Pianist, singer, composer, and arranger, Dena DeRose is a natural when it comes to bringing out jazz music’s warm resonance and emotive punctuations, garnishing classic and modern standards that she plays. She never seems to run out of ideas to put into words and music, and reflects, "Inspiration for writing music comes in many, many forms for me. Whether it be personal experience, listening to other musicians, learning a new musical technique as in a theoretical approach to harmony or rhythm, etc, looking at a Picasso or Dali painting, teaching others about music, watching dancers, feeling the ocean rollback and forth through your toes, or the sunshine on your face. There are so many things that inspire me; the list could go on forever."
While some people wish they had a money-tree, DeRose seems to have a music-tree in her home that never runs dry. She has been able to pick from its branches since becoming a solo artist, enabling her to compose a new album noticeably every two years. She says, "There is never any pressure for me to put out a recording every 2 years or so. That’s about the natural time frame for me as a musician. I try to keep a steady growth happening in my career, my music, my life, and sometimes 2 years can seem a bit too long. The business seems to be in the same state though, so it works out well for everyone. It takes about that long for a jazz recording to get the right exposure for being able to release the next recording, unless you are on a major label that does tons of promotion and advertising."
DeRose did not confirm or deny to having a music-tree in her home, but you would swear that she has one after becoming acquainted with her music. Maybe that’s why her latest release is a live album. It is her first live album demonstrating the breadth of her work and talents as a live performer. Entitled Live at the Jazz Standard and released by Max Jazz Records, the recording was taped during the three nights that she played at the Jazz Standard in New York City in 2007. Sometimes she plays original compositions like the soul-jazz mink pelts of "Speak Low," and other times she offers her own interpretation of jazz classics like her vivacious rendition of Cole Porter’s "Get Out of Town."
She discloses, "I decided to make a live album because a lot of my fans and friends have been saying for years that my studio recordings are fine, but a live album would really capture the essence of my playing and singing and my trios dynamic energy and bring that to an audience. Maxjazz was supportive in this venture and helped with making it all happen at the Jazz Standard in New York City."
For the selections, DeRose claims, "The songs were selected partly because they are some songs that this trio has developed over the last 6 or 7 years, yet, some very new tunes first recorded by us. I only chose songs that reflect what is going on at the present time in my life, although some of them reflect a certain time in the past when I first recorded or performed them. Then seem to evolve and integrate into whatever my life’s adventures have taken me up to until now. The lyrics have new meanings or deeper meanings when put into a new context of life. Sometimes, I was involved in the editing - choosing tracks, order of tunes, mixing, mastering, photo’s, etc. of the entire album. I like to be a part of the whole project from start to finish when it comes to the artistic side of things as I am the producer also. Most of what you hear is what was played on one of those 3 nights at the club."
She admits, "Small clubs are my preference because the intimate feeling of a room, but large festivals can also be very fun! The excitement of 1,000-10, 000 people is amazing!!"
Her performance at the Jazz Standard was as a trio which includes herself, Martin Wind on upright bass, and Matt Wilson on drums, both of whom she has played alongside for a number of years. She recalls, "I met Matt Wilson a few years after moving to New York City and we played together at Cleopatra’s Needle some gigs there in the mid-’90s. Always knew we would be playing together on a more regular basis after our first meeting. It was a real connection for me. He’s truly an artist in the best sense of the word and very inspiring as a musician and human being. And, Martin was introduced to me through Matt about 7 years ago for a gig I had for the trio in Pennsylvania. We also hit it off right away! Love these guys!! Our connection with music is similar, yet different enough to bring new life to whatever we’re playing."
She expresses, "The trio in general plays live a bit differently than in the studio mainly because there is an audience. The audience members, most of the time, forget that they are as much a part of a live performance as the musicians on stage. There is an energy that can be in a room, or not, when audience and musicians connect through the music. I love it!! It makes performing very exciting for me because you just never know what to expect!"
She comments about touring as a trio, "The three of us have a ball on the road. The guys help keep things light when, as a leader, I have to deal with the details of the business. There is never enough time to enjoy each other’s company when on the road, so we try to hang off the road sometimes."
She perceives, "I think that I have stayed on the true path that I am meant to be on and have grown deeper into that path. My vision of what I do is simple: I play and sing songs that reflect who I am as a person, how I perceive the world through my heart and soul, and I am always trying to grow musically, personally, and spiritually so that what does come out of my art is something that is deeper and more meaningful through time."
DeRose always knew she wanted to be a piano player since she was introduced to the instrument as a child growing up in Binghamton, New York. She remembers, "My first gig was when I was 12 or 13 in a wedding band, which my friends and I put together in junior high school."
Finding her way to jazz music took a while since, at first, she gravitated towards pop music and even left college and her studies with her tutor Doug Beardsley to pursue the life of a pop artist. "I left my degree program in classical piano to pursue a year of traveling through the States in a pop band for the experience and for the fun of it!! At that particular time in my life, I was into pop music and playing keyboards and so were my friends. We put a band together and took off. It was a really fun time in my life and something, I know, I grew from looking back on it now. I did however go back to school after that to finish my classical training and then began to dive head first into jazz piano on my own. I did play in the university big band, and started to play cocktail hours, brunches and other sorts of jazz type gigs in my home town of Binghamton, New York."
When the band’s rocket fizzled instead of taking them off, DeRose found herself standing at a crossroads and wandering if she should pursue the life of a local musician in Binghamton, or trail another path for herself. Her music-tree came in handy about this time as she moved to New York City and found steady work playing jazz clubs. She tells, "I moved to New York City when I was 25. I landed a steady little jazz gig at a nice cabaret room/restaurant on ‘restaurant row‘, West 46th Street, called Danny’s Grand Sea Palace (a.k.a. Danny’s Skylight Room) where I honed my craft 5-7 nights a week. Great bassists like Dennis Erwin, Jay Leonhart, Steve Laspina, Ron McClure, Cameron Brown, and so many others would pop out and play a tune with me after there shows in the back cabaret room. I learned a lot there and also started to gather a following and fan base in New York City."
DeRose basically taught herself to sing as It became a means for her to expand on her musical expression, especially after she contracted carpal tunnel syndrome in 1989 and began to experience bouts of arthritis. She reveals, "It wasn’t until I had some hand problems like carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis that I really learned more about jazz. During this 2 1/2 years or so of not playing piano, I started to sing the American Songbook tunes and learned so very much about harmony, melodic development, and wonderful stories. Then, when my hand recovered, I put the singing and playing together without a thought about it, and the rest is history."
She bounced back from those dark days and relates. "Singing and playing piano is a really interesting thing in general. I see it as one thing really. One, I am my own accompanist, so I sort of know intuitively what I’m going to play for myself, and two, as a singer, I am leading the melody/phrasing, etc. in a direction so that the piano playing needs to complement the lines. Two things, two separate people - singer with an accompanist, striving for and sometimes never achieving. Being one entity helps me to grow deeper into the music, even though I love to be accompanied by someone else. I sing quite differently and more adventurous at times...totally inspiring!"
The experience also showed DeRose that she could not treat her body like it is a machine. She needed longer periods of time-outs and claims, "I am constantly trying to learn to know when to take a holiday or vacation in my life. I am a type ‘A’ personality and love to work, always have and always will, but I have learned that life’s adventures have a way of making my music grow beyond the many hours of practicing and performing that I have done on a very regular basis now for almost 30 years. Yes, 30 years!"
She mentions, "When not playing music I love to workout on my elliptical machine, hike, bike ride, play basketball, tennis - even though I am a total beginner, watch movies, do yoga, meditate, and go fishing. Since living part time in Graz, Austria, I have plans to get into skiing and snowboarding. Two things I’ve wanted to do for some time, but now I have a better opportunity to do so."
Her life in Graz, Austria includes being a teacher at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts. Here, she is able to offer her practical experience playing music to aspiring musicians as a way to prepare them for the path that lies ahead. "I love teaching as I have my entire adult life," she cheers. "These days I am teaching at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts in Graz, Austria. I took a 5-year Professorship in October 2006 and I am loving it. I spend about 6-months a year there, on and off, and have plenty of time for touring. I also teach in the Netherlands at the Prince Claus Conservatoire as an artist in residence 4-weeks a year. Teaching, as I mentioned before, is inspirational. I always say to students that I think I learn more than they do sometimes! I look at teaching more like I am passing on whatever information I have learned and acquired in my performing and my own learning."
As a jazz educator, she has taught at the New School and Purchase College in New York, the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, the Groningen Conservatory of Music in The Netherlands, the Brubeck Institute, the NJPAC for Teen Program, the Stanford Jazz Workshop in California, and several summer jazz camps. She observes, "Students in Europe and the students in the States are a bit different in general, but they are always the students, no matter where they are from. They have the eagerness, determination, dedication, and desire to be great musicians - one who strives for themselves and not for the public eye. There are the students that go out of their way to really listen to you, work hard, get gigs, and learn their craft through application, and they are the ones that have all the good questions."
Teaching has allowed DeRose to travel around the world, and it has opened doors for her to play shows on different continents. She muses, "Traveling to other countries and playing music had been a dream of mine my whole life long. I’ve been doing that for about 10 years now and will continue to because it broadens my scope of the world, of people, of lifestyles, cultures, and music. I don’t know any other way to acquire such knowledge other than first-hand. That’s how I learned jazz music, singing and playing, and like so many other things in life, getting out and doing it!!"
She admits, "I would love to go to Tibet, Africa, Egypt, India, and Ireland. These are places I have yet to go that I have heard a lot about from friends who have performed there or just gone on holiday. They seem to be spiritual places and very historical places - two things that fascinate me."
Though many musicians believe that performing live for 30 years and releasing a live album would mean the end of the road, DeRose is still aspiring to do more as she conveys, "I would love to do something with the Metropole Orchestra in Europe and the Village VanGaurd Orchestra and the Maria Schneider Orchestra here in New York City - two dreams of mine. Also, I am contemplating recording with a full orchestra or string orchestra, a big band recording, and a more modern/funky recording where I bring back my days of playing with electronic keyboards, etc. in the coming years."
Playing jazz music keeps Dena DeRose virile and giddy. It is a natural fit for her talents, and she brightens each time another artist embraces jazz music’s body of work as she remarks, "I think it’s great that pop, rock, soul, artists find jazz as a musical expression," even when it’s screen actress and hip-hop maven Queen Latifah. "I love Queen Latifah!" She shouts from the top of her lungs. "I would love to work with her someday, actually. She is so musical when singing jazz. Not showy, or affected at all, just real. I feel, as I mentioned before, that coming from a background of other styles of music myself, that somehow musicality can be nourished and can grow in depth from the experience of other styles of music in ones life. It did for me anyhow."
If you did not believe at the beginning of this interview that Dena DeRose has a music-tree that continually regenerates its branches after they have been depleted, then you must believe it by now. They say that it is good to be King, but it’s just as fulfilling being Dena DeRose. Her live album Live at the Jazz Standard is a testament to her longevity as a jazz artist and to how much her audience adores her music. Still, she has aspirations to do even more. That’s what happens when you have a music-tree, it never lets you rest for a long period of time, similarly to being King. It‘s a burden that Dena DeRose is happy to accept.