Dena DeRose, Home From Europe

It was another stellar night at Sarah’s Wine Bar/Bernard’s Restaurant in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where the Jazz Masters Series comes out once a month courtesy of the husband-and-wife team of Marcia and Ken Needleman. The Dena DeRose trio (Martin Wind, bass, and John Wikan, drums) was joined by veteran trumpet player Marvin Stamm (Bill Evans, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Duke Pearson, Thad Jones, Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine).

Dena DeRose

Dena DeRose meets the media at Sarah’s Wine Bar in Ridgefield, CT. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Not many places in Connecticut let you dine splendidly while listening to top-rank jazz through a clear-as-a-bell sound system. And the audience is quiet, too.

In Ridgefield, DeRose was in good form, and sailed through a repertoire that included tributes to the late Mark Murphy and Bob Dorough, standards such as “It Could Happen to You” and “Get Out of Town,” and a Martin Wind original with DeRose’s lyrics, “Simple Song.”

Dena is a cool vocalist, sort of like Patricia Barber but warmer. And she’s a hell of a vibrant pianist, slamming those keys with exuberance. As you’ll read below, she got into the vocalizing late, and almost by accident–just like Nat Cole.

I’ve written about Dena before, but this time I sat down with her and conducted a Q&A interview (after we missed each other on WPKN the week before).

Marvin Stamm

Marvin Stamm made an album of duets with DeRose called “The Nearness of Two.” (Jim Motavalli photo)

You’ve been teaching in Europe. How do you like living there?

I love living in Europe! I moved to Graz, Austria about 13 years ago. I accepted a professorship for jazz voice at one of the oldest institutions for the music in Europe, started around 1965 or 1966. They didn’t really have jazz voice until Sheila Jordan started the program in the late 1980s.

It wasn’t really a university then, more like one of our community colleges. But in 2004 it became a university, which meant they wanted to have one professor for voice long term. Before that, Sheila would bring over Mark Murphy, Michelle Hendricks, Andy Bey, Jay Clayton and people like that. They’d go over for a semester or even a year and teach, workshops and private lessons, the jazz choir.

Martin Wind

The hard-working Martin Wind is DeRose’s go-to bass player. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I got called and told there was an audition for the professorship, much different than it would be in the States. I taught at NYU, Purchase, Hartt School in Hartford, and they just ask you—“Do you want to come and teach here?” It was nerve-wracking to go over to Europe and audition—I had never had to do that. But I got offered the job, and in a month’s time had to move my life over there after 16 years in New York. It felt like the right time.

You still come back regularly, once a year.

Well, I love New York. I just played Birdland for four nights, and we had bassist Martin Wind, plus Steve Williams on drums, and guests that included saxophonist Houston Person and trumpet players Ingrid Jensen and Jeremy Pelt. I love Ingrid, and Jeremy was on the cover of Downbeat this month. He’s a deep cat for a young guy.

I had a thought while listening to you play “Joy Spring” with Marvin Stamm. Maybe if the 1950s hadn’t been what they were, and you were born back then instead of now, you’d have been one of those Blue Note pianists–Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan, Herbie Hancock—who played on a million albums. It was mostly men on those sessions.

It was a man’s world, and times have changed a little bit. Now we have people like Ingrid Jensen, Virginia Mayhew, Sue Terry, Grace Kelly, Tia Fuller, Sherry Maracle with the Diva band. It’s finally getting more equal in the reviews and in the magazines. There were a lot of great women players back in the day—Marian McPartland, for one—but of course there weren’t as many. These days when I do workshops and clinics, at high schools and universities, there are a lot more women instrumentalists—it’s not just singers, but saxophonists, trumpet players, flautists, trombonists. We’re more in the forefront.

I was listening to the new Norah Jones album, and her piano playing is more in the background than it used to be. That’s also true of one of my favorite artists in the old-time country field, Rhiannon Giddens, who is an instrumental virtuoso but is concentrating more on being a singer. One of the things I love about your records is that the piano is so upfront.

Thanks, I was first a piano player. My singing came out of having some operations on my hand when I was younger, so I couldn’t play. I had to pay the doctor’s bills, so I took some voice lessons and studied technique and started working in my hometown with a trio. And when my hand healed, I was still singing. It just happened.

Nat Cole didn’t sing at first.

I didn’t either. When I first got into jazz it was just piano. They used to tell me when I was younger that I had the Nat Cole syndrome. He was playing in a place regularly, and one night the manager comes up and says, “Hey, your piano is great, but how about you sing a tune?” And Cole replied, “I don’t sing.” This happened a bunch of times, and finally, he did sing. And then he became Nat King Cole.

Back then, it really helped if you could sing. These days, you can pretty much do what you want to do.

Tell us about your most recent record, United [HighNote, 2016].

It has Ingrid Jensen, Matt Wilson and Martin Wind, Peter Bernstein. We were all in New York, and we’re all about the same age. We were in New York together learning the music. That was my school—I didn’t go to a university. New York was it. If you were on the bandstand you had to know the tunes.

When you record in Europe, can you find musicians of the same caliber as those in New York?

I made a duo album in Europe, the Nearness of Two, with Marvin Stamm. It was a live concert and they didn’t tell us it was going to be a CD. But there are great players everywhere. I travel through Europe constantly, at least two or three weekends every month. And I have the Spanish band, the Italian band, the Danish band. Bands in Germany and Austria.

You’d be great with the WDR Big Band in Germany. There’s a new album with Fred Hersch, and arrangements by Vince Mendoza.

I had the opportunity four or five years ago to do a project with the Frankfurt Radio Band. Ed Partyka did the arrangements around my Shirley Horn homage CD. And that was really fun. But it wasn’t released as an album. At the end of May I go to Portugal to be with Benny Golson and the big band of the Algarve region. All of Benny’s songs have been arranged for big band. I’ll probably be mostly playing piano on that, and doing some of my own big band arrangements. Benny is 90.

So is Tony Bennett. He’s also 90.

Next month in the Jazz Masters Series is violin player Jason Anick and his trio, Sunday May 26.

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