Interview by Jonthan Widran, writer and contributor to Jazziz, Downbeat, and Smooth Jazz, February, 2023.
In 2019, after several decades as one of Chicagoland’s most renowned and versatile jazz guitarists, Billy Denk made a radical creative shift in his recording career and began exploring his longtime passion for minimalist ambient music. Engaging his talents as a composer and synthesist, he launched a prolific series of recordings, starting with the auspiciously titled Positive Space and Starbound, whose focal single “Solar Wind” has been a top streamer as well as a featured track on Journeyscapes, a popular ambient radio show.
Over the next three years, creating a powerful blend of moods via a fusion of ambient guitar, synth, and electro-acoustic and organic sounds, using a combination of the Ableton Live digital audio workstation and a variety of synthesizers and effects pedals, Billy has released a total of five well-received recordings – Soul Immersion (2019), Connection (2020), Introverse (2021), Blue Lotus Dream (2021) and Night Songs (2022).
The artist’s latest collection, the provocatively titled In Praise of Shadows, is inspired by and named after an essay on Japanese aesthetics by author and novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, first published in 1933 and in English in 1977. In the 16 section essay, comparisons of light with darkness are used to contrast Western and Asian cultures. From “The Sun Was Shining” to “Unto This Light” and “Reflections in Darkness,” the eight tracks capture Billy’s various impressions of the theme.
“On In Praise of Shadows, like my previous recording Night Songs, I have been moving naturally into a more introspective phase of my composing,” he says. “This contrasts with some of the previous works that had more of a feeling of positivity and lightness, infused with repetitive sequencer-created patterns. I’ve always been interested in aesthetics and design, so the themes of that book struck a chord and led to some interesting sonic explorations. My father-in-law, who also shared an interest in design aesthetics, passed away last year and so indirectly, some of the sadness I felt was also channeled into these new pieces, yet with an air of hope for the living. I’m always striving to create a unique feeling in my music that conveys what I am experiencing at the present time and enjoy when others can share in the experience. The idea on In Praise of Shadows is that we can’t define what we see without the contrast between darkness and light.”
Even as he was building a freewheeling, multi-faceted resume in Chicago jazz circles, playing a fusion of jazz, funk, Latin, rock and experimental music, Billy kept his ears attentive to the dynamic variety of new age and ambient music that’s been a parallel passion in his life for several decades. The artist traces his inspiration in this genre back to the classic 80s-90s Windham Hill vibe, legendary bands like Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, influential ambient/electronic pioneer Steve Roach and other genre artists like Kevin Braheny and Hearts of Space artist Bill Douglas. Billy also cites as key influences the groundbreaking music of the genre-busting jazz, classical, and world music German label ECM Records and post rock/free jazz guitarist/composer Jeff Parker, known for his work with the Chicago-based band Tortoise.
Growing up in the Northwest Chicago suburb of Wauconda, IL, Billy’s interest in guitar was sparked by hearing jazz and bluegrass guitar/mandolin great Don Stiernberg (also a native of Wauconda). His early musical sensibilities were also shaped by his parents, who regularly tuned into jazz and folk programs primarily on local radio station WGN, and pianist Johnny Costa, the music director for Mr. Rogers Neighborhood whom Billy saw perform numerous times on the popular children’s series.
Receiving his first acoustic guitar at age nine, Billy performed in folk and rock groups in high school while also playing clarinet in the school band. During his teens, while gigging in local clubs, he was into everything from hard rock (UFO, Scorpions, Van Halen) to the soft jazz/bossa nova of Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto. While he took a break from music to major in psychology in college, Billy found his way back by his late 20s, drawing on his childhood interests in bossa nova and hard bop to make inroads on Chicago’s jazz scene.
As he became more fluent playing jazz guitar, Billy started a regular jam session in nearby Woodstock IL that evolved into the organization Jazz on the Square, which promoted jazz performance and education in the community. This included an annual jazz festival featuring predominantly Chicago-based jazz musicians, including Tim Fitzgerald, Chris Greene, Frank Russell, Outcast Jazz Band, and others. He also hosted the Northern Sky Jazz Show on Harvard Community Radio 101.3 FM, which featured music and interviews with musicians from Chicago and nationwide.
Working with Jazz on the Square, Billy forged a relationship with WDCB Music Director and DJ Paul Abella, ultimately leading to his playing with Abella’s trio – an unusual lineup featuring electric guitar, upright bass, and cajon. He joined the Paul Abella Trio formally in 2019, which gave him the opportunity to perform at legendary Chicago establishments Jazz Showcase and Andy’s Jazz Club. Over the years, he’s also played with John Hegner, Curt Johnson, Jim Seidel, Phil Ciancio, Ian Hall, John Weber Trio, and the Chris Greene Quartet.
With the launch of Jazz on the Square, Billy also began composing and recording his own music. His 2010 debut Circulicity includes his homage to Woodstock, “Waltzing on the Square.” His subsequent albums including Prairie Fire (2013) and the 2017 recording Pieces of Light. In addition to performing with his combo Glazz Ensemble from 2009-15, he also showcased his compositions during this time leading his own trio. He left the Paul Abella Trio in 2022 to pursue his ambient oriented solo projects full time.
“Both as a jazz musician and now as a composer and producer of ambient recordings, I feel that I have the depth and maturity to create music that resonates with people, that has something significant to say and shares heartfelt emotions that others can connect with,” Billy says.