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John Dennis: Debut Sessions

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John Dennis
Pianist John Dennis recorded only two albums, both for Debut Records on March 10, 1955. The first album was New Piano Expressions, featuring John Dennis (p), Charles Mingus (b) and Max Roach (d) with solo tracks by Dennis. The second album was Jazz Collaborations, with trumpeter Thad Jones added to the trio.

Debut was launched by Roach and Mingus in 1952 as way to avoid commercial pressures at major jazz labels and retain commercial control of recordings. The strains of running a label on top of the need to earn an income from touring and recording for major labels with solid distribution channels eventually caused Debut to fold in 1957.

Fresh Sound has now released both albums as John Dennis: The Debut Sessions. What's most remarkable are Dennis's solo tracks—Odyssey, Chartreuse, Variegations and Someone to Watch Over Me. There's a lush  beauty to Dennis's solo playing that reflects the classical romantic impressionists such as Debussy and Ravel. The trio tracks are good, as are the tracks with Jones on trumpet. It's a shame, though, that Mingus and Roach didn't sit out the session entirely and let Dennis record solo piano all the way through. One of the drawbacks of being a musician who owns a label instead of a producer at that label is you hear opportunities for yourself instead of the artist you discovered.

After recording for Debut, Dennis seemed to have disappeared. According to liner notes by Fresh Sound owner Jordi Pujol:

“In a 1990 article by Gene Santoro, saxophonist Jimmy Heath mentioned that pianist John Dennis had been nicknamed 'Fat Genius' by musicians in Philadelphia. Pianist Muhal Richard Abrams praised the 'full pianistic approach' of Dennis, which blended a cocktail style with jazz and classical strains. There's an oral interview with vibraphonist Walt Dickerson (1928-2008) about Dennis in which he said the following: 'There was a pianist, a genius, whose name was John Dennis, who had a photographic memory. We were like inseparable brothters and we always shared notes...

Everyone that came through Philly, they were fearful of him. He was just that awesome... He wasn't thrilled with the scene at all, because he knew  he was far in advance of that which was going on... His record was on the Debut label that Max and Mingus ran. When they heard John, they had to record with him. Dennis's parents were fundamentalists who put a lot of pressure on him not to play the devil's music. It has a physical effect when an artist cannot continue to search and develop his artistry. Something happens to that person, physically and mentally. I learned that many people die from a broken heart, though nothing was wrong with them physically. They're brokenhearted and just give up. That's what happened to John."

How, where and when Dennis died and why he never recorded again is unknown.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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