‘NY Sun’ Review of Birdland Theater Feb 2023

Dena DeRose Underscores Her Allegiance With Fellow Travelers

All the while she’s her own animal, with an engaging soprano voice that’s somehow light and deep at the same time, and solid piano chops that are themselves noteworthy enough to support a purely instrumental career. 

Beth Naji
Dena DeRose performs at Birdland. Beth Naji


Dena DeRose
‘Ode to the Road’ (High Note Records) 

The latest album by Dena DeRose, who has just finished a run at Birdland, is titled “Ode to The Road.” For her, the road would seem to be as much a concept as an actual place, with neither the beginning nor the ending clearly defined. 

The pianist, singer, and occasional songwriter grew up at Binghamton, New York, and spent the first part of her career based largely on the East Coast. For most of the last 20 years she’s lived in Austria, where she teaches jazz vocals at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts at Graz.    So when she sings about the road, does that mean Europe is now what she thinks of as home, and America, New York in particular, has become “the road”? 

It’s significant that the title song, which opened the late set on Saturday as well as the album, is by Mark Murphy, the venerable jazz singer who preceded Ms. DeRose at Graz and served as everybody’s mentor. He spent 83 years singing many odes to the road, and near the end of his journey penned these wise words to a melody by the equally venerable pianist Alan Broadbent: “Got to learn all this travelin’ code / Grab your axe as you lift your load / Then step lively my friend / Because there just ain’t no end / To this ode to the road.”

Now 57, Ms. DeRose is unique. In the early 2000s, when she appeared more regularly at New York, new listeners would frequently compare her — generally favorably — to Diana Krall. Yet she’s her own animal, more of a modernist, with an engaging soprano voice that’s somehow light and deep at the same time, and solid piano chops that are themselves noteworthy enough to support a purely instrumental career.  

Indeed, in recent years, Ms. DeRose has served as the non-singing pianist on five albums recorded in Spain with that great 21st century romantic, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton. Two other first-rate contemporary tenors serve as her fellow travelers on this most recent road, Houston Person on the album and Scott Robinson at Birdland. 

Her rhythm section is bassist Martin Wind and drummer Carl Allen (Matt Wilson on the CD). At Birdland, she backed Mr. Robinson on an astute reading of the Ellington classic, “Prelude to a Kiss.”

In addition to Murphy, she shows the influence of another sagacious singer on the Graz faculty, Sheila Jordan (91 at the time of recording), who makes two welcome guest appearances singing with Ms. DeRose here. “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” starts with Ms. Jordan singing the song roughly as written atop Mr. Wind’s bass. Then, the second chorus finds her switching to the melody of Miles Davis’s contrafact of that song, “Little Willie Leaps,” with vocalese words she helped write at least 70 years ago — as Ms. DeRose repeats the “Chillun” lyrics in the background.

Ms. DeRose further underscores her allegiance to the song stylists and songwriters of ’50s and ’60s bop with two songs by Bob Dorough. The upbeat and affirmative “Nothing Like You” co-stars guest trumpeter Jeremy Pelt; the more melancholy “Small Day Tomorrow” serves as the second duet with Ms. Jordan. Ms. DeRose’s noir-style accompaniment brings out the song’s sonic similarity to “Angel Eyes,” particularly in the bridge. (Ms. Jordan sings, “For Bob Dorough / We miss him so,” in the coda.)  

There are two less familiar songs that describe the beginning and ending of a relationship, which in this context might be viewed as a different kind of a journey. “The Second Look” uses a funky backbeat to encapsulate the start of love, while “Cross Me Off Your List” is more defiant than sad.  Mr. Pelt’s outspoken trumpet makes it into a Jazz Messengers-style blues march, further underscored by Bobby Timmons-style piano from the leader.

She also delivers mature, highly nuanced vocals on two very upscale ballads by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, “The Way We Were” and “I Have the Feeling I’ve Been Here Before.” The former was kind of overdone back in the 1970s, but the latter isn’t heard nearly enough. Ms. DeRose and Mr. Person make “Way We Were” highly palatable, but “Here Before,” informed by Carmen McRae, is one of Ms. DeRose’s most compelling, slow, and introspective love songs.

The album then goes into a bright bopper, an original titled “Tip of the Hat,” in which she scats joyfully in unison with her keyboard solo. She ends on a note both melancholy and upbeat, with one of the saddest texts in the American songbook — inspired by a British poet — “The Days of Wine and Roses.” Here she expertly mixes moods, retaining the bittersweet feeling even at a swinging tempo and with an ebullient solo by Mr. Person.

There’s no GPS for the musical and personal journey that Dena DeRose takes us on, but she provides plenty of fascinating detours and stopping places along the way. 


Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for The New York Sun and other publications. The host of the radio show ‘Sing! Sing! Sing!’ on San Diego KSDS on Saturday mornings, he also is the author of 10 books. He has written more than 600 liner notes for compact discs, received 11 Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and in documentaries. 

Dena Reflects on McCoy Tyner (Jazz Hot Magazine online)

McCoy Tyner is truly one of the most influential jazz pianists of our time and will be forever! I first met McCoy in New York City in the early 2000s when my quartet opened for one of his solo concerts at one of the Jack Kleinsinger Presents Highlights in Jazz concerts at the Pace University Theater. Of course, Mr. Tyner did not need anyone to warm up the stage as when he started to play we all thought he was going to pound that piano into pieces… haha!! He was amazing!! One hour of some of the deepest jazz piano playing I’d ever seen in my life. After the concert he shook my hand and complimented me on my set. He was a true gentleman. I left thrilled and very inspired. I’d go to see him whenever he played in NYC, which was usually the Blue Note. He always remembered me by name, too.The next opportunity I had of meeting him was at the Stanford Jazz Workshop about 5-6 years later. He gave a masterclass for jazz pianists. I was there teaching young jazz vocalists and brought them to this masterclass instead of teaching my own class. I’m glad I did. He talked about the importance of lyrics and how they can give you ideas for tempo, mood, and coloring whatever song you’re playing. The example he gave regarding this was «Alone Together.» He said: «I don’t know why everybody plays this song so fast. If you read the lyrics, you’ll see why!» A big lesson for me as I had just played the tune for him in the class… much too fast… trying to show off! I will love him forever…

Read full article here.

Voices in Jazz Interview

Dena DeRose — Beauty in Subtlety and Swing

“The most creative and compelling singer-pianist since Shirley Horn…DeRose is a member of that exclusive company of musicians (notably Nat Cole, Blossom Dearie, and Horn) who sing and play the piano with equal distinction.”
– Joel E. Siegel, Washington City Paper

Dena DeRose is a musicians’ musician. She moved from Binghamton, New York to New York City in 1991, honing her craft and making fans everywhere she’s performed. At the age of 21, she was diagnosed with arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome, which forced her to stop playing piano for almost two years. The good news for jazz fans is the illness pushed Dena to develop her lovely singing voice. In 2002, ’03 & ’06, Dena gained national recognition in the annual Downbeat’s Critics Poll for “Artist Deserving Wider Recognition”. She’s been performing, recording, teaching and earning accolades ever since that time. We don’t see or hear Dena often enough since her move to Graz, Austria, seven years ago. She is the vocal chair at, The University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz. I was lucky to catch Dena on tour promoting her new solo album, “Live in Belgium” on the MaxJazz record label. September 14th & 15th, New Yorkers have an opportunity to catch Dena in action at The Kitano Hotel Jazz Room. Her group consists of a beautiful rhythm section, Mr. Steve Williams on drums and bass master Ben Wolfe. This coming weekend, September 8th & 9th, Seattle’s vocal jazz fans have an opportunity to hear Dena and I together in concert, plus a workshop on Saturday afternoon, as part of Nich Anderson’s Vocal Jazz Series.

This interview was part of a JVOICE jazz educators series I started on Facebook in 2009 to highlight programs and the educators who are inspiring and changing today’s landscape for young jazz vocalists.

RV: What is the most important quality for any singer to present in concert or on a recording?

DD: I think the most important quality for a singer to present in concert or on a recording is a feeling of sincerity. But, I also feel that a good sense of musicality, a confident, yet, non-ego or diva aura/vibe, and a love for what he or she is doing up there on that stage. When these are achieved, there is more communication between the musicians and audience to help create a positive musical experience for all.

RV: Did you always want to be a musician?

DD: I always knew that I was meant to be a musician. There were times when I thought I should be a basketball player, but knew that I was better at music, so I made the decision in high school to make music my main priority.

RV: Were you a natural musician, playing off the top of your head or were you a studious musician?

DD: I believe I am both a natural musician and a life-long student of music. I started out playing the piano ‘by ear’ before having formal lessons at the age of 3. And, with singing, I had been doing some in pop bands in my teens, but hadn’t had any vocal training until my early 20’s

RV: I know you were a pianist first and foremost, but because of carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis you began singing after sitting in with a group. How do you feel your experience as a pianist shaped your singing?

DD: Having played piano for many years before making singing a part of what I do, I feel it gave me the musical foundation needed in this day and age of being a jazz singer and provided me with the confidence, discipline, and vision of what it takes to be a vocal musician

RV: Many great natural singers have a difficult time with ear training and theory. As a renowned vocal jazz teacher, what disciplines have you’ve found particularly successful in training student’s ears?

DD: Training the ear is something that I’m continually learning to develop in my teaching. The key is ‘correct repetition’ and routine practicing. Some things that have been successful for me have been:
a) Interval training by using various ‘flashcard’ games I made up, listening to a lot of music
b) singing of scales over certain chords or chord progressions
c) sight-reading ‘Modus Novus’ (an A-Tonal approach)
d) listening exercises which enable a singer to recognize chord qualities and chord progressions, by singing the ‘changes’ through tunes (naming chords when singing the roots, naming note names of roots and 3rds, or roots and 7ths, guide tone lines, and arpeggios, etc.)
e) Some students have found that the online ear training websites are helpful, too, but I am not too familiar with them.

RV: Do you believe singers should be required to study piano and theory before entering college or conservatory music programs?

DD: I do believe having some basic knowledge of and ability to play a little piano before entering into a university vocal program is needed if you want to be accepted into a reputable jazz program. I think this became of more importance in the last 10 years, as most university jazz programs today require all instruments to take ‘piano for non-majors’. The knowledge is not only good for your own instruments needs, but it’s also required for arranging, composition, etc.

RV: Do you advocate the use of solfege to learn solos?

DD: I don’t require students to use ‘solfege’ unless they know it well. In the past, I’ve had some Italian students that found it very helpful as they grew up singing with solfege from an early age.

RV: What method do you use to teach young singers how to swing and develop a solid sense of time?

DD: Learning to have a solid sense of time can come from listening to a lot, and I mean a lot, of really great music, but also it can come from working with a metronome, and from listening to your ‘inner metronome’ once one is at a point of having a somewhat good sense of time.

I have found that having singers listen to a certain recording like “I Hadn’t Anyone But You” by Sarah Vaughan and singing along with it note for note, nuance by nuance, and not only learning how Sarah sings it, but also learning the horn lines and ensemble figures behind her singing also. The Basie band and Ellington orchestra are also what I ask singers to listen and learn from for gaining a ‘swingin’ feeling.

Another thing I’ve found helpful to singers who need to learn to swing is learning to play the drums… If only learning to ‘ride’ the cymbal and keep the hi-hat on 2 & 4. It reeeeeally gives them a sense of the time and swing feel. Actually, learning any other instrument helps, too. Some of my students in Graz have taken drums, bass, saxophone, flute, viola, and other various instruments and have learned a great deal about ‘time’ to apply to their voice.

RV: Do you think that you’ll ever write a book on jazz singing?

DD: Yes, someday I will write a jazz singing book.

Thank you Dena for taking time out to catch us up on your projects, history and teaching. Warm regards for your continued success and happiness. RV

Dena is currently working on a project for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band called ‘Contemporary Standards’ containing material recorded “live” on two concerts in April 2013.

“Dena DeRose: Music’s Pain and Bliss” – By Paul Freeman [July 2012 Interview], PopCultureClassics.com

Read the interview

Live Concert Audio – Anzola, Italy

On the occasion of the festival organized by the Jazz Club “Henghel Gualdi”, the famous interpreter Dena DeRose held the seminar “La Voce nel Jazz e nel Blues” in Anzola.

Listen to Concert