wine and Roses," which she chose "off the top of my head. I never even did it on a gig. But I knew it. So I said, 'You cannot leave here before doing one more tune.' He goes, 'OK.' Because he just wants to play all the time. We nailed it."

As for Pelt, DeRose played with him periodically in New York and he plays on some of her live recordings. "He asked me to come and play with him on a gig. I mainly played piano. He's just been one of these guys—he loves 'the song.' He loves heavy duty jazz, hard bop and all that stuff. But he also loves singers. And song. So it was an honor when he asked me to come play with him. So I had to have him back."

DeRose knew of Jordan in New York, but says she wasn't part of her crowd of fellow singers, like Jay Clayton, Mark Murphy and others. "They tend to think about music in a different way. I, with a pianistic background and being a pianist first—I think a lot of them just didn't include me in this realm of singers."

Jordan helped create the Jazz Institute in Graz, Switzerland (now part of The University of Music and Performing Arts), where DeRose is the vocal professor. The relationship between the two started with DeRose subbing in for classes at City College in New York that Jordan was teaching.

"When the institute (in Austria) became a university, they wanted to have one person as a professor. The professorships run a lifetime after the first five years. I knew Sheila and that she started this program. I asked her for a recommendation. She wrote a glowing recommendation. I'm sure it helped me get the gig, among some other ones. Once I was here, I brought her here to do workshops. I've had her here six or seven times through these years ... I asked her if she would sing with me on this. She's up for anything. She's just an open soul. I love her to death. She came in one day for two hours and we did these couple tunes. Boom. First or second take. She had a great time."

All the recordings by DeRose are consistent in their high quality. She chooses great songs and handles them with care, looking for ways to play with melody, harmony and lyric. The result almost seems like it's easy, though it is not. It calls to mind her comment about the great Shirley Horn, whom DeRose first discovered when she moved to New York. "When I first heard her, I melted and thought: That's exactly what I want to do."

"I am a Great American Songbook lover. We need more love in the world," DeRose says. "I've always tried to choose the stories that I connect with and feel that I can portray. How I play the music, which is already written. I rearrange the harmony to reflect a bit more of how I feel about the story. The story tells me a lot. That's how I tend to re-harmonize and rhythmically do a tune."

"It depends on the story. That's pretty much how I choose songs," she adds. "All these songs have incredible melodies and harmonies. There have been great recordings of all this music. How am I going to present this? So I try to find my relationship with the lyric, and through that finding how I relate. I get a feeling and sometimes the feeling brings on the time feel. I'm a musician, so I get a beat in my head. Then the harmony that can sometimes reflect certain phrases, sentences, that mean something. Sometimes I'll put a more minor sound to it because it's a sadder sentence. Whatever it is. I love that about the Great American Songbook."

She has also delved into the jazz standard repertoire, putting her own lyrics to some of those tunes, like on her last CD, United (HighNote Records, 2016). The title song is a Wayne Shorter composition. "I put some lyrics to that. I did a song by Cedar Walton ("Clockwise") and put some lyrics to that. He OK'd them. We couldn't get in touch with Wayne Shorter. He's way too big to get in touch with," she says with a chuckle. "Cedar wrote me back and said, 'I love it. Let's do it.' So we published it. It gave me encouragement to do more lyric writing. I'm trying to find the jazz standards maybe not so popular with some people."

There isn't the usual post-release touring for musicians now. "I don't have any gigs booked until January in Switzerland," she says. "In Europe, some of my students, they're starting to gig in Italy and Slovenia. France a little. They've started to have open air concerts in the summer. But in another month things start to get cooler here. It gets cold. It will probably shut down again."

Still, DeRose is patient and feels safe in Austria. At the Jazz Institute in Graz, students might return in the fall. "All our recital and diploma concerts were moved from June until late September. We'll see if all that happens. It's all a question mark."

"The way the States is dealing with this crap, I'm much better off here ... This virus and all that, they did very well here. The minute March came, they shut down. We still wear masks in all the shops. No venues are open. We have one jazz club that, unfortunately, folded. That was the more mainstream jazz where I usually play. But one is still open. They have maybe four or five tables with four or five people around it. So maybe 20 people in the room," says DeRose. "The government just took care of business. They did it very well. I feel very safe here. It's great. This is not going to last forever."

Austria is a long way from Binghamton, N.Y., in the state's southern tier, near the Pennsylvania border, where DeRose was born and raised. In the 1980s it was a fertile ground for jazz music. She went to junior high and high school with people like trumpeter and bandleader Tony Kadleck, drummer and leader John Hollenbeck, trombonist Steve Davis and saxophonist Kris Jensen among others. In those years, they listened to jazz records and she began to feel its pull. Her reading was strong from her training, so she would play along with sheet music, "then I would put a little rhythm to it. That was my first experience with jazz. Other than hearing 8-tracks from my parents in the car."

As she continued the lessons she started as a young child, DeRose was also playing classical organ and had a chance to go to Concordia College in upstate New York on a scholarship. But fate intervened. Her mother saw a newspaper advertisement that a local band needed a keyboard player. It was one of the top pop/rock bands in the city. DeRose, since around age 13, had already played in pop bands and wedding bands. She auditioned, got the gig, and forgot about Concordia.

"I didn't really see my life as that, even though I had auditioned. When my mother saw this ad, that was it," she says.

DeRose did attend Harper College (Now Harper College of Arts and Sciences in Binghamton) in the mid 1980s, taking classical piano. The school had a jazz band, though no jazz degree program, and she found herself listening to it while practicing classical piano in a nearby practice room. She would even go stand at the door of the jazz band rehearsal room and listen.

One day the door opened—literally as well as figuratively.

She was peering in when the door physically opened. On the other side was the band leader. Upon discovering her interest in jazz, he made her his teaching assistant. With that came access to a vast record collection in his office. Rehearsals ended at about 8 p.m., after which DeRose would take the sheet music off the stands and put it away. But, "I would stay until midnight or 1 in the morning. I was listening to this music and was intrigued by it. I'd go to the piano and try and pick out some lines and stuff like that. That's how I learned this music."

She began transcribing, by ear, solos by Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans. They were among her favorites, along with Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal Bobby Timmons and others. DeRose eventually earned the piano chair with the band and did large and small group jazz gigs as a result. She also did classic rock gigs with another band. She didn't go full fledged into jazz until about age 23.

Around the age of 20, however, DeRose encountered problems with her hands, especially her right hand. Carpal tunnel syndrome, and two surgeries, limited her playing for about two years. But she didn't quit. On some gigs, she played just left-handed piano. She had sung background vocals in some bands. Now she took the step to stand in front of a group as the singer. She decided to get some vocal lessons.

"I did that for about a year and a half before I decided to go to New York," she says. "The vocal lessons weren't about any style of music. It was about technique. I was with an opera singer and I only learned classical technique. I knew I needed some technique so I studied almost two years with her, once or twice a week, while still gigging. I never stopped. Even after I had hand problems, somehow I found ways to gig. So I stood up and sang jazz. That's how I got into the jazz scene part of things."

When her hands got better, she combined singing and piano. "I didn't plan that. It just happened. I had to do it because I had to pay off the doctor bills."

When she had the surgeries, another serendipitous thing occurred. A friend gave her a cassette of As Time Goes By; Carmen McRae Alone; Live at the Dug, (Catalyst International Jazz From Japan, 1977), on which the great artist accompanies her singing piano, just McCrae and the instrument. DeRose "learned note-for-note everything on this record. That's how I learned how to play and sing, basically. This record did it. I still teach it. All my students learn at least a couple of these tunes."

She had been visiting New York City, checking out the scene and playing with friends. In 1991, she made the move for good. She knew people and had places to stay. She eased into it. Eventually she moved there at about age 25. She house sat for Ted Nash, and found a room in Manhattan in the home of a married couple she met. In the first week, she had a steady gig with the noted drummer Jimmy Lovelace.

"I've always had these good opportunities. Or I was in the right place at the right time. I was able to ease into New York. Being a pianist/singer, in the '90s, I was working seven nights a week. Beyond the seven nights a week gigs, there were brunches. There were cocktail hours. Afternoon gigs in office buildings. That was a good time to be in New York," she says. "Times have changed."

"New York was my school. I didn't go to university for jazz like a lot of my colleagues. I learned mainly from gigging and always with better musicians than myself in New York. I learned a lot from all of the colleagues that I played with and hung out with. We'd have hanging sessions, just listening to records together. Eric Alexander and Joe Farnsworth. That was my scene when I was there. These great musicians. We just loved listening to music, talking about it, learning from each other. That was my schooling."

Now it's Europe. DeRose can't make it back to the U.S. for the time being, but is optimistic the situation will clear up. She says before the virus, a lot of her better gigs were in Europe and there were great opportunities. But the U.S. Also beckons for shows and projects.

Her career—the process—will continue and she will meet the challenges that lie ahead.

"When we can gig again, I'll be on the road again."

Photo credit: Jim Levitt

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