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Urban Folk & Jazz from a Girl like KJ Denhert

Gina Vodegel By

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KJ Denhert is a regular performing artist at the New York 55 Bar, the club where guitarists Mike Stern and Wayne Krantz also love to entertain their guests in the club's intimate ambiance. To see KJ Denhert live is a vibrant and enchanting experience; she's accompanied by outstanding musicians, and turns standards and covers into gems of her own. She describes her music as "urban folk and jazz," and it's both funky and groovy, as well as lyrical, soulful and moving towards the inner realms of the listener's soul. KJ has released five albums so far on her own Mother Cyclone Records label and recently found a club in Harlem - St. Nicks Pub - to suit the vibes of her urban jazz. After all, what better place than Harlem, right?

All About Jazz: Your music is very energetic and vibrant. It also has a touch of melancholy and longing of the soul. You write songs yourself next to singing pop/jazz/rock standards and, if I may say so, you make them your own with a distinctive KJ Denhert touch, like in Sting's "Message In A Bottle." And it's even crystal clear your taste in music is wide and versatile. As a kid, what were your most early musical influences when growing up?

KJ Denhert: Well, I listened to radio - pop radio as a kid. Michael Jackson, the Supremes, The Beatles, Rolling Stones... I also listened to the music my parents had around and that was also pop - Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett, some jazz like Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal. When I started to define my own taste the big two were James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, followed by Carole King and on through the '70s songwriters - I started playing guitar when I was 10 years old, so by age 12 I was beginning to really encompass the technique to play '70s soft rock or singer/songwriter stuff.

AAJ: How did your musical career unfold, like did you start to play the guitar and perform, knowing that was what you wanted to do or...?

KJ: When I was 4 years old I asked for a piano, perhaps after meeting my grandmother who played and taught piano. She lived in Grenada and we went there for a long stay during the Cuban missile crisis in the '60s. I think I decided then that I wanted a piano. I thought that I could play and told my mother that I knew when the notes went up and when they went down. At 10, with still no piano around, I picked up my brother's discarded acoustic guitar and wrote a song using only the four remaining strings. I wrote a song for a teacher that died at school. I was rather intense as a child.

From guitar I just went on playing with records and doing something like self study with records - James Taylor, Joni Mitchell - I learned all of the essential Joni Mitchell tunings from a book (For The Roses). James Taylor also had a book that included tablature, a numeric method of notating music that I used to learn how he played certain chords.

My career unfolded "slow and steady" and, despite the adolescent frustration, I know that this slow unfolding was how my star was meant to shine. I had my own band by age 17 and was lucky enough to play the historic folk city open mic even though I was underage. I got a standing ovation my first time out - that hooked me. It would be many years before I received another one.

I played music throughout my life. In college I had a lot of gigs and some airplay. It was very similar to my last few years of holding down a full-time job in finance and gigging and average of 100-plus shows. History repeats itself. I left the university and after a year with my own band I decided to take a job as a "sideman," answered an ad in the Village Voice, passed the audition (my first) and went on the road. I used my salary to pay off my first two years worth of student loans in one year. Although I was on academic leave of absence I never returned to college.

AAJ: You record and publish your own music, as well as perform live a great deal. You've traveled a lot in the U.S., Europe, Asia, so you know what it's like to be on the road. Can you share some special memories or experiences with us, perhaps like in what respect does this traveling influence you in who you are, or how you grow musically?

KJ: Well there are so many exciting adventures that I am threatening always to write a book about those seven years touring. We spent one solid week at sea, touring the ships of the U.S. 7th fleet that was stationed in the Indian Ocean. We were lowered from hovering helicopters onto the deck of an Australian ship at 7 a.m. It was a gesture on the part of the USO or some commander to add an extra show for our allies. Of course we weren't consulted and we often did more than one show a day. There was some sea sickness that I tended to after the show - it didn't hit me until the helicopter and a few thousand Australian seamen were on deck waving white hankies.

I also visited Pan Mun Jom, the 49th parallel, the border between North and South Korea. I had gone to the bathroom during our briefing and when I returned the drummer told me to sign this form, so I did. Later she said, "Oh, that form said that if we got killed on this tour our families can't sue the Armed Forces." "WHAT????" I said. It was a very dangerous place, but no one got hurt - it was fascinating, the history and the amount of silly posturing between competing factions. Each government tried to outdo the other in what sounded like high school rivalries. Each side kept increasing the size of their flag until one flag wouldn't fit in the building anymore. Or one side cut the legs down on the chairs of the other side so they could look down on them during talks. There were much more serious and fatal incidents, too. I read about Pan Mun Jom often in Time magazine and can't believe that I was there.

I could go on for days. Egypt was scary, too. I played for the multinational peace keeping forces that were overseeing the land returned to Egypt by Israel during the historic camp David Agreement, during Jimmy Carter's presidency. I never got used to people with submachine guns telling me which way to go - we landed in a plane so small that the musical equipment was pushing my seat forward when we landed. The plane was overloaded! I would never get on a plane like that again - I think of Alyah who perished the same way. The pilots were French and I understood only random words of the arguments on the tarmac. My French that I learned in school saved us more times than I would ever have imagined.

The road got in my blood, though. I love the adventure of traveling! I'm very cautious though - people are so crazy and disorganized, which is understandable. People become dangerous when they try to pretend they have things under control - that is a valuable lesson to learn as early in my career as I did.

AAJ: You're a finalist in the Independent Music Awards (category folk singer/ songwriter) for your album Songwriter's Notebook you did with Adam Falcon. How would you describe the connection the two of you have and are there any plans to record more?

KJ: Adam and I are great friends and our little CD has gotten some very nice responses. There are a few international stations in France and Australia that play it. Our connection is purely musical. We are so similar we approach guitar - and especially rhythm - from a similar place. I can't believe I produced that record. Adam has had a lot of success in this business and seems to know everybody. He knows George Benson and has provided songs to Al Jarreau - working with Adam is like in sports, when you play with someone who is very skilled you discover the best you can do. That has been a gift. We don't have plans for another CD yet - we both have bands and our own projects, but we just completed three shows supporting our release and each one got better and better. What is great is the amount of improvisation that we do - that's the real thrill. A lot of music that we see on television is choreographed and rehearsed down to the smallest detail. We have a framework that is open, like jazz, and it's a high-wire dance that we share. I hope we get to do more shows soon - it's so envigorating.

AAJ: Composing your own music and arranging work from others, are those two different skills in your view?

KJ: Yes, I certainly thought of those things as different, but here's where it gets related. Whether I write a song or someone else did, it's about hearing it in your head. If I were to teach any young musician one thing it would be to pay attention to what's in your head. We can get so caught up in what our hands can do - practicing licks or scales, but our ears and minds are progressing faster than muscle memories of chords and scales. When we try to recreate things using our physical skills it's actually a distraction from listening to what is happening. I always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because I had no formal training, I spent so many years feeling like I had to catch up - but I don't learn things the way a lot of folks do. It took a long time for that concept to be resolved, emotionally for me. Once it did, any song, my own or a cover, became the same mental process - very liberating. I get told all the time that I make cover tunes my own - it's really because I learned to let my mind lead, or my ears. I essentially gave up on being a technician and started listening to every note I sang and every note I played almost as though I was listening to a new recording and what needed to come next began occurring milliseconds before I would play or sing it. Milliseconds sound very short, but it's all so relative. We can have many thoughts in a millisecond, learning to do anything from the heart is like meditating, focusing and turning off all of the useless (ego-driven thoughts) and then a millisecond, when the next note is arriving is a long beautiful time. Thoughts like "Who is in the audience," "Do they like it," "What's that really cool lick I played last time" can all go on simultaneously. I have to keep a constant vigil to just listen.

Cover tunes are fun for me because I really spend a lot of time improvising and try to be true to the harmonic structure of the original. At the same time I tend to find little vamps that are my own that occur between sections. It was an unconscious result but I noticed when I was teaching my arrangements to other players that I had almost derived a little formula - I never go at any tune with any formula in mind. I like covering tunes I don't know as well as the ones I literally played hundreds of times over and over growing up.

AAJ: You also love the music of Steely Dan. What are your fav tunes and do you ever think of arranging and performing a SD song? If so, what song(s) would that be?

KJ: I really, really love Steely Dan music. When I was young I think it seemed to hard to do justice to. Today I know we could, but some songs - it's just so much fun to be able to sing the solo from Kid Charlemagne note for note in my head - that it doesn't inspire me to pull it out for a reworking.

I discovered Steely Dan - though I knew their "hits" in high school - really in college. I can remember what I was doing, what I was wearing the first time I heard Peg on the radio. Actually, I was brushing my teeth, in my friend's father's shirt. I was in an unusually good mood (college was a dark time of feeling overwhelmed) and I danced myself into a frenzy right from the first listen. AJA is a later album from them, but Peg on the radio once made me buy it and devour it. I then worked backwards and found earlier records and got most hooked on the Royal Scam but (also) Katy Lied, Dr Wu- Black Cow, Haitian Divorce, The Fez, the list could run on and on. There was so much to lock into as a musician - guitar solos, arrangements, guitar riffs - like the one from Josie. Donald Fagen's Nightfly is another one, from start to finish a masterpiece. Though not Steely Dan, per se, it offered everything I gleaned from Steely Dan previously.

If I covered a Steely Dan tune it seems like it would be fun to cop stuff note for note because they have the kind of songs that you (if you're obsessed like me) end up learning note for note even in your head. I know a lot of guitar folks used to transcribe solos and stuff - I never did that kind of stuff. Sometimes I just want to play the music, the lyrics brilliant in their own stylized way seem so personal that any other voice would seem odd.

What I do for fun sometimes - I'll take a verse of Oleander ( I think the only use of the word Oleander besides my song that I know of - occurs in one Steely Dan song) and sing the verse in my best Donald Fagen imitation. I use a four-chord phrase from Josie in not one but two songs - a song called "I Got Time" and one from the new Another Year Gone By Live Record called "The Deed is Done."

AAJ: The musicians you work with, in either your quartet, quintet or with the band NY Unit, these musicians come from different backgrounds and bring their experience and musical wealth together in what Herb Sierra describes as a very strong spirited musical performance that gets to the listener. There are influences of Latin, funk, jazz, folk, r&b ... You like to call your music "urban folk and jazz" also because you're living and working in New York. Have you ever considered moving to another city, or another country even?

KJ: I've always wanted to move to another country, it just gets hard to do. You get settled and want to be among your friends, I like New York too. Hopefully I will do enough touring to feel like I've lived everywhere a little - oh, that does sound silly doesn't it?

Visit KJ Denhert on the web.


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