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Joe DeRenzo: On the Comeback

Walter Kolosky By

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I looked up old musician friends after 9/11 and saw they were producing their own recordings and taking advantage of all the Internet and the technology was offering. Music once again became the reason I got up in the morning.
Joe DeRenzoYou might say that jazz drummer Joe DeRenzo has a history of vocational commitment problems. After all, he has successfully pursued several careers and then abruptly left them behind. He was an up-and-coming pro drummer in fusion's heyday. He then left the music business to become an actor and was once offered help by a future Oscar winner!



He then became obsessed with a very unique and strange-looking camera he came across. He saw it as a tool to see the world in ways he had never seen it. He quickly became a professional photographer leaving his life as a thespian behind. As a photographer and graphic artist, he worked for and collaborated with American icon Peter Max. His music life was far behind him. In fact, the man didn't even pick-up a pair of drumsticks for fifteen years. But, the terrible thudding drumbeat of an historic event told him it was time to reevaluate his life. Music beckoned. That was six years ago. DeRenzo is now back in the thick of it.

core beliefs is DeRenzo's second CD since his return. I reviewed 2005's of night and day very positively. core beliefs is an outstanding work and evidence of his new ambitions. The album is a tribute of sorts to the sounds that influenced him the first time around. He was a great fan of the ECM and CTI jazz labels back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. To Joe, this recording is a celebration of the melodies and attitudes exemplified by those labels in those times.



He has arranged and contemporized pieces by Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea and Lennon and McCartney. Though all the tunes are performed in the Western tradition, DeRenzo has added mid-Eastern, Eastern and Latin splashes here and there to create a worldly sound. To play these arrangements, he surrounded himself with some splendid musicians including Yellowjackets pianist Russell Ferrante and saxophonist Bob Mintzer, as well as pianist Tom Zink, among several others.

The acoustic album is almost free of any dissonance, but that doesn't mean its music isn't challenging. His arrangements are 21st Century emulations of what Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Mann, Hubert Laws and acoustic Joe Zawinul were doing with jazz back when it was still allowed to morph, flourish and grow in the popular sense. It is the kind of music that combines first-class chops with the hipness of musicians who have nothing to prove.

Beret-wearing DeRenzo has led quite an interesting life. He talks about some of it in an affable and engaging manner.

All About Jazz: I think many people would guess you were a New Yorker. But, you are actually a California guy.

Joe DeRenzo: That's true Walter. Anaheim, CA to be precise—hometown of Gwen Stefani, Disneyland and me.

AAJ: How did music enter your life?

JDR: Mainly from TV, although my dad always had records in the house like Sinatra, Ray Charles and an album by Louie Bellson entitled Around the World in Percussion (Roulette, 1961). Any time music was on the tube, and in those days jazz was allowed on the networks... he'd call me to watch it.

AAJ: Your first drumsticks were homemade.

JDR: Yes! I attended a Catholic military school in Anaheim and as with most military institutions, they had a marching band. When I saw the guys playing the snare drums and hearing that sound echo off the walls of the campus, I thought, "that looks like fun". And when I was five years old, fun was it! So one day I'm walking home from school and on the sidewalk was this two-foot long dowel. Back at my house I took a saw and cut it in half. That's how I fashioned my first pair of drumsticks.

AAJ: Five years old and you were using a saw? That's impressive and scary at the same time. When did you first sit at a real kit?

JDR: In 1968, when the whole hippie and flower-power thing was raging, my next door neighbor's son had fully embraced 1960s culture. One day there appeared a set of blue sparkle Ludwigs with Zildjian cymbals in his room. For me it was like viewing The Holy Grail. After a few tepid taps I was told not to touch them anymore. But, it was too late. I was hooked on the idea of "The Drums."

AAJ: What drummers drew your attention in the beginning?

JDR: Thanks to the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Ringo was probably the first drummer that made an impression on me. Years later when I got to meet him in New York, I couldn't help but think about seeing him on TV all those years ago. As a kid back then I wondered how he played the bass drum. I could see what his hands were doing, but I just assumed he was kicking the bass drum with his shoe. I didn't even know there was a pedal behind it!

AAJ: Who else?

JDR: I remember seeing a couple of album covers unlike anything I'd ever seen. Both had these three guys with hair that looked as if their heads had exploded. The albums were Cream's Disraeli Gears (Polydor, 1967) and Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced? (MCA, 1967). That's when I heard the music. So, in retrospect, it was the greats Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell that got me on my way.

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