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.
THE VERY BEST OF ANGRY JAZZ
By Hal B. Seltzer
“One of my uncles was a viola player. They had to land an orchestra job to provide for their family, because we came here with nothing, so my uncle would practice in the bathroom while my dad practiced in the kitchen, and everybody else was at each other’s throats,” remembers Joe Deninzon of his early days in the United States. Born in St. ∏etersburgh, Russia, to a family of classical musicians, Joe’s family came here when he was four, and lived with seven people in an apartment in Queens.
“Fortunately, my dad landed a gig with the prestigious Cleveland Orchestra, where he still works today, so I grew up in Cleveland,” continues Joe. “I have played violin since I was six years old, but I later took up guitar and bass and got serious about it.” And get serious he did, as he has become one of the most respected electric violin players in the music world. In fact, he just won an award for “Best Jam Band,” as voted by the Musician’s Atlas Independent Music Awards, and his latest CD, LIVE WIRES, was named one of the top 10 prog/fusion CD’s of 2004 by a leading progressive rock website.
The music seems more progressive and jazz oriented than what one would ordinarily associate with a jam band. “If you’re looking at a stylistically eclectic band that does extended improvisations, then we definitely fit into the category,” Joe comments. “My only issue is that people automatically associate the word “jam band” with the Grateful Dead or Phish. I like and respect those bands, but our sound is more heavy, and even though we have the marathon 20-minute jams on stage, many of our songs are concise, five-minute hook-oriented songs. People forget that by the above definition, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa, Yes, even Pink Floyd were also “jam bands,” but they had little in common with the Dead or Phish. I think you can have the best of both worlds.
Joe truly is an amazing player. His violin pyrotechnics rival the musical dexterity of any rock guitar virtuoso. In fact, early in his career he was branded the “Jimi Hendrix of the vioilin,” and the moniker has stuck with him, and deservedly so. “At IU, I was soloing with a band led by legendary jazz guru David Baker. I think the song was “Eye of the Hurricane” by Herbie Hancock. I remember reading a review of the concert in the student paper, and the guy who wrote the review made the quote. I was floored! That’s a pretty tall and humbling compliment. I would walk around campus after that and people would yell it out to me once in a while. Later, reviewers and fans would mention it as well over the years.
Joe calls his music psychojazz electric fiddle trip funk. “I sometimes call it ‘agry jazz,’ he laughs. His influences are a wide range of styles and genres, which comes out in his own music. “I think the music that speaks to me the most was created in the early 70’s,” he says. “Frank Zappa, Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson, Yes, Miles Davis, Queen, Led Zeppelin. I also love U2, Screaming Headless Torsos, Fatboy Slim. Aside from that, I grew up listening to Bruce Springsteen, I like Bjork, John Scofield, and classical composers like Beethoven, Bach, Bartok, and Stravinsky. I can keep going.”
As far as the near future, Joe is working on a new CD with his band, Stratospheerius. “Right now, I make most of my living recording with and backing up other people, as well as teaching,” he explains. “While this is rewarding in its own way, my goal is to be able to able to earn most of my money recording and performing my original music. I would also like to get more into writing for TV and film. I just finished my first film soundtrack, a lesbian love story called What’s Up Scarlet, which should be out this summer.
Stratospheerius contain all very accomplished musicians. “I had been trying to put a band together ever since I moved to NYC in 1997,” Joe relates. “I lost count of how many guitarists, drummers, and bass players I have gone through, at least 30 on each instrument. I could write a book. To make a very long story short, the pieces finally fit together during the last two years, and in my opinion, the current lineup kicks ass, with Lucianna Padmore on drums, Bob Bowen on bass, and Mack Price on guitar. Anyone will tell you that there has to be a musical and personal chemisty. Everyone has to share the same vision and be a team player. That’s a very hard thing to find, even in New York, where there is an abundance of talented musicians.
Joe and the band will be appearing Jan 19 at Kenny’s Castaways in Manhattan. You can get information about upcoming shows, and CD releases, at joedeninzon.com. If you are interested in some truly great music, played by a world class musician, do yourself a favor and check Joe out!