The accidental singer
From the August, 2015 issue
During the second half of the last century, musical success most often required full dedication to life on the road. This was particularly true of jazz players who traversed the country moving from club to club and the occasional concert venue, and, if fortunate, to Europe or beyond. And then there were the exceptions: people who chose to stay in their hometowns and yet managed to attain some degree of national prominence.
In the Sixties in Washington, D.C., people in the know took out-of-town visitors to hear pianist and singer Shirley Horn at clubs such as the One Step Down, where she and her longtime trio mates would play to hushed audiences. Horn eventually made recordings and attained international recognition, but she always remained a local performer at heart, preferring intimate venues where she could sing songs so slow and quiet that they seemed to stop the world for just a moment, so unhurried that even her friend Miles Davis was amazed. Horn is no longer with us, but she is revered by many modern singers, among them Dena DeRose.
DeRose, like Horn, belongs to the small club of singer-pianists whose musical persona comes from a total fusion of voice and keyboard. On the surface, the two women share some biographical traits. Both started out as classical pianists who slowly moved to jazz, and both came to sing by accident, Horn when asked to do so by a regular listener at a club, DeRose, more traumatically, when she developed medical problems and could not play the piano. Both also turned out to be mezzos. Each eventually achieved international recognition, but by very different routes. DeRose never went back to her hometown; she left the gigging life in New York to become a professor at a music school in Graz, Austria. But Horn's life growing up in segregated Washington, D.C. had little in common with DeRose's early years in Binghamton upstate and subsequent gradual climb towards recognition
in New York City.
DeRose's tenth CD, We Won't Forget You, is an homage to Shirley Horn. It reveals her debt to the older artist, as well as the best of her own talents. She can take on a tune like "You're Nearer" in the incredibly slow and deliberate manner of Horn without losing the essential pulse but also swing with force on standards such as "You Stepped Out of a Dream." Her piano skills are so well meshed with her subtly crafted, beautiful, and often understated vocals that you simply cannot imagine her standing in front of an accompanist--though other singers have praised her keyboard skills on the rare occasions when she has provided them with backing. DeRose seems to play only with the best, and she will perform songs from her latest album on August 22 at Kerrytown Concert House with two masters: bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Sean Dobbins.
[Originally published in August, 2015.]
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