‘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.
‘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.