Starting a record label in the 21st century might seem like a fool’s errand, what with collapsing CD sales and streaming services that offer less than a pittance per thousands of plays. But jazz bassist/vocalist Jeff Denson offers an object lesson in the power of a savvy and well-curated outlet. Over the past year, his new label Ridgeway Records has released a series of stellar recordings introducing some of the region’s most promising young artists, like Berkeley-reared guitarist/composer Ian Faquini’s Metal Na Madeira.
The label is also a vehicle for his own music, and Denson celebrates the release of his latest Ridgeway album, Concentric Circles, Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory, where he’s a founding professor in the school’s accredited college program. Featuring bassoon virtuoso Paul Hanson, pianist Den Zemelman and drum maestro Alan Hall — who released a fantastic Ridgeway album Artic introducing his Ratatet with Hanson and Denson earlier this year — the quartet brings together two earlier ensembles.
Denson first performed around the Bay Area with Hall and Hanson in Electreo, a texturally acute collective trio that explored a constellation of spacious compositions laced with Hanson’s finely calibrated electronics. He forged a deep connection with Zemelman when he recruited the pianist into a trio designed to accompany octogenarian alto sax legend Lee Konitz, a group documented on the first Ridgeway album The Jeff Denson Trio + Lee Konitz.
The initial concept for Concentric Circles involved bringing elements of the two bands together, but on a musical level the title refers to the way that Denson crafts “interlocking melodies, wheels within wheels, themes exploring constant change and the world we live in,” he says. “The forms are pretty complicated, with a lot of through-composed parts, written out second lines and improvised sections that touch on my circles of influence—jazz, free improv, chamber music, and the centrality of the voice.”
Only two Concentric Circles tracks feature his vocals, but Denson’s writing is deeply informed by his connection to the voice, a lyrical sensibility that manifests itself in his breathtaking bow work and gracefully flowing pizzicato lines. When I caught up with Denson a few days ago he had just returned from a brief tour with New York guitarist Joel Harrison, a former Bay Area resident who has also honed a gorgeous body of music intimately tied to his vocals. Featuring Hanson, trumpeter Cuong Vu, and drum star Brian Blade, Harrison’s Spirt House quintet played SFJAZZ last week.
“Joel’s writing was beautiful, challenging and lyrical, with these sophisticated singable melodies,” Denson says. “I’ve wanted to play with Brian Blade for years. This was a total dream and within the first few seconds of the first tune of our rehearsal at SFJAZZ, Brian and I connected in a deep way. That was really thrilling.”
Since Denson joined the faculty at CJC about six years ago (when it was still known as the Jazzschool Institute), the school has steadily expanded, to the point where founder and director Susan Muscarella recently announced a plan to expand the campus across the street, complete with an intimate new performance space. The synergy between the CJC and Denson’s Ridgeway Arts, an umbrella non-profit that presents concerts, workshops, and podcasts in addition to releasing albums on the label, has clearly paid off, with CDs by several CJC graduates, including Faquini and Opaluna, a striking album featuring the duo of guitarist Luis Salcedo and vocalist Susana Pineda.
“Ridgeway and the conservatory are completely separate entities, but I’m one of only three full professors,” Denson says. “I’m there all the time, and I’m very passionate about the school and the future of the school. I teach such a wide array of classes, from musicianship training to ensembles, private lessons, and history courses, that I get to know all of the students.”
The future holds exciting developments for Denson and Ridgeway. In November he heads back to Europe with his trio accompanying Lee Konitz, the 89-year-old altoist who’s been a creative force in jazz since playing an essential role in Miles Davis’s epochal 1949-50 Birth of the Cool sessions.
He’s also preparing to produce the next Ridgeway release, Negative Press Project. Co-led by two former CJC students, bassist Andrew Lion and pianist/keyboardist Ruthie Dineen, the seven-piece electro-acoustic jazz/indie-rock–inspired ensemble is recording an album of songs by Jeff Buckley. Judging by previous Ridgeway releases I’m sure I’ll be writing covering the album when it’s done.
Recommended gig: Tony Corman
Berkeley guitarist, arranger and composer Tony Corman’s 17-piece Morechestra performs Saturday at La Peña with special guest Jackie Ryan, one of the finest jazz vocalists in the Bay Area. Always looking to craft vivid voicings that highlight the individual sounds of his collaborators, Corman makes the most of guest artists, and he’s designed half a dozen new arrangements to showcase Ryan’s luxuriant voice.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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