At first glance bassist Jeff Denson appears to reinvent himself on every album, and his 12th release as leader or co-leader, Outside My Window, might seem like his biggest departure yet. Possessing a huge, galvanizing sound and a lyrically-charged compositional vision, the supremely versatile Denson has earned recognition over the past 15 years as one of his generation's definitive bassists. Slated for release on his label Ridgeway Records on May 4, 2018, Outside My Window recalibrates his already expansive array of creative outlets by giving equal weight to his vocals. Working with a stellar international quartet, Denson delivers an emotionally taut program weaving together striking interpretations of iconic songs and deeply felt originals.
His mid-career emergence as a supple and engaging singer isn't coming from left field. On 2012's critically hailed Secret World, his first release under his own name, Denson included vocals on two original pieces and has continued in that fashion on most of his solo releases. On last year's Sgt. Pepper tribute May I Introduce to You with the collective San Francisco String Trio, his vocal interpretation of "Fixing a Hole" was one of the album's highlights. Denson's music covers a lot of stylistic territory, "but my voice is a thread running through each one, whether I'm singing or not," he says. "I was a singer before I was a bass player. Going into the jazz world I put my voice away for a long time. But this is a logical step for me, in that I'm using my voice more and more every year. This is the first time I'm singing throughout an entire album, and these songs are a direct continuation of the music I've been writing and arranging."
Denson's arrangements of four songs by other artists don't reimagine the pieces as much as filter them through his subtle sonic palette, starting with a gorgeous, lapidary version of "Grace," a piece inspired by the Negative Press Project album he produced last year for Ridgeway Records, Eternal Life: Jeff Buckley Songs and Sounds. He delivers a sparse, intensely poignant rendition of Abbey Lincoln's "Bird Alone," a re-harmonized 6/8 version of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" and a riveting arrangement of "Fell On Black Days" by Chris Cornell, a piece that serves as a tribute to Soundgarden's vocalist, who's music served a high school soundtrack for Denson.
"In my mind, he's arguably the best voice of that rock/grunge generation," Denson says. "I wanted to pay tribute to him and his artistry. And Abbey is one of my favorite jazz vocalists. I've always loved the way she sings, how she pulls on the time like Billie Holiday. She sings with such a full, intense, large sound, and this song of hers always moved me. I wanted to see what I could do with it."
Denson's four original pieces stand up impressively next to his interpretations, from the Beatlesque optimism of "For A Brand New Day" to the clangy prepared-piano accompaniment of the anguished "Have We Really Gone This Far?" On a melancholic piece that feels like it beamed in from a universe neighboring Miles Davis's In a Silent Way, Denson contributes an atmospheric wordless vocal on "Through the Mist," a tune he's radically rearranged since the collective trio Minsarah introduced it in 2006. The closing title track is a wistful invitation into Denson's verdant musical world.
The album is built on some of his deepest musical relationships. Denson and Dayna Stephens met at Berklee and have played together in various contexts ever since. Israeli-born drummer Ronen Itzik is also a Berklee alum, and he and Denson bonded as part of the rhythm section for Joe Lovano's 21st Century Ensemble. They went on to get graduate degrees at Florida State University, where they played together daily and recorded three albums in two years with pianist Bill Peterson and one with vocalist Inga Swearingen. Kari Ikonen, one of Finland's most highly regarded jazz musicians, is a much more recent addition to Denson's musical world, but he's quickly become indispensable. In need of a pianist for a tour with legendary alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, he hired Ikonen and "it was joyously apparent to me that along with Ronen, this was my trio. It felt easy and inspiring and the next few tours I did with Lee Konitz were with them."
Konitz played a crucial role in encouraging the reemergence of Denson's vocals after hearing his singing on Secret World. Performing together at the Bimhaus in Amsterdam, the altoist made an impromptu announcement in the middle of a standard that "Jeff is going to sing," he recalls. "There wasn't even a microphone set up, but I started singing the melody. I booked a West Coast tour with him after that and we'd spontaneously sing together every night. It felt great, playing the standard jazz repertoire and being able to sing on stage with him. But at the same time, I knew that I wanted to do my own music and sing the way I sing, without having to filter anything."
Born on Dec. 20, 1976 in Arlington, Virginia, Denson grew up in the orbit of Washington, DC. After playing alto sax from third grade through junior high, he gave up the horn but was drawn back to music when friends in high school recruited him as a singer for rock bands. When one of those groups also needed a bass player, he took over the spot and before long found himself drawn to the jazz and funk electric bass pantheon, "Players like Jaco, Bootsy Collins, and Stanley Clarke served as the gateway," Denson recalls. "When I heard the virtuosic electric playing in fusion, that opened the door to jazz." Listening to Miles Davis led him to the double bass, but it was Mingus who inspired him to dedicate himself to it. "I heard 'Haitian Fight Song' where he plays that amazing intro, and that was the defining moment," Denson says. "I knew I'd never be able to make sounds like that on an electric bass."
While studying at Northern Virginia Community College Denson supported himself freelancing around DC, playing jazz, orchestral music, rock covers, and leading his own funk combo as a bassist and vocalist. Earning a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, he quickly fell in with German pianist Florian Weber and Israeli drummer Ziv Ravitz, fellow students with whom he formed Minsarah. The collective trio released its debut album in 2003 on Hubermusic, and followed up in 2006 with a critically hailed eponymous album on Enja Records. Despite touring internationally with the group Denson managed to maintain a rigorous academic career.
Recruited by Florida State University, he graduated Magna Cum Laude an MM in Jazz Studies on a full scholarship and discovered an affinity for teaching. A conversation with bass giant Mark Dresser, who had just been hired as a professor at UC San Diego, brought Denson to UCSD on another full scholarship, leading to a doctorate in contemporary music performance with an emphasis in composition. Throughout his San Diego sojourn, Denson continued to tour widely with Minsarah, and it was during a spate of 2006 concerts in Germany that Lee Konitz first heard the band, "the start of a great adventure," Denson says.
With Minsarah serving as his band, the critically hailed Lee Konitz New Quartet debuted on 2007's Deep Lee and followed up with 2009's Lee Konitz New Quartet: Live at the Village Vanguard, Jazzman Magazine's 2010 Album of the Year Award, and 2014's Standards Live: At the Village Vanguard (all on Enja). Denson made his debut as a bandleader with 2012's Secret World, and went on to demonstrate his versatility with simultaneous duo releases, radically reconceiving American hymns and spirituals with San Diego pianist Joshua White on I'll Fly Away and exploring freely improvised dialogues with Swiss clarinet virtuoso Claudio Puntin on Two.
Since relocating to the East Bay in 2011 to take on a full professorship at the California Jazz Conservatory, Denson has forged ties with some of the Bay Area's top players, including bassoonist Paul Hanson, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, guitarist Mimi Fox and violinist Mads Tolling (his partners in the San Francisco String Trio). A prolific composer and arranger, he's written music for an array of jazz settings, as well as for string ensembles, solo bass, and chamber opera.
He's brought his many pursuits under one umbrella with the recent unveiling of Ridgeway Arts, a non-profit designed to enhance and fortify the Bay Area scene, and to make a strong contribution to the national landscape of jazz and the arts in general, through a four-pronged plan of expression, education, presenting and documentation. He introduced the initiative with The Jeff Denson Trio + Lee Konitz, and followed up with Arctic by drummer Alan Hall's critically hailed electro-acoustic ensemble, Ratatet. The label has become an essential conduit to an international cast of musicians, and the portal to Denson's multifarious musical imagination.
"Artists are always dreaming up what we're doing," he says. "My goal has always been very clearly to create my own musical world."