Jeff Denson Trio + Lee Konitz Bassist/composer Jeff Denson has enjoyed a richly rewarding musical and personal relationship with alto saxophone legend Lee Konitz since 2007, when Denson joined Konitz's well-traveled New Quartet. The latest chapter in their association involves the recording, at Berkeley's Fantasy Studios in February of this year, of Jeff Denson Trio + Lee Konitz, with pianist Dan Zemelman and drummer Jon Arkin. Scheduled for release by Denson's Ridgeway Records on July 7, the CD explores new music, offers fresh takes on seldom-played compositions of the Lennie Tristano School, and features scat singing by Konitz and Denson.
Jeff Denson Trio + Lee Konitz is the first in a planned series of Ridgeway recordings to team Denson's trio plus a notable guest artist. Marking nearly the 60th anniversary of Konitz's first appearance on record with his mentor, Lennie Tristano, the album goes places where no other Tristano (or Konitz) tribute has ever gone via some rarely recorded songs, including Warne Marsh's "Background Music" and Tristano's "Baby" and "East Thirty-Second." It also reveals Konitz's delightful scat singing, something that has never been documented on record to this extent.
Jeff first met Lee in 2003, but they didn't team up musically until a few years later, in Germany, when the saxophonist invited Denson's trio Minsarah (with Florian Weber and Ziv Ravitz) to his apartment in Cologne to rehearse. To their surprise, he did not ask them to play their instruments.
"Instead he said, let's sing, let's improvise some stuff," Denson recalls. "I guess he had heard us play enough. That was the start of a great adventure. The stuff we do is very different than any music in his canon. Lee is a true improviser. He doesn't play licks. He really responds."
The Lee Konitz New Quartet with Denson, Weber, and Ravitz went on to tour internationally and produce three albums: Deep Lee (2008), Live at the Village Vanguard (2009), and Standards Live at the Village Vanguard (2014). Of the 87-year-old Konitz, Denson remarks that "he's old enough to be my grandfather, but he is still improvising on a master level. He's not stuck in any way musically."
Jeff Denson, 38, was born and raised in the Washington, DC area. He attended Berklee (where Minsarah was formed), earned his Master's in jazz studies at Florida State University, and relocated to Southern California to pursue his doctorate (at UC San Diego) in contemporary music performance with an emphasis in composition. Based since 2011 in the East Bay, he is a full professor at the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the Jazzschool Institute) and has forged ties with some of the Bay Area's top players, including bassoonist Paul Hanson, guitarist Mimi Fox, and drummer Alan Hall.
A prolific composer and arranger, Denson has written music for an array of jazz settings, from big band to trio, as well as for string ensembles, solo bass, and a chamber opera. He's begun work on a chamber opera, plans to try his hand at film scoring, and is preparing a series of educational books for his Ridgeway Publishing imprint (part of his recently established nonprofit, Ridgeway Arts).
In addition to Denson's ongoing Trio +1 projects, the bassist is in the midst of organizing several other recordings. One will feature his Secret World group, which he's expanding to a quintet with Paul Hanson. He's in the process of completing an album with Electreo, with Hanson, drummer Alan Hall, and Denson on electric bass. And he's collaborating with Mimi Fox and violinist Mads Tolling in a trio whose arrangements of the music from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band will be released in time for that seminal album's 50th anniversary in 2017.
To say that Jeff Denson is currently in a spectacularly expansive period is an understatement; he is positively thriving on all possible fronts. "I'm in an extremely stimulating and productive time right now and I'm working as hard as I can to express all of my ideas," he says. "I find that with my teaching and all of the various projects I have, I'm able to get a complete picture of what I'm doing -- each one inspires the other."
The Jeff Denson Trio + Lee Konitz will be performing extensively in Europe this summer and fall. Next month they appear 7/4 at Comblain La Tour Jazz Festival, Hamoir, Belgium; and 7/17 UniversaiJazz, Valladolid, Spain (Trio with Kari Ikonen, p; Ronen Itzik, d).
Fall dates include 10/2 Angra Jazz Festival, Azores, Portugal; 10/23 Domicil, Dortmund; 10/24 Lantaren Venster, Rotterdam; 10/26 Porgy & Bess, Vienna; 10/27 Unterfahrt, Munich; 10/29 Workshop, Helsinki; 10/30 Jazz & The City Festival, Bremen (Trio with Dan Zemelman, p; Alan Hall, d). Additional dates are in the works. Closer to home, Denson will appear with Zemelman and Hall at the Sound Room in Oakland 8/14.