NOT JUST FIDDLIN’ AROUND: JOE DENINZON and his band STRATOSPHEERIUS Make the Case for Progressive Diversity
By Dan Roth
Russian-born Joe Deninzon has been at the forefront of violin technology and performance for more than a decade. Whether teaching “fiddle funk” or :fusion violin” at Mark Wood’s rock orchestra camps, slaying on his seven-string Viper electric with band Stratospheerius, or exploring acoustic jazz with his self-named trio, Joe pushes the limits to what can be done musically on the violin.
Stratospheerius stretches the prog umbrella with a unique style once described as “psycho-jazz trip funk.” It’s eclectic mix evokes Frank Zappa, Dixie Dregs, and Mahavishnu Orchestra, featuring Joe’s thought-provoking, skilled musicianship and inspired imagination. Further reference points include Bela Fleck, John Medeski, even the Dave Matthews Band, making his work a favorite with the jam scene enthusiasts.
Stratospheerius does not play what you want; it plays things you didn’t know you wanted. In the following interview, the New York-based Deninzon discusses new Stratospheerius album The Next World…and his take on progressive music from a violin-centric point of view.
Progression: The violin is a unique lead instrument for rock-oriented music. How did this become your instrument of choice?
Deninzon: “I led two parallel lives growing up. My father was and is a violinist in the Cleveland Orchestra. My mother is a concert pianist and my uncle is a viola player, so I always had classical music in the house. I was handed a violin when I was 6 years old and went through the Suzuki and Russian method studies. We were new to America. I really wanted to fit in and fell in love with rock n roll, and later, jazz. I had no concept at the time that any of that music could be played on the violin. So when I was 12, I took upthe bass guitar and formed my first band. I started writing songs with lyrics around that time, so the first instrument I learned to improvise on actually was the bass. The two years later I taught myself guitar. So I was playing bass in my high school jazz band and guitar in various local bands while idolizing Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Steve Vai. But my violin life was ust playing classical music.
Things changed for me at age 16 when popular Cleveland rocker Michael Stanley heard me and invited me to play a show with his band on violin. This actually came easy to me, as I already knew the language because of playing guitar and bass. It was a big turning point, and was reviewed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper. My guitar teacher then turned me on to Jean-Luc Ponty and I was really inspired by him. I wanted to go to Berklee College of Music and be a guitar player, but I wound up going to Indiana University, double majoring in classical music performance and jazz violin.
O found that most violinists had a very clean sound. Stephane Grappelli and Ponty had that clean, pure sound. I never heard the violin equivalent of a Jimmy Page or a Keith Richards, or someone that had a little grit to their style. The real turning point for me was hearing Jerry Goodman playing ‘Celestial Terrestrial Commuters’ with Mahavishnu Orchestra. Jerry was the closest I had heard to that gritty sound, and that’s when I decided this is what I was meant to do. I became obsessed with Mahavishnu and Frank Zappa. Zappa violinist Sugarcane Harris also had that grit to his playing. He had that raw, bluesy sound that didn’t sound studied; it was so raw and emotional.
In 1995, I bought my first electric violin, a six-string Jensen. I made my first three albums using that violin and in 2003 bought the seven-string fretted Viper electric violin made by Mark Wood.
Progression: What made you move to an electric violin? What can you convey musically with this electric that you couldn’t with an acoustic?
Deninzon “First of all, the range. Now, when I go back and play an acoustic, I find myself reaching for the low strings that aren’t there. Being able to arrange whole string sections and hear all the parts….And the way it sounds with effects-you get a much purer sound with distortion, delay or anything else than with an acoustic that’s plugged in.”
Progression: Do you use MIDI effects?
Deninzon: “I don’t use MIDI because that can make your violin sound exactly like other instruments. I still want it to sound like a violin, but maybe a violin tripping on acid! I like using stomp boxes and still retain the essence of the violin. MIDI is great for composition and arranging, though.
Progression: Tell us how your first album came about.
Deninzon: “After graduating from Indiana University, I recorded my first album, Electric/Bue, in Cleveland. It was basically an instrumental fusion album that got really good reviews and I used some amazing jazz musicians I had come to know in Cleveland. I moved to New York to go to Manhattan School of Music and my next few years in New York were spent free-lancing, playing gigs, going through many different bands and figuring out what I really wanted to do.
Progression: You still perform some of those early songs in your concerts today.
Deninzon: “Shock Therapy’ and ‘Acid Rabbits’ rear their heads every once in a while.”
Progression: It was about this time that Stratospheerius came about?
Deninzon: “ I was also teaching violin at the New School, a university in New York, when I met guitarist Alex Skolnick. Alex had quit Testament at the time and was there studying jazz. I asked him if he wanted to play a gig with this band I was putting together, and he was totally into it. That’s right about the tim I started calling it Stratospheerius. Alex was great and was with the band fgor about three years, playing on The Adventures of Stratospheerius (2002), and Live Wires (2004). He had that perfect combination of rock and jazz chops I was looking for. Alex recommended Rufus Philpott, who was our bass player for the Adventures album as well. Rufus is a real musician’s musician.”
Progression: Where did the name Stratospheerius come from?
Deninzon: “I was playing in a pit orchestra in New York City and the concertmaster had a solo really high in the register of his violin. Someone said, ‘Wow, that’s really in the Stratosphere!’ and he said, ‘I should have brought my Stratospheerius.” Strativarius was a famous 17th-century Italian violinmaker whose violins today are played by the world’s top players and worth millions. Our music is up in the stratosphere and it’s violin-driven rock, so it clicked. Not the catchiest name, but once you know it, you know it.”
Progression: How would you stylistically describe the music of Stratospheerius” Would it be fasir to call it a progressive rock band”
Deninzon: “I hate to use labels, but if we had to use just one, I would call us a progressive rock band. There are some folks that have a very strict definition of what jazz is, of what punk rock is, of what progressive rock is. When you jam band, some think that somehow you have to sound like the Grateful Dead or Phish. When you think progressive rock, some feel you have to write 20-minute epic songs like ‘Close to the Edge.’ Sometimes, we just want to write that three-minute song that rocks your socks off, or a song that incorporates some ska influences, etc. These might not fall into that narrow category.
Progression: Prog can be a big umbrella.
Deninzon: “It is a big umbrella. So be it. We’re a progressive rock band. I have always described us as a band that mixes hard rock with funk, prog, gypsy music, Middle Eatern, and jazz.”
Progression: How has the band evolved and changed musically over the years?
Deninzon: “ We are more of a rock band now. It started out being more of a jazz-fusion band—me being surrounded by jazz and be-bop heads and just having that influence. I’ve always wanted to marry it with my love of songwriting, songs with hooks, hard rock, and vocals. Figuring out how to do that has been a long journey for me, but with the last two albums, I figured out the sound I really want with this band. I get to scratch all those itches.
Progression: It has been five years since the previous album, Headspace. How much of tjose five years was dedicated to making of The Next World…”
Deninzon: “A lot of the songs from this new album were written and tracked in 2008, right after the release of Headspace. A few things happened that interrupted its progress. My wife and I had our son Max, so I took a hiatus. Then I got an offer to work on this violin instruction book from Mel Bay Publications. And I also took another break to finish the jazz album, Exuberance, with my acoustic trio. So there were a few projects that tooka while, which is why this album took so long.”
Progression: Cover art for The Next World… is quite striking and has that otherworldly look to it. Who created it and was it done specifically for this album?
Deninzon: “It was not done specifically for this album. Bob Bowen, a dear friend of mine for 13 years, drew that. He played bass on the Headspace album as well as my jazz trio disc. He was killed in a bicycle accident in 2010 and I wanted to dedicate this album to his memory. I wasn’t sure what to do for the cover, but I remembered Bob was always drawing when we were on the road. I talked to his family and they shared his art with me, and this piece really jumped out at us.
“Naming the album The Next World…sort of fit for a number of reasons. This is a dedication to Bob, and he is in the next world. But it also addresses the world we live in, and the futuristic city in flames really fit the vibe of this album.”
Progression: What is important to you in assembling a supporting cast of musicians? Do you have permanent band members?
Deninzon: “Each lineup has lasted about three years, as everyone gets so busy and has so many projects. Lucianna Padmore,our drummer, has been with us almost the entire way. The band lineup right now on the new album has been together since 2008 and is the best lineup I have ever had. What I love about this band is that no one tries to overplay. Everybody knows their role and works well as an ensemble, a team. I need guys that know when to play the song and lay back but shred when necessary.
“Lucianna is a groove mistress. It is as if she can read my mind and knows what I’m going to do, so I feel like I can do no wrong when she is playing behind me. She comes from a rhythm & blues/funk background and gives the band that really raw backbeat I love, even with some of these crazy time signatures.
“Jamie Bishop,our bass player, also comes from a funk background. He is a really understated bass player. He’s very different from Rufus, who was a chops monster with lots of crazy Jaco (pastorius) licks, but Jamie is so solid and just lays it down and he is a really funny guy. Aurelien Budynek is our guitarist. Guitar is probably the most difficult role to fill in this band, because you have to have a great jazz harmonic sensibility, have lots of chops, and be very diverse with a rock foundation. What I like about Aurelien is that he does not overplay and he knows how to support. But when it’s time for him to step up, his solos are ridiculous. And he contributes great background vocals.
Progression: How do you go about making new music, and what inspires you”
Deninzon: “I have a notebook that I scribble down lyrics, anything that pops in my head. Sometimes, I will hear a lick or a riff in my head and I will sing it into my iPhone. Then later, I will sit down with the violin, develop that riff and come up with a second part. I will go back through all my pages of lyrics and see what works with that riff. Sometimes it all just comes naturally. For instance, with the song ‘Long Rd’-I woke up in the middle of the night and the whole song popped into my head, like it was always there.”
Progression: You also sing. What do you like to explore lyrically?
Deninzon: “I like to leave things open to interpretation. I take my personal experiences and modify them to fit universal themes. Some of this stuff is philosophical and some is political. The new album has a lot of political themse. For instance, ‘Release’ is about accepting fate, letting good things come to you rather than relentlessely chasing them, and ‘Gods” is me railing against the 24-hour news networks.”
Progression: How do Stratospheerius live shows differ from the studio albums? What can fans expect from a Stratospheerius show?
Deninzon: “I like to really change the songs or open them up to extended improvisations; ust really be in the moment. It keeps things interesting and exciting.”
Progression: You mentioned recording your recently released jazz trio album, Exuberance. Please explain the difference between Stratospheerius and the Joe Deninzon Trio, and the role each plays in your career.
Deninzon: “I was so focused on playing the electric violin and playing fusion and progressive music for many years, but I also enjoy playing jazz. I am a huge Grappelli fan, as well as Stuff Smith and Mark O’Connor. I was inspired by O’Connor’s amazing Hot Swing jazz trio and always wanted to do something with that instrumentation. So myself, Bob Bowen on bass and Steve Benson on guitar began working on ideas. We did some Steely Dan covers, some jazz standards. I wanted to go completely opposite of what people have known me to do-acoustic violin, upright bass, hollow-body guitar. The whole concept was what if Grappelli had joined Radiohead and did some of these rock songs with his feel. We also threw in some classical arrangements. I really wanted to have an outlet where I could focus on the acoustic side of things.
Progression: Keyboardist Rave Tesar of Renaissance contributed to your last few projects. What has his role been and how did you become involved with him”
Deninzon: “I met Rave through Jake Ezra, who is a ridiculous guitarist that replaced Alex Skolnick in the band. I was looking for someone to mix our LiveWires album. Jake was working on another project with Rave and recommended him for our live album. Rave did an amazing job mixing that album so we wound up recording Headspace in his studio and mixed it there. We did the jazz album in his studio and tracked the new album there. Rave is such a great musician all around—great player, great engineer. We have a great chemistry together.”
Progression: You have worked with many other artists over the yearsd. What was it like working with Ritchie Blackmore on the 2003 Blackmore’s Night album Ghost of a Rose?
Deninzon: “It was very interesting. I recorded three songs with them and they wound up using two. I really like the music they do, mixing rock with Renaissance-style. I did rehearse with them in anticipation of a tour, but their dates were conflicting with other commitments I had so that part didn’t work out.”
Progression: You also have performed with the Zappa-based band Project/Object..
Deninzon: “When I came to New York there were two main Zappa bands playing. There was Ed Palermo’s Big Band and Project/Object. Being a fan, I checked both bands out and asked to sit in with them. I ended up sitting in with Ed Palermo and we did ‘Little House I Used to Live In.” Same with Project/Object. As I got to know Ike Willis and the guys, I would sit in with them all the time. One night they were recording their Absolutely Live album and I performed ‘Cosmic Debris’ with them.”
Progression: With your recent Plugging In electric violin instruction book and ongoing involvement in music camps, you have been very active in the education end of rock and jazz violin. Why are you so passionate about this?
Deninzon: “I have always enjoyed teaching and see a lot of opportunities for string players. It really started when I would get asked for recommendations for gigs I couldn’t commit to, and it was hard coming up with musicians that were active in the electric violin world. Secondly, a number of people cam to me saying, “I have an electric violin and I don’t know how to make it sound good.’ Or, ‘I don’t know anything about amps or improvising.’ Many students wanted to venture into the world of playing rock or jazz on electric violin and wanted guidance. I saw a void that needed to be filled, and it’s fun for me teaching kids and adults and giving them information I wish I had when I was 16. That’s why I wrote the book. And that is also why I enjoy teaching at the Mark O’Connor and Mark Wood camps.
“I find that most people still are not aware of what the instrument can do. In addition to the typical violin sound there is so much unpaved territory and I love to explore and teach that.”
Progression: What is next for you and Stratospheerius?
Deninzon: “We’re writing new music for the next album. We already have two new songs we’re playing live. We want the next album to be more raw, live-sounding, riff-oriented music. We’re also making a music video for [album track’ One Foot in the Next World and working on doing some late-night television appearances.
“For me personally, I have many string arrangements of some tock music that I’ll be making available online. I will also be writing more for Sweet Plantain, which is a string ensemble that works with jazz and Latin rhythms. For now, I am working on some chamber music projects involving the electric violin, utilizing effects and some crazy loops. My dream is to write and perform an electric violin concerto-that is definitely on my bucket list.
Prog Talk: Joe Deninzon & Stratospheerius
With a musical background that encompasses classical, jazz, rock, world and all points in between, violinist-mandolinist-vocalist-bandleader Joe Deninzon is a whirling dervish of vibrant creativity. He is one of those folks who seem to have a limitless supply of intriguing ideas. Deninzon is the embodiment of a true progressive artist, with jazz at his sonic core.
“I was a jazz major in school, and that jazz influence has always been infused in our music,” he said.
Deninzon was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is the son of a concert violinist father and a concert pianist mother. He grew up and was raised in Cleveland, and studied classical and jazz violin at Indiana University. After relocating to New York City in 1998, Deninzon recorded his first venture into the jazz-fusion milieu, Electric/Blue. Its release was concurrent with the budding string player’s burgeoning career as a freelance studio musician and sideman.
He was also studying at the Manhattan School of Music and teaching at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. It was there that he met and began a musical partnership with guitarist Alex Skolnick, known for his work in the metal genre. The two of them pooled their love of electric Miles Davis, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and the like into an exciting new ensemble called Stratospheerius. This collaboration resulted in the 2002 CD The Adventures Of Stratospheerius. The 12-track album consisted mostly of Deninzon’s compositions along with interpretations of songs by Wayne Shorter, Vince Guaraldi and Stevie Wonder.
Stratospheerius established itself as a high-energy performance entity, with extended jams, sophisticated improvisation and intricate violin/guitar interplay, as evidenced on the 2004 concert disc Live Wires. The album was a turning point for Deninzon and company in numerous ways. Jake Ezra replaced Skolnick on guitar, and it was the debut for drummer Lucianna Padmore, a fellow New School alum. They also trimmed the outfit from a sextet to a lean-and-mean foursome, with Ron Baron on bass. In 2007 the album Headspace took the band in a slightly different direction as more overt funk and jazz styles were laced with increasing melodic and progressive rock overtones. More personnel changes transpired as bassist Bob Bowen and guitarist Mack Price joined Padmore for the expansion of their sound.
Around this juncture Deninzon took a break from the fusion world, teaming with bassist Bowen and guitarist Steve Benson in the acoustic Joe Deninzon Trio, which recorded the 2010 jazz albumExuberance. It was at this point where the versatile violinist took a step back to his musical beginnings and cast all of his improvisational influences together in a fresh light.
“What’s really fun for us is to open up the songs live and take them in all directions,” Deninzon explained. “For that to happen, you’ve gotta have an improvisational jazz mentality and tap into a certain head space. We all have a jazz background and we bring that to the table.”
Following Straospheerius guitarist Price’s departure and Bowen’s tragic death in a biking accident, Deninzon recruited French guitarist Aurelien Budynek and bassist Jamie Bishop in 2008. This has been the group’s most consistent and enduring lineup thus far, documented on the 2012 CD The Next World.
“On my first [album] we did a cover of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Well, You Needn’t,’” Deninzon said. “On The Adventures Of Stratospheerius, we covered Wayne Shorter’s ‘Nefertiti.’ Our latest is a more focused and song-oriented album. It’s heavier and more rock-oriented but there are still a lot of jazz influences there, too.”
The all-original excursion contains a lot of jazz-influenced music, such as the dynamic and atmospheric disc opener “Release,” while the instrumental “Fleshbot” has a lot of fire à la violinists Jean-Luc Ponty and Didier Lockwood. “Missing Link” matches odd time signatures with strong vocal hooks, and “Ballad For Ding Bang” is a sweet dedication to Deninzon’s son Max that features smooth chord changes and delicate accents by Padmore.
“I’ve always admired artists who are spontaneous and don’t just rehash their recorded material onstage,” Deninzon said. “I always like to keep the band on their toes and keep me from being bored playing the same material. We’ll change what we play and how we play it. Zappa was notorious for doing that kind of thing. Weather Report did that. All the great jazz groups did that. I let the music dictate where I’m gonna go—sort of like a Ouija board where you tap into that spirit and it leads you where it wants to.”
Stratospheerius explores ‘Next World’ tonight at Sherlock’s
BY DAVE RICHARDS, Erie Times-News
Growing up, Joe Deninzon worshipped great guitarists such as Steve Vai and Jimi Hendrix, which doesn’t sound unusual except for this: He plays violin.
“From a writing standpoint and a performance standpoint, I was listening to guys like (Vai), even as a violinist, more than Itzhak Perlman or Jascha Heifetz,” Deninzon said. “I liked great guitar players like that who were also great showmen and entertainers. That’s what I strive for.”
With Joe Deninzon and Stratospheerius, he pulls off the unthinkable — leading a rock band with supercharged violin work that is — to his pleasure — signed to Vai’s record label.
“The Next World,” Stratospheerius’ latest CD, showcases a virtuoso band that dazzles technically and relishes stylistic diversity. The CD dives into progressive rock, fusion, hard rock, blues and, on “Tech Support,” electronica.
It’s all over the place, yet rocks with such conviction and impressive chops that it hardly matters.
“I always like a lot of different flavors every time I go to get a bagel or any kind of flavor of ice cream,” Deninzon said. “I’m always a guy who hates making up his mind.”
So he tries everything, though “Next World” finds the band especially diving into progressive rock.
“It’s a natural progression,” Deninzon said. “I started writing more songs with lyrics and singing more in the band. I’ve always been a fan of bands like Rush and Yes, bands with really great instrumental prowess but also great vocals and lyrics. So, its something I wanted to incorporate. Try to find a way to do it in cool way musically that works.”
“The Prism,” a CD highlight, features a Zeppelinesque feel.
“It’s kind of got a ‘Kashmir’ meets ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ meets whatever else feel,” Deninzon said, with a laugh. “I imagined it to be one of those epic songs. For that, I overdubbed a lot of strings. I have an octave violin tuned like a cello, so I cover cello, viola and violin parts. I wanted it to sound like a huge string (section).”
“Release” races with a Muse-like approach, while “Gods” features a crushing hook. Deninzon spent three years on the CD, which is nominated for best progressive rock album of 2012 by ProgressiveRockCentral.com, alongside works by Ian Anderson and Steve Hackett.
At Sherlock’s, Deninzon will rely on his trusty Viper, a seven-string violin that he can tune down to cello and lower, and an acoustic one. And while his kinetic playing is the focal point, don’t overlook his powerhouse band with drummer Lucianna Padmore, guitarist Aurelian Budynek and bassist Jamie Bishop. They have more chops than a black belt. They couldn’t do punk if they tried.
“Any time you have a rock band full of music nerds, you’re going to get crazy time signatures and modulation and a lot of different stuff you can dig around,” Deninzon said. “If I wanted to form a punk band, it’d be hard for me stay in character, as much as I love the Sex Pistols, Ramones and Clash. You gotta be who you are. If you’re not honest with yourself and your music, people feel it. You got to accept who you are and go with it.”
Stratospheric Violins | Progressive Rock Central.com | Learn Violin
Saturday, May 19th, 2012 at 1:46 pm
Violinist Joe Deninzon is one of the musical sensations of 2012. He is the founder of Stratospheerius, an outstanding rock band that crosses boundaries, incorporating classic rock, progressive rock, fusion, world music and electronics. Joe discusses his musical background and latest projects with Progressive Rock Central.
Can you give our readers a brief history on how you came to be a musician?
I was born into a family of classical musicians. My father played (and still plays) the violin in the Cleveland Orchestra. My mother is a concert pianist and has around 40 students. Our house was literally a music school with people coming in and out and simultaneous violin and piano lessons being heard in different rooms, but my parents are strictly classical musicians and had no frame or reference or knowledge about any music outside of that genre.
I started playing violin and piano when I was 6, but when we immigrated to the states from Russia, I fell in love with what I was seeing on MTV and hearing on American radio. When I was 12, I took up bass, started writing songs and formed my first band. I later taught myself guitar and really felt more connected to rock and jazz music than classical. In high school I listened to a lot of Zeppelin, Kiss, Queen, and Aerosmith. I knew I wanted to be a musician for as long as I can remember, but I always knew I did not want to spend my life sitting in an orchestra. The first instruments I learned to improvise on were the bass and guitar. I later transferred the rock and jazz language I learned on those instruments to the violin.
What kind of musical training do you have?
I was studying classical violin with my father since age 6, and later at the Cleveland Institute of music. I have a bachelor’s degree in Jazz Violin and Violin Performance from Indiana University and a Master’s degree in Commercial Violin from Manhattan School of Music.
What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?
My musical tastes are eclectic, to say the least. Rock is the foundation, but all my varied influences creep in, like jazz, funk, bluegrass, Middle Eastern Music, all filtered through a distorted electric violin-fueled rock n roll meat grinder.
Your music crosses boundaries. Who can you cite as your main musical influences?
I think my top five artists of all time are Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Led Zeppelin. I have a deep love of 70’s fusion and progressive rock (Mahavishnu Orchestra/Jerry Goodman, Jean Luc Ponty, Yes, King Crimson, Return to Forever), But I also love great songwriting and admire people who are master performers and communicators (Beatles, Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Steve Vai), and the larger-than-life escapism of pure rock (Zeppelin, Queen, Muse).
I think what all my favorite artists had in common is that they just didn’t give a shit and did their thing. I think it’s about figuring out who you are being true to yourself. The music has to be honest and not contrived and the audience will feel that immediately. I am also a big fan of modern composers like John Corigliano and John Zorn, as well as Mark O’Connor, both as a writer and a player.
Your current band is called Stratospheerius. How did you come up with the name?
Years ago, I was playing in an orchestra backing up Smokey Robinson. One of the violinists had to play a solo with some really high notes and someone said, “Wow, that’s really up in the Stratosphere!” to which the violinist responded “I should’ve brought my Stratospheerius.” It was a play on words and he was making a reference to the great 17th century Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivarius. I thought this word applied well to the kind of music I was trying to write; space rock that was fueled by a wild electric violin playing way up in the stratosphere. It’s not the catchiest name in the world, but once people know us, they never forget it.
The Next World… is dedicated to bassist Robert Emmet Bowen III. What was his connection with the band?
Bob Bowen (Robert Emmet Bowen III) was a member of Stratospheerius from 2004-2007. He can be heard playing all the bass parts on the 2007 CD, Headspace, the song “House Always Wins” on the new CD, “The Next World…,” and is the upright bass player on the Joe Deninzon Trio 2010 release, “Exuberance.” I met Bob when we were both doing our Master’s Degree at Manhattan School of music in the late 90?s. We became fast friends and worked in a variety of groups together until he joined my band. He was also an incredible graphic artist and provided all the artwork for our new CD.
Tragically, Bob was killed in August of 2010 in Manhattan when his bicycle was hit by a passing truck. He was 45 and is survived by his wife, son, and daughter. In addition to my projects, Bob also worked with legendary jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, as well as Tony Trischka, John Hicks, Joe Lovanno, Matt Wilson, James Moody, and many more. The new album is dedicated to his memory.
How would you describe the music in your latest album The Next World…?
Progressive, melodic rock with sprinkles of jazz, fusion, metal, bluegrass, ska, and Balkan Gypsy music.
Tell us about your first recordings and your musical evolution.
Joe_Deninzon’s debut album Electric Blue
My first CD, “Electric Blue”, was recorded during the summer of ‘98 between graduating from Indiana University and moving to New York. It was an all-instrumental jazz-fusion album and I used a bunch of great musicians I had known in the Cleveland scene for many years. My goal was to arrive in New York with a CD in hand that I could give out, find a band, and start gigging as much as possible. At the time, I came out of jazz school and was listening to a lot of Jean Luc, Didier Lockwood, Weather Report, Mahavishnu, etc.
After this album came out I went through a bunch of different lineups in New York which eventually morphed into Stratospheerius. I had always been a singer and had written vocal songs, but could not find a way to reconcile that with all the instrumental fusion I was writing. I gradually set out to incorporate some vocal material into my set list.
The second album I did, “Adventures of Stratospheerius,” had Alex Skolnick on guitar, whom I befriended when I was teaching at the New School. This album was 50 percent vocal and had a mishmash of styles. I was still trying to figure out who I was musically. The Live Wires album also captured that era when Alex was in my band as well as Jake Ezra (guitarist for The Book of Mormon) and we were travelling around playing a lot of fusion with a few vocal rock tunes mixed in.
Long story short, I think our last album, “Headspace”, and especially the new one, “The Next World,” really capture that sound I have been seeking for years, one that combines my influences as an instrumentalist and my influences as a songwriter and vocalist. It took me ten years to really figure out what I wanted to do and establish the true sound of this band. I know it’s an ongoing journey, not a destination, but I’m really happy with the musical direction we are on right now and the response has been amazing!
How’s the current music scene in New York?
The music scene in New York is in constant flux. It’s hard for me to recognize any specific trend dominating the scene right now, but there are always amazing and creative musicians in the areas of jazz, rock, crossover classical, singer songwriters, and hip hop. I like how venues like Le Poisson Rouge have created a way to hear classical and hard-to categorize crossover music in an intimate club setting.
I love the scene in Rockwood with free music and an enormous variety of great artists coming through. World music venues like Drom and Mehanata are incredible places to hear diverse music from all over the planet. There are cynics who say the scene is not what it used to be, but there have always been and will always be cynics. New York has a way of always reinventing itself and even though your favorite venue may close, there are always new venues opening up. Plus there is the constant influx of new talent from all over the world. It’s great cause as a musician, it keeps you on your game. No matter how weird or out of the box your music is, there is always a venue in New York City where you can play it.
If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?
I love all the people I’m collaborating with right now, but I can mention a few names of people I have never worked with who I think would be fun and creative: Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Eddie Van Halen, Tal Wikenfeld, Jeff Beck, John Corigliano, Mark O’Connor, Chris Thile, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Kanye West, The Roots, John Mayer, L. Shankar.
What violins do you play?
Joe Deninzon with his acoustic violin
My main acoustic violin is made in 1979 by Bernardo Gutterman, out of Chicago. The first electric violin I purchased in 1995 was a 6-string made by Eric Jensen. Right now, I play a Mark Wood Viper fretted 7-string Flying V electric violin and alternate that with my acoustic.
The day I bought my Viper in 2003, I went straight to a rehearsal with a band, plugged it in, drew my bow across the strings for the first time, and right at that moment, the big blackout happened that knocked out the whole Eastern Seaboard. Sorry about that.
Where do you purchase your violins?
My acoustic violin was given to me by my father. He had played on it for twenty years and was looking for something that would blend into the orchestra more. I brought both of my electrics directly from the makers.
Do you play any other instruments?
I play mandolin, which I picked up a few years ago, as well as guitar and electric bass. I also sing all the lead vocals in Stratospheerius. I studied piano when I was very young, then gave it up. That’s one instrument I wish I played better.
Which are your favorite violin guitar effects or techniques?
I’m interested in going beyond the traditional functions of the violin. I see a lot of unpaved territory with this instrument, even though it has been around for hundreds of years, we are just scratching the surface.
First of all, I’m endlessly fascinated with the percussive things the violin can do. “Chopping” is a technique invented by Richard Greene in the 60’s that involves muting the strings with your left hand and coming down hard with the bow, creating a “chopping” sound. Basically, your violin becomes a snare drum. This technique can be combined with chords to imitate a funky rhythm guitar, and can also be used to imitate a guiro or a DJ scratching a record. It sounds amazing with a wah wah pedal.
I also love incorporating delays and loops into my solos. It’s fun to use pitch-shifting pedals like whammy’s to create lightning fast shifts that are not humanly possible on a regular violin. Many traditional string players and acoustic purists don’t realize that working with effects is not just blindly hitting pedals or buttons. It requires taste, timing, and precise coordination between your hands and your feet.
There are times when I’m singing, improvising on the instrument, and changing sounds with my feet simultaneously. I don’t see the use of effects as a crutch to compensate for any lack of playing ability but simply a wider palette of colors to paint your music with. When it’s done right, it really has the WOW factor.
Do you still pay some of your early violins?
People see me wailing on my electric with Stratospheerius, but at least 50 percent of my life, I’m playing unplugged on my traditional acoustic violin. It’s funny that people see you doing one thing and thing that’s all you do. Most guitarists I know play a bunch of different electrics and own at least a few acoustics and go back and forth depending on the gig. I want to see the day when all string players function the same way and the electric violin is not seen as a novelty.
What was the first big lesson you learned about the music business?
That kid sitting next to you in algebra class in high school can end up being the head of your label or your booking agent or your bandmate. You might grow up hating country or bluegrass music, but 15 years later you are on a session and the producer wants you to cop that style, but because you never respected it or gave it any credence, you can’t do it and he ends up calling the next guy.
The big lesson I learned is; you can’t discount anything or anyone. Diversify your palette and respect and honor whatever music you are playing and whoever you are working with at any given time, and it will pay dividends.
Do you have any plans to take the The Next World… album on the road?
We are always performing. There are no 3-month long 90-show tours planned at the moment, but there are always shows going on in any given month in many different cities. Just check our website or facebook page and sign up for our e-list.
What music are you currently listening to?
I’m always revisiting my favorite bands like Yes and Zappa and Mahavishnu, but I’ve been listening to the new Springsteen and Keane albums. Also there’s a solo tuba and classical guitar recording of Alan Baer from the New York Philharmonic with Scott Kuney playing some badass Astor Piazolla arrangements that someone turned me on to.
Also digging the recent Black Keys and Foo Fighters releases. There is a great Maxim Vengerov recording of all the Eugene Ysaye sonatas and reworking of the Bach Tocatta that’s ridiculous. The new Nikki Minaj album has some nice moments too. Also, have you checked out this Swedish band called Dirty Loops? They do some heavy reworking of Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga that’s off the hook!
Do you have any upcoming projects to share with our readers?
Plugging in; a Guide to Gear and New Techniques for the 21st Century Violinist
I just published a book for Mel Bay titled “Plugging in; a Guide to Gear and New Techniques for the 21st Century Violinist.” Half of the book is an introduction to improvisation in the styles of blues, funk, and rock. The other half deals with gear-related things, like choosing an electric violin, shopping for an amp, working with effects. There is also a CD and DVD. This book basically answers questions that students have asked me repeatedly over the years. Some of these are things guitarists take for granted, but are completely new to string players. I basically wrote the book I wish I had when I was 17.
I also recently joined the Sweet Plantain String Quartet. This is a traditional acoustic string quartet which combines classical, jazz, Latin influence, blues, and hip hop. I sing and play violin and mandolin, the cellist raps, and the other violinist, Eddie Venegas, also doubles on trombone. This group has toured all over the world and just signed a new management deal. Look for the debut CD in the near future.
I am also constantly writing music. I have about 80 string quartet arrangements of well-known rock songs I have written which I hope to publish and make available on my website. Someday, I’d love to write an electric violin concerto, if I can find the time.
Aurelien Budynek (guitar/vocals)
Aurelien hails from Bordeau, France and is a graduate of Berklee College of Music, where he studied with Dave Fiuczynski. In addition to playing with Stratospheerius since 2008, he has also toured and performed with Cindy Blackman, Vernon Reid, Daredevil Squadron (with Members of the Trans Siberian Orchestra), The Dan Band, and Rock of Ages.
Jamie Bishop (bass/vocals)
Hailing from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Jamie is also a graduate of Berklee College of Music and has been with the band since 2007. Jamie has laid down the groove for a wide variety of artists, including the Syn and Francis Dunnery’s New Progressives, Stefani Vera, and The Prigs.
Lucianna Padmore (drums)
A member of Stratospheerius for over a decade, Bronx New York Native Drummer Lucianna Padmore has been praised by Modern Drummer magazine for the “Deep grooves and serious fusion chops.” Lucianna has been involved in many different projects in the New York scene. Performing highlights include jazz tuba player Bob Stewart, opening for Shirley Horn, Chico Debarge, Amel Larrieux, Kelis, James Spaulding, Bertha Hope, Jimmy Heath, Clark Terry, Sun Ra Archestra, Josh Rosemen Quintet, Oscar Peterson trio, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, to name a few. Lucianna has toured in Austria, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Morocco and Haiti.
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by Suzanne Rothberg
You might not have heard of the band Stratospheerius. It’s a rather unusual name for a rock ‘n’ roll band. But if you’reJoe Deninzon who has led an interesting life as the lead singer, a prominent electric violinist and jack of all trades, he defines the band’s name as their individual progressive rock sound and trademark.
NY Rock Music Examiner chatted by phone with lead singer, electric violinist and guitarist Joe Deninzon about the band’s new album, ‘The Next World’ and discussed this band on the rise to fame.
NY Rock Music Examiner: You will be appearing in New York City, What venues will you be at?
Joe Deninzon: I’m going to be playing at The Shrine located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem for a CD release party on Thursday May 24.
Examiner: How did the band get its start and come up with the name?
JD: I moved to New York City in 1997 to pursue my Master’s Degree in Jazz and I recorded a jazz fusion CD (in Cleveland before I moved) My idea was I’m in New York with a CD ready to go—form a band and play some gigs. I was originally of the jazz-rock fame and was entering the freelance musician world with gigs and one of the gigs I was playing someone had a solo and someone said, “Oh, that’s up in the stratosphere, I should have brought mystratospheerius he was referencing the violin Stradivarius the Italian violin maker. The kind of music I was playing was more ‘bass rock’ up in the stratosphere. It was based off Stradivarius it’s not an easy name to remember but it really sums up what the band is all about.
Examiner: So you’ve been freelancing?
JD: Yes I’ve been a freelance violinist in New York, for 15 years now. I’ve played with various orchestras, well-known artists and I’ve done all kinds of interesting projects. Everything I’ve done it’s a wide-diversity of music—from middle eastern, Latin to classical to rock ‘n’ roll to bluegrass—everything I do seeps into the creative process what I write and write music for one of my bands. I continue to work as a freelance musician and I’m very happy being a musician is an amazing thing.
Examiner: You have very impressive credentials. The band was a winner in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition and you’ve also won the Online People’s Choice Awards in the Cornucopia Festival the band was named, ‘Best Jam Band’ in Musician’s Atlas Independent Awards. Must feel great to get all these accolades.
JD: It does feel great to be recognized—people that judge some of these awards I’ve had huge respect and admiration for—it’s especially humbling and complementary. One of the people that judged the Musician’s Atlas competition was Victor Whooten a great prominent jazz bass player (played with Bela Fleck) and one of my favorite musicians. That was a huge thing with many bands involved in that. This band was my brainchild I started it 10 years ago and it went through a lot of different line-ups. The music has developed into more of a song-oriented progressive rock project. I started singing more and I’ve always been interested in virtuosity of instrumental music as I have been in great songwriters and vocalists. So, reconciling all of the things I love with a long-term mission.
Examiner: You want to take the band to the next level? I know you played with many notables.
JD: We recently were signed to Steve Vai’s label, Digital Nation. I really respect Steve and he’s a really amazing rock guitar player. As a violinist, I was very much influenced by guitar players. I would say, Jimi Hendrix influenced me as much or more than Itzak Perlman. I consider myself a guitarist trapped in a violinist’s body! I grew up playing the guitar as well as the violin. The first instrument I improvised on was guitar before the violin. I was studying classical violin for many years. And then I studied jazz and rock guitar and at one point I learned to play rock ‘n’ roll on the violin and it’s just a matter of transferring the notes and the ‘musical’ language to the violin. I think that’s what set me on my path and inspired the way I play now.
Examiner: In January 2012, you published a book called, ‘Plugging In: A Guide to Gear and New Techniques for the 21st Century Violinist.
JD: Yes, this book I’ve been working on for three years—it’s basically the book I wish I had when I was 17. Half of the book talks about introduction to improvisation of blues, funk and rock ‘n’ roll and the other half is more technical gear oriented; talks about choosing electric violin working with an amplifier, working with effect pedals, things that a lot of street players are new at and it’s based on questions I’ve been asked repeatedly by intermediate and advanced students that I’ve had who were entering this world of music and it talks about all the techniques a street player has to learn in order to make a living. Unless you’re lucky enough to land an orchestra gig or a soloist, there are a lot of things that you need to do in order to be a full-time musician.
Examiner: One of your songs was in the soundtrack of the Will Ferrell produced movie, The Virginity Hit. It’s called, Scarlet’s Waltz. Is that the only soundtrack you’re on?
JD: There was also a movie soundtrack for an independent film I did called, ‘What’s up, Scarlet?’ That soundtrack I wrote with my songwriting partner, John LaBarbera. It came out in 2006 but it was a non-exclusive use of the music so Will Ferrell went out and produced The Virginity Hit and thought it would be cool to use in his movie. That movie was a fiction reality show it was about a high school kid trying to get laid. It’s like an ‘American Pie’ type of movie. There’s a song on the new album (The Next World) called Road Rage; which I hope will appear on a video game. We’ve been approached about using our music on the video game, ‘Rock Band.’ That’s something I’m going to be putting together over the next few months. They don’t have a ‘violin’ controller for Rock Band I don’t know what they’re going to do with that! (laughs).
Examiner: You’ve performed with Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Everclear, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis, Les Paul, Phoebe Snow, Jane Monheit, and Robert Bonfiglio etc. Did they specifically ask you to work with them?
JD: Well, every situation was different. We did a recording with Robert Bonfiglio he’s a classical harmonica player. And we wrote a bunch of tracks with Phoebe Snow. And Bruce Springsteen he was performing at Madison Square Garden playing his 1973 sophomore album in its entirety E Street Shuffle and they had a small string section that they put together and I played with for one song which he hadn’t performed in 35 years called, New York City Serenade. I’m a huge Springsteen fan and playing with him I was on ‘cloud 9!’ With Ritchie Blackmore, I played on two songs from his album, ‘Ghost of a Rose’ that was an individual collaboration.
Examiner: You also appeared as a soloist with the New York City Ballet!
JD: That was a piece called, ‘Red Angel’ written by Richard Einhorn. I was the second musician to ever play it the first was Mary Rowell. She was a friend of mine who recommended me to that engagement. It was a solo electric violin and dance recital. It was one of my great experiences.
Examiner: You played for former President Clinton, performed on MTV and at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Your music has been featured on CMT, VH1, ABC, Comedy Central, The Travel Channel, History Channel, Food Network and National Geographic Channel. You also taught at Mark O’Connor’s renowned String Camp and Mark Wood’s Rock Orchestra Camp.
JD: Yes, I’ll be returning to Mark Wood’s camp this year. I’m very passionate about education, which is why I wrote my book. There are new opportunities for street players and I love sharing the information that I have. Every person I teach at those camps, they’re very much individual artists. It’s fun to see those kids faces ‘light up’ when I teach them how to play the blues or when I work with a pedal it’s very inspiring!
Examiner: How long have you played the electric violin?
JD: I bought my first electric violin in 1995. It was a six-string solid body electric violin made by a man named Eric Jensen. In 2003, I bought a Mark Wood violin. He makes these incredible instruments that strap on to your back unlike the traditional violin. I still play my acoustic violin at least 50 percent of the time.
Examiner: Your latest CD, ‘The Next World’ is out now. It sounds like ‘progressive rock’ is that your primary musical influence. Who were your musical influences and was it progressive rock?
JD: I think my biggest influence was progressive rock. I liked Frank Zappa, Radiohead, and Dream Theater. It was the music that is in my heart and those were the people I was drawn to. I love Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). I haven’t seen any bands that are fronted by the electric violin and sing that do this kind of music. I’m a child of the 70s I think I was born 10 years too late! (he joked!)
Examiner: Sadly, the bassist Bob Bowen, died tragically in a bicycle accident in Manhattan in 2010. How did that affect the band and what was he like as a person and how would he best be remembered?
JD: Bob was an incredibly talented very inspired human being. He had a childlike love of life and music and enthusiasm and he encouraged everyone to have positive energy. He was also a great artist he did the artwork for the new album The Next World. I knew him for almost 13 years—we went to school together that’s where I met him. He played on one song on the new album and also on my 2010 jazz trio album. He was an avid biker and he was crossing a bridge into town and an on-coming truck ran a red light and hit him. He lost a lot of blood and was unconscious in the hospital for a week and then he died. The cover is his and it’s our way of honoring him.
Examiner: What’s next for the band?
JD: We’re already writing new music, I don’t know how soon we’ll record a new album but we’re writing and try to tour as much as possible. We want to play bigger venues and do some double bills with one national act are our immediate goal. We want to book more festivals we’re currently booking things for the summer and beyond. We’re launching a huge radio campaign for The Next World album.
Electrify Your Violin
by Joe Deninzon
A few years ago, I was asked to teach intermediate violin and beginning improvisation in the continuing education department at the New School University in New York City.
Many of the adults who came to my classes had played violin in a high school orchestra, gave it up in college as they entered their various fields, and wanted to return to the instrument and make it a part of their lives once again. Oftentimes, folks told me that, as much as they love classical music, their interests range from jazz to folk, rock, R&B, and hip-hop, and they wanted to play the music they love.
Until recently, the education system for young string players has given little attention to fostering creativity and teaching improvisation. Though the timeless beauty of the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Stravinsky must be taught to every generation, I believe part of the reason so many young people quit playing, is because they don’t see the connection between their violin, viola, or cello and the music that is on their iPods. As a musical clinician in high schools, I see the faces of kids light up when they realize they can play any style of music on their instrument, be it hip-hop or heavy metal. This inspires them to keep playing and can even bring them back full circle to classical music, which is the foundation.
I see this same spark in adults that I have taught. If playing the violin, viola, or cello is part of your life, you may already play in a chamber group or community orchestra, but there are many avenues to explore that can inspire you, and you don’t have to live in a big city to take advantage of them.
Here are a few things you can do as a string player to expand your musical horizons:
1) Take some lessons on improvisation. I grew up in Cleveland at a time when there were no jazz violin teachers in town, but I didn’t let that stop me. Even if you live in a small town, you can find a guitarist, sax player, or pianist to teach you some basic things that you can apply to any instrument. If you just learn the pentatonic scale, blues scale, and the form of the blues, you can already wail over a wide variety of music. The blues is the foundation to 90% of popular Western music, and a major building block if your goal is to play jazz, bluegrass, or rock.
2) Play as much as you can. Conquer your fear by going to jam sessions around town. Try out some of the things you learn in your improv lesson, and accept the fact that you may not sound good right away. Just keep doing it! Get together with friends who play different instruments, throw a big party, jam and learn together.
3) Go electric. Playing violin through a microphone to be heard over a loud band just doesn’t cut it. Invest in a pickup or transducer. Companies like LR Baggs and Fishman manufacture inexpensive bridges that act as magnetic pickups connected to a quarter-inch cable jack, which is easily installed on an instrument, enabling it to connect to an amplifier or a PA system. There are also transducers, such as The Realist, which simply clip onto your bridge.
Get the Gear for Electric Violin
Electric violins and amps are such a personal choice, that I would advise trying everything you can. Here are a few suggestions:
Transducers: If you have an acoustic violin, viola, or cello and want to invest in pickups or transducers to amplify your sound, I recommend the Realist (www.realistacoustic.com), which easily attaches to your bridge without the need to replace the bridge. Richard Barbera (www.barberatransducers.com) also makes excellent transducers used by many electric violin makers.
Pre Amp: On my acoustic, I use a transducer made by LR Baggs (www.lrbaggs.com), which was installed in place of my regular bridge. I combine this with an LR Baggs Para Acoustic DI. This acts as a buffer between my violin and the PA system or amplifier and warms up the sound with an EQ control.
Electric violin: For solid state electric violins, some of the well known companies are Yamaha, Wood (pictured), Jordan Electric Violins, NS, Skyinbow, and Zeta.
AMPS: For amps, the Roland AC60 and 120 do a great job of recreating a warm acoustic tone. The Roland Jazz Chorus is a classic used by many string players. If you are more of a rock player, I recommend amps made by Bugera, Tech 21, Mesa Boogie, Kustom, and Fender.
Multi Effect processor: To add sound effects experiment with TC Electronic Nova, Boss GT-10 or GT-100 series, DigiTech RP series, Zoom G3, or Line 6 Pocket Pod (pictured below).
4) Buy electric. If you want to buy an instrument dedicated strictly to playing in an amplified setting, you need to get a solid body electric. These violins, cellos, and violas come in a wide variety of designs since the shape does not affect the sound of the instrument. They look incredible on stage! Manufacturers make four, five, six, and seven string electric violins. Having extra strings is great because you can write a string quartet and hear all four parts, or play low power chords in a rock band. Visit www.electricviolinshop.com to see some of the designs.
5) Invest in an amp. In the electric world, a good amplifier is a crucial part of your sound. Once you have electrified your instrument, go to any music store and spend an afternoon trying out every amp you can. I usually prefer guitar or bass amps for my violin, but don’t rule anything out and trust your ears.
6) Explore the world of effects pedals. The variety of pedals that exist will make your head spin. Multi-effects processors have hundreds of different sounds programmed into one device. It is a great way to introduce yourself to delay, wah, distortion—all the sounds that guitar players have used for years that many string players are now discovering for the first time.
7) Once you gain confidence, find a local band and see if they would like to add a violin, viola, or cello. So many bands in rock, pop, and hip hop are using strings that it’s becoming as common as seeing a guitar on the bandstand. DJs may invite electric violinists to accompany them at clubs.
Joe Deninzon (www.joedeninzon.com) is a violinist based in New York City who leads the band Stratospheerius, plays in the Sweet Plantain String Quartet, and has worked with artists like Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Aretha Franklin, Ritchie Blackmore, and Phoebe Snow.