Dena DeRose – a Lovely Way to Spend a Sunday

July 27, 2018

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout

On a recent Sunday afternoon, three sparkling ingredients were evident in the warm environs of Santa Barbara’s SoHo jazz club. The first was the supremely talented pianist-singer Dena DeRose. The second was her fellow musicians, bassist, Peter Barshay and drummer Akira Tana, a supportive empathetic duo who were in lock-step with their leader all afternoon. That third sparkling ingredient? Well, repertoire is one of DeRose’s many musical gifts. Rather than just string together some random songs, she obviously gave thought to her selections and we heard no weak “throw-aways.” She has an impeccable ear for good material and successfully assembled an interesting collection of pop and jazz standards interleaved with a few well-written originals. Space doesn’t permit a full coverage, but I’ll address a few selections.

One thing you notice about the best jazz artists is that they invariably choose the right tempo and melodic embellishments. For instance, DeRose opened her SOhO set with a crisp rendition of the Jimmy McHugh standard “I Just Found Out About Love (and I Like It).” McHugh is better known for songs like “On the Sunny Side of the Street” but I favor this somewhat lesser-known which has an infectious built-in swing.

De Rose openly expresses her affection for fellow pianists including Alan Broadbent who wrote the exceptional “Ode to the Road,” a topic with which many jazz performers are familiar. Jazz singer Mark Murphy, who spent years on “the road,” penned the lyric. DeRose, who now lives and teaches music in Graz, Austria also has experience with the proverbial “road.”

She also expressed affection for Cedar Walton, whose impressive talents as a composer (such as “Clockwise” and “Bolivia”) were often beclouded by his remarkable success as a pianist. DeRose wrote lyrics for “Clockwise” and the memorable piece is now known as “Listen to Your Heart.”

Her choice of beloved evergreens, such as Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean” and Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low” were dressed in an idea-rich new garb. Sometimes the melody was only hinted at but always informed the solos.

The music world recently lost the great Bob Dorough, a true jazz hyphenate (composer, pianist, lyricist, singer, et al). During her second set DeRose acknowledged Dorough with what she described as his “extravagant love song,” titled “Nothing Like You.”  Here is a taste of his “extravagant” lyrics  –

Nothing like you has ever been seen before

Nothing like you existed in days of yore

Never were lips so kissable / Never were eyes so bright

I can’t believe it’s possible / That you give me such delight

De Rose can be a high-energy pianist sprinkling the SOhO with sixteenth notes (as she did with her own composition titled “A Tip of the Hat”) but she can also explore ballads such as “You’re Nearer.” an obscure but lovely Rodgers and Hart song. She let her duo take a break and lovingly performed this gem in an easy, patient way with just voice and piano.

Pop music is the art of recognition and pop singers PRESENT a song. Fans of popular music generally want to recognize what they hear. Jazz, however, is the art of surprise and jazz singers CREATE a song. In her second set DeRose surprised us with her creative interpretation of the jazz standard, “Detour Ahead.” The song was written as and usually performed as a ballad. But she asked us to think about the final words of the lyric, which are “Smooth road, smooth road. No detour ahead,” DeRose and her trio were swinging all the way in a ”take no prisoners,” “take no detours” performance, simply straight-ahead down that musical road.

This review has so far made little mention of DeRose’s accompaniment and that oversight needs to be corrected. She was given wonderful sympathetic support by bassist Barshay and drummer Tana. The three are apparently working together on this west coast trip and their camaraderie and closeness were exhibited on each wonderfully performed selection.

Live jazz is the best jazz. I have fortunately seen Dena DeRose many times and she is an engaging and confident performer, thoroughly at ease on stage. She began her career as a non-singing pianist, at some point wisely adding vocals. But she is not simply a pianist who happens to sing a little or a singer who happens to play a little piano. Rather, DeRose is, at all times, a complete musical artist and a superb practitioner of this difficult dual role. To my mind, the only others that perform this role as well were the great Shirley Horn and Nat Cole and, like those two, she plays music rather than technique. Oh, the technique is excellent, her articulation beautiful, but she never indulges in excesses of any kind. Whether a good-time swinger or a retrospective ballad, DeRose gets inside of a song and makes it her own and that is what jazz is all about.

To paraphrase a song that she included on her Sunday at SOhO gig, “In this world of ordinary singers, I’m glad there is you, Dena DeRose.”

For details on DeRose and her recordings and gigs, visit her website

-Roger Crane, freelance writer

Photos by Mark McDonald

Dena DeRose

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