Joe Deninzon Wants to Take You Higher
by Jedd Beaudoin
If you’ve not yet listened to one of Joe Deninzon’s amazing albums, whether his studio work on Electric/Blue, Adventures of Stratospheeriusor his current Live Wires, then you need to run – not walk – to some portal on the Internet, buy them and immerse yourself in this Russian-born violinists magic. Or so says SoT’s Jedd Beaudoin who sat down for a phone interview with Deninzon last summer. Read on to learn more about this very talented musician.
SoT: Why’d you decide to a live record at this point in time?
Joe Deninzon: It started with Dave Koerner , a guy I knew for years in Cleveland. I would see him at every concert that I’d go to, especially prog or jazz fusion shows. He’s one of those obsessive bootleggers. I think he’s bootlegged more shows that he’ll have time to listen to in his lifetime. At one point I had a gig out there and he was taping my show and I invited him to travel with us and do sound and merchandise. He would tape all of our shows. So, after about two years I’d accumulated all these bootlegs. I started going through them and found some really good stuff, some of which had been multi-tracked. In addition to that, we’d done a show at a place in Erie, PA called Forward Hall, opening for a band called Freakbass. After our set this guy came up to me and told me that he’d recorded our show, then showed me this secret studio that was behind the club, this huge facility, and it was awesome. And the best thing was that we didn’t know that we were being recorded, which is great because you’re not self-conscious. You don’t care and that’s when you get the good stuff. So, between that and the bootlegs, we had a wealth of material to choose from. So I thought that we had to get that stuff out.
SoT: There’s material from your studio records on there but there’s new material as well. Was it important to you that this record wasn’t just a rehash of the studio records?
JD: Well, a song like ãAcid Rabbits,ä which I first recorded in Î97 or Î98 has changed so much since then because we’ve played it live a lot over the years. Now I wish that I could have thought of those ideas back then when I wrote the song and recorded it. It’s almost a different song now, so I thought it would be a unique opportunity to bring it across the way that I’m hearing it now. As for the new stuff …. A lot of my favorite Zappa CDs, the live stuff, consist of all-new material that he’d never recorded in the studio. We had a lot of new songs that we’d been playing, I thought the versions were cool, so I thought it would give people something new right along with the new versions of older material.
SoT: I wanted to ask specifically about “Heavy Shtettle,” which you co-wrote with Alex Skolnick. I think that that’s a great example of the diverse styles that you’re capable of working in.
JD: I guess it came from playing with a lot of world music groups over the years in New York. I’ve played with a lot of Middle Eastern groups. I was in a band with Alex’s ex-wife Ofri Eliaz. I was introduced to that music through that band. Having played it so much I started hearing it in my head and started writing down little licks that sounded Middle Eastern. When I got together with Alex, he came up with the bridge and it sort of celebrates our Jewish roots and our heavy metal roots as well. [Laughs.]
SoT: Did you have an affinity for Middle Eastern music before that?
JD: I think that I was always influenced by gypsy music. As a classical violinist, I played pieces such as “Zigeunerweisen” by Pablo de Sarasate, a great gypsy violinist and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances some of that, that old schmaltzy, Jewish kind of sound. But also, I’ve been checking out guys like Simon Shaheen, who’s a great oud and violin player from [Tarishiha, Galilee], who’s played with Sting and a bunch of different [people] …. But being around people who play the oud and so on, that’s opened up all kinds of different horizons for me. So, I’ve been working different kinds of ethnic music into my own and, also, it’s part of my heritage, so I celebrate that as well as my love of rock ‘n’ roll and progressive music.
The title of that piece actually came because Alex said that someone had been joking with him about forming a band called Heavy Shtettle. [Laughs.] I thought, “Hey, that’s a cool name.”
SoT: On this new record, you’ve done your version of the theme from The Simpsons. On Adventures of Stratospheerius you did a version of ãPeppermint Patty .ä There are probably some who are wondering just how big of a cartoon fanatic you are.
JD: That was a really spontaneous thing. We were working with this guitarist named Jake Ezra, who plays on most of this CD. He’s a really excellent guitar player. He’s a huge Simpsons fanatic. I mean, I love the Simpsons but not like this guy. But, one rehearsal, he started noodling, playing the Simpsons theme and I started playing that lick, then it turned into a jam and I said, ãHey, we should do this. People know this and they love it and Danny Elfman wrote it. He’s such a baddass, just a great composer. So, it just sort of naturally evolved. It wasn’t one of those things where I consciously sat down and wrote an arrangement.
SoT: Well, it also lends this whimsical quality to the record, which is refreshing.
JD: A lot of people take themselves too seriously, especially in the prog and fusion world. I’m all about having fun. I think that it invites more people to listen to music, if they hear something that they like with a little twist. You should have fun and keep what you’re doing entertaining for yourself and your audience.
SoT: You also perform a version of Frank Zappa’s “Magic Fingers.” Was that inspired by your tenure in Project/Object or does it go deeper than that?
JD: I first heard the song, I think, when I saw 200 Motels when I was maybe 16. I loved it and I became a huge Zappa fan. Project/Object covered that song a lot and it became one of my favorite songs of all time. I thought that it was one of those forgotten songs that could have been a classic but never really got on the radio. I like uncovering songs like that and letting people hear them. That’s also the idea behind doing [Stevie Wonder’s] “Contusion.” That’s a melody that I’ve loved and a lot of people that I know love but was never a “hit.” It’s fun to cover songs like that.
SoT Your solos sound great on this record. Are you happy with where you’re at as a soloist?
JD: I don’t think that I’m ever happy. I don’t think that any musician ever is. I’m always trying to develop and grow and explore new territory and improve my soloing and every aspect of what I do. But I am happy with the way that the CD came out, I am happy with the band played. But it’s an ongoing process. Until you reach your dying day, I guess. [Laughs.]
I look at guys like John McLaughlin, someone who’s covered so many musical worlds in his lifetime and he’s in his 60s now. He’s still going. It’s a lifelong journey. As soon as you say, “This is it, I’m a genius, I can’t possibly learn anything new,” that’s when you’re in trouble.
SoT: Is you interest in world and ethnic music part of that?
JD: Absolutely. There’s a lot of music that I’d like to study more in-depth. I think that I’ve only skimmed the surface of world music. I really want to study Middle Eastern music more deeply, as well as Brazilian music as well as country fiddle music. I’m a huge fan of Mark O’ Connor. We had the pleasure of opening for him a few years ago and that’s a whole world that’s sort of foreign to me because I didn’t grow up around it. I didn’t grow up around bluegrass and fiddle music. There’s just a lot of things that I’d like to explore. There are endless possibilities that you can explore as a musician. And all of these things influence my writing in the fusion realm as well.
SoT: Like O’Connor, you also play guitar. What is it about both of those instruments that appeals to you?
JD: I always tell my students to study another instrument. I say, “Don’t study with me, study with somebody else.” [Laughs.] I always tell people that I benefited from having played bass for a number of years. I learned about really locking into a groove and harmony and I benefited from guitar because I learned Jimi Hendrix, McLaughlin and Steve Vai licks and I also compose on guitar, so all of those things [are exactly] what I bring to the violin. And, of course, finger-style technique, pizzicato on the violin …. There are some connections and it’s fun to try and play your instrument outside of the clichés of your instrument. It’s always great to try and imitate a voice, a horn, guitar, that’s where the real creativity begins, I think.
SoT: You’re also a music educator as an outsider in that world, I have a sense that younger people are picking up the violin, viola, cello, etc. Is that your experience? Do you think that maybe it’s OK these days to play these instruments rather than just reaching for a guitar?
JD: I think that younger people have always played stringed instruments but that maybe in the last 20 years … you know, you can’t be a rock star and play the violin. There’s a lot of ignorance there. Maybe it’s bands like the Dave Matthews Band and Dixie Chicks and so on … a lot of bands use violinists now. It’s sexy, it looks cool and I think that maybe a lot of kids are getting turned on to to the instrument. And there are guys like Mark Wood who go around to schools and talk about the violin. I actually bought one of his 7-string, flying V, Viper violins with frets. People see that or they see a violin with a rap band and they see that there’s more to the violin than stuffy classical music, though classical music is great. But I think that in order to get kids interested, you have to show them all the possibilities. I know a lot of really good players who are getting more involved with education. I think that the next generation’s going to blow us all away. [Laughs.]