by John Liberty
STRATOSPHEERIUS’ LOCAL DEBUT
Meet Joe Deninzon, the ‘Jimi Hendrix of the violin’
As a young man, Stratospheerius frontman Joe Deninzon played bass, guitar and violin.
There came a point when he had to pick an instrument, and he went with the violin because he was better at it. The Russian-born musician, who grew up in Cleveland and now lives in New York, was classically trained on the violin and listened to a lot of jazz, but echoing in his heart and mind was the music of Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa and Aerosmith, among others.
Deninzon found a balance between the two styles with an electric violin. Five years ago, he bought a Viper, a seven-string, solid-bodied wood violin shaped like a flying-V guitar. He bought it from Wood Violins, a New York-based manufacturer of electric violins, violas and cellos.
“I played violin, thinking like a guitar player,” Deninzon said during a phone interview from New York. “I was able to scratch both itches.”
Deninzon and the rest of the progressive-rock band Stratospheerius will make their local debut at 9:30 p.m. Friday at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, 355 E. Kalamazoo Ave. Admission is $5.
The group — Deninzon, drummer Lucianna Padmore, bassist Jamie Bishop, percussionist Benny Koonyevsky and new guitarist Auerelien Budynek — released its latest CD, “Headspace,” last summer. The band blends rock, jazz, funk, R&B, hip-hop and freewheeling instrumentals. And, of course, there’s the Viper.
People tend to look at his instrument as a novelty, Deninzon said.
“I’m trying to get past that and just make music,” he said. “People kind of freak out because it’s different.”
The animated Deninzon — “I go nuts at live shows” — said “people have called me the Jimi Hendrix of the violin,” although he said he’s constantly looking to refine his sound — “It’s a journey, not a destination.” He also wants to revive a dying part of the live-concert experience by “bringing back the glory of the guitar solos, or, in my case, violin solos.”
Electric violinist/singer Joe Deninzon formed the rockin’ psycho-jazz, trip-funk Stratospheerius in 1998. Appealing to jam band fans, musicians who admire musicianship, as well as Frank Zappa and Jean-Luc Ponty admirers, the quartet is touring in support of Live Wires.
You were born in Russia and immigrated to America when your classical musician parents joined the Cleveland Orchestra. Were they disappointed when you ventured away from your classical training towards jazz and rock?
It’s hard to say because they always fed my interests. They would buy me amps and gear that I needed, and encouraged me. But every parent’s fear is that you won’t get a steady job and the orchestral path is a more-steady working situation/ I think deep down inside they wanted me to be a classical cat.
What artists originally drew you in that direction?
I was watching MTV in the early 80’s and everything was there, from Twisted Sister to Michael Jackson to Yes, and I just fell in love with rock n’ roll. In high school, I got heavily into Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix, and Black Sabbath.
I took up bass. It was the first instrument I learned to improvise on. I wanted to start a band and no one played bass. It had four strings and a violin had four strings, so how hard could it be?
So then in my high school jazz band, I had a good teacher—when I was 15—that turned me on to Miles Davis and got me really into jazz. The I eventually started to play guitar. And those were the instruments I really learned to rock-out on before I learned to rock-out on the violin, even though I had beenplaying violin since I was 6.
As far as technique is concerned, do you attack the violin the way Jimmy Page does his guitar?
I would think, yeah. I beat it up pretty brutally. I think I approach…in my head I’m hearing Jimmy Page, because those guys had a bigger influence on my violin playing than Itzhak Perlman did.
I noticed on the song “Heavy Shtettle” you inject an obvious Middle Eastern melody.
Definitely. On purpose. Alex Skolnick was in my band at the time and he had always been joking that when he was living in San Francisco that people would tell him he should start a band called Heavy Shtettle, like a klezmer metal band. I had this Middle Eastern melody floating around, so I brought it to him and he completed the song. It’s a celebration of our Jewish roots and our metal roots.
The violin is an instrument of both high culture and the folk culture of the commoner. A big divide exists.
I wish there was a way to break that connection because people sometimes feel intimidated by classical music and feel it’s over their heads. We should try to bridge the gap and try to get people into it because there’s a lot that can appeal to basic human emotion. I was just at the NAMM show and I saw so many kids playing electric violins. When kids see you can rock-out on the violin and do more than just play Mozart, then they get turned on and think playing violin is pretty cool.