Prog Talk: Joe Deninzon & Stratospheerius
With a musical background that encompasses classical, jazz, rock, world and all points in between, violinist-mandolinist-vocalist-bandleader Joe Deninzon is a whirling dervish of vibrant creativity. He is one of those folks who seem to have a limitless supply of intriguing ideas. Deninzon is the embodiment of a true progressive artist, with jazz at his sonic core.
“I was a jazz major in school, and that jazz influence has always been infused in our music,” he said.
Deninzon was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is the son of a concert violinist father and a concert pianist mother. He grew up and was raised in Cleveland, and studied classical and jazz violin at Indiana University. After relocating to New York City in 1998, Deninzon recorded his first venture into the jazz-fusion milieu, Electric/Blue. Its release was concurrent with the budding string player’s burgeoning career as a freelance studio musician and sideman.
He was also studying at the Manhattan School of Music and teaching at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. It was there that he met and began a musical partnership with guitarist Alex Skolnick, known for his work in the metal genre. The two of them pooled their love of electric Miles Davis, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and the like into an exciting new ensemble called Stratospheerius. This collaboration resulted in the 2002 CD The Adventures Of Stratospheerius. The 12-track album consisted mostly of Deninzon’s compositions along with interpretations of songs by Wayne Shorter, Vince Guaraldi and Stevie Wonder.
Stratospheerius established itself as a high-energy performance entity, with extended jams, sophisticated improvisation and intricate violin/guitar interplay, as evidenced on the 2004 concert disc Live Wires. The album was a turning point for Deninzon and company in numerous ways. Jake Ezra replaced Skolnick on guitar, and it was the debut for drummer Lucianna Padmore, a fellow New School alum. They also trimmed the outfit from a sextet to a lean-and-mean foursome, with Ron Baron on bass. In 2007 the album Headspace took the band in a slightly different direction as more overt funk and jazz styles were laced with increasing melodic and progressive rock overtones. More personnel changes transpired as bassist Bob Bowen and guitarist Mack Price joined Padmore for the expansion of their sound.
Around this juncture Deninzon took a break from the fusion world, teaming with bassist Bowen and guitarist Steve Benson in the acoustic Joe Deninzon Trio, which recorded the 2010 jazz albumExuberance. It was at this point where the versatile violinist took a step back to his musical beginnings and cast all of his improvisational influences together in a fresh light.
“What’s really fun for us is to open up the songs live and take them in all directions,” Deninzon explained. “For that to happen, you’ve gotta have an improvisational jazz mentality and tap into a certain head space. We all have a jazz background and we bring that to the table.”
Following Straospheerius guitarist Price’s departure and Bowen’s tragic death in a biking accident, Deninzon recruited French guitarist Aurelien Budynek and bassist Jamie Bishop in 2008. This has been the group’s most consistent and enduring lineup thus far, documented on the 2012 CD The Next World.
“On my first [album] we did a cover of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Well, You Needn’t,’” Deninzon said. “On The Adventures Of Stratospheerius, we covered Wayne Shorter’s ‘Nefertiti.’ Our latest is a more focused and song-oriented album. It’s heavier and more rock-oriented but there are still a lot of jazz influences there, too.”
The all-original excursion contains a lot of jazz-influenced music, such as the dynamic and atmospheric disc opener “Release,” while the instrumental “Fleshbot” has a lot of fire à la violinists Jean-Luc Ponty and Didier Lockwood. “Missing Link” matches odd time signatures with strong vocal hooks, and “Ballad For Ding Bang” is a sweet dedication to Deninzon’s son Max that features smooth chord changes and delicate accents by Padmore.
“I’ve always admired artists who are spontaneous and don’t just rehash their recorded material onstage,” Deninzon said. “I always like to keep the band on their toes and keep me from being bored playing the same material. We’ll change what we play and how we play it. Zappa was notorious for doing that kind of thing. Weather Report did that. All the great jazz groups did that. I let the music dictate where I’m gonna go—sort of like a Ouija board where you tap into that spirit and it leads you where it wants to.”
Stratospheerius explores ‘Next World’ tonight at Sherlock’s
BY DAVE RICHARDS, Erie Times-News
Growing up, Joe Deninzon worshipped great guitarists such as Steve Vai and Jimi Hendrix, which doesn’t sound unusual except for this: He plays violin.
“From a writing standpoint and a performance standpoint, I was listening to guys like (Vai), even as a violinist, more than Itzhak Perlman or Jascha Heifetz,” Deninzon said. “I liked great guitar players like that who were also great showmen and entertainers. That’s what I strive for.”
With Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius, he pulls off the unthinkable — leading a rock band with supercharged violin work that is — to his pleasure — signed to Vai’s record label.
“The Next World,” Stratospheerius’ latest CD, showcases a virtuoso band that dazzles technically and relishes stylistic diversity. The CD dives into progressive rock, fusion, hard rock, blues and, on “Tech Support,” electronica.
It’s all over the place, yet rocks with such conviction and impressive chops that it hardly matters.
“I always like a lot of different flavors every time I go to get a bagel or any kind of flavor of ice cream,” Deninzon said. “I’m always a guy who hates making up his mind.”
So he tries everything, though “Next World” finds the band especially diving into progressive rock.
“It’s a natural progression,” Deninzon said. “I started writing more songs with lyrics and singing more in the band. I’ve always been a fan of bands like Rush and Yes, bands with really great instrumental prowess but also great vocals and lyrics. So, its something I wanted to incorporate. Try to find a way to do it in cool way musically that works.”
“The Prism,” a CD highlight, features a Zeppelinesque feel.
“It’s kind of got a ‘Kashmir’ meets ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ meets whatever else feel,” Deninzon said, with a laugh. “I imagined it to be one of those epic songs. For that, I overdubbed a lot of strings. I have an octave violin tuned like a cello, so I cover cello, viola and violin parts. I wanted it to sound like a huge string (section).”
“Release” races with a Muse-like approach, while “Gods” features a crushing hook. Deninzon spent three years on the CD, which is nominated for best progressive rock album of 2012 by ProgressiveRockCentral.com, alongside works by Ian Anderson and Steve Hackett.
At Sherlock’s, Deninzon will rely on his trusty Viper, a seven-string violin that he can tune down to cello and lower, and an acoustic one. And while his kinetic playing is the focal point, don’t overlook his powerhouse band with drummer Lucianna Padmore, guitarist Aurelian Budynek and bassist Jamie Bishop. They have more chops than a black belt. They couldn’t do punk if they tried.
“Any time you have a rock band full of music nerds, you’re going to get crazy time signatures and modulation and a lot of different stuff you can dig around,” Deninzon said. “If I wanted to form a punk band, it’d be hard for me stay in character, as much as I love the Sex Pistols, Ramones and Clash. You gotta be who you are. If you’re not honest with yourself and your music, people feel it. You got to accept who you are and go with it.”
Out of this world album
For The Corner News
Published: September 5, 2012 1:32:17 pm
Joe Deninzon is a Russian violinist born to two members of that country’s leading Philharmonic Orchestra. He’s been labeled “The Jimi Hendrix of the Violin” by many, due to his extreme virtuosity on the seven-string electric violin. That’s right—seven strings. His style throughout his career has blended jazz, rock and gypsy music in ways no other could possibly imagine. He’s performed with an amazing array of musicians, including Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Phoebe Snow, Everclear, Ritchie Blackmore, Smokey Robinson and Les Paul, just to name a few. He’s also performed as a solo electric violinist with the New York Ballet.
Deninzon leads the band Stratospheerius, who’ve just released their fifth album, “The Next World,” on Steve Vai’s Digital Nations label, and once again shows the world that Russians and Americans can make beautiful and exciting music together. Actually, exciting is too tame a word for this album, as it opens with the astounding “Release,” a smoking progressive rocker that will suck you into this album like an industrial vacuum. What follows is a thrilling array of songs that run the gamut from complex prog tunes to simple ballads, from Zappa-esque epics to alluring soundscapes. Deninzon’s acuity on the violin is multi-faceted and consistently over-the-top amazing, and always deeply musical.
You’ll hear nods to influences like Jean-Luc Ponty, Jerry Goodman, and Dixie Dregs’ Allen Sloane, but through it all Deninzon presents a unique personality and perspective on the violin. “The Next World” is an electrifying album, guaranteed to take you into the stratosphere and beyond.
STRATOSPHEERIUS: THE NEXT WORLD
REVIEW BY MICHAEL POPKE ON WWW.SEAOFTRANQUILITY.COM
The fact that in-demand electric violinist Joe Deninzon has performed with everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Ritchie Blackmore to Johnny Mathis and Smokey Robinson suggests that his band Stratospheerius has broad appeal. And does it ever!
This New Jersey-based outfit’s distinct hybrid of progressive rock, jam band, funk, jazz and Gypsy influences turns Stratospheerius’ latest album, The Next World…, into a formidable musical beast. The disc opens with “Release,” a track that evokes Kansas’ savvy use of violin, borrows a reggae-pop beat and boasts an elegant vocal arrangement akin to Spock’s Beard. The Yes influence begins showing up in “The Missing Link,” the manic “Tech Support” bounces along like something Umphrey’s McGee could have written, “Climbing” has a late-summer country-rock groove that would work on mainstream radio, and “The House Always Wins” is a sparse blues ditty.
Lyrically, Stratospheerius is just as adventurous, with Deninzon’s chameleon voice shifting on each song, not so much dominating these tunes as inhabiting them. And a trio of instrumentals — two wild ones (“Road Rage” and “Fleshbot”) and the mellowest track on the album (“Ballad for Ding Bang”) — showcases Deninzon’s prowess while not slighting his talent-rich band: guitarist Aurelien Budynek, bassist Jamie Bishop and drummer Lucianna Padmore.
Every Deninzon and Stratospheerius album is worthy of your attention, but if you’re new to these guys, start here. And if you’re not — well, you know you want this…
2) The Missing Link
3) Tech Support
6) The House Always Wins
8) Ballad for Ding Bang
9) Road Rage
10) One Foot in the Next World
11) The Prism
Added: August 29th 2012
Reviewer: Michael Popke
Related Link: Official Stratospheerius Website