Master violinist and composer Joe Deninzon has released a new track titled ‘Storm Surge.’ It’s a sweeping anthem reflecting all the angst and frustration we all find ourselves dealing with every day. Storm Surge is another addition to an amazing catalog of work that includes five CDs with his band Stratospheerius, a concerto for 7 string electric violin and an acoustic jazz trio record called ‘Exuberance.’ Deninzon has worked with artists as diverse as Smokey Robinson, Bruce Springsteen and Ritchie Blackmore and institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center and the New York City Ballet. I recently got a chance to speak with Joe about ‘Storm Surge’ and how it all came about.
Did the lyrics come first? You're working with Vocalist Michael Sadler. Did he contribute to the lyrics? Tell us about the collaboration and the genesis of this work.
The lyrics actually came LAST. The song was based on a solo piano etude called “The Storm” from a 5-movement suite called “L’Orage” Op. 109 No. 13 by 19th century German composer Friedrich Bürgmuller. My 11-yr old son Max is studying the piano and was playing this piece on a competition 2 years ago in Carnegie Hall. He was practicing it non stop and it got stuck in my head. The piece is fast and virtuosic, and I thought the chord changes were too beautiful and went by too fast, so I slowed it down and turned it into a hard rock power ballad. I had the form sketched out in my head, and when the rhythm section tracked it in May of 2019, I had a melody but no lyrics and was singing “la-la-la-la” to mark the vocals. The title of the original piece really dictated what the lyrics would be about. We live in stormy times and there is a storm raging inside all of us right now.
Michael tweaked the lyrics and melody a little when he sang the song, but the core of the lyrics stayed the same.
Was there a seminal moment?
There were quite a few. It’s funny because the day we laid down the foundation track, we laid down three more songs which were much more complicated and involved. This was a last minute, one-take thing. Once we tracked the initial form with the rhythm section, months later, our drummer Jason Gianni sent me a section he wrote for a song that he never finished. Magically, his part fit like a glove into this song, so I edited it in. I’m referring to the bridge with Fernando Perdomo’s guitar solo and the soaring strings. That’s all Jason’s contribution. That bridge took the song to another dimension and separated it rom the original form of the Burgmüller piece. When Michael sent me his vocals, I got goose bumps and I knew we had something special.
In addition to your work with Stratospheerius you have written a concerto for 7 string electric violin among other works. How does this work fit in your overall 'canon'?
Writing an electric violin concerto for full orchestra was a bucket list project for me. In 2015, I got that opportunity when my friend Douglas Droste invited me to perform with the Muncie Symphony Orchestra when he got the musical director position. I spent two years writing the piece and was coached on orchestration by another friend of mine, composer Gene Pritsker. I envisioned it as an instrumental Stratospheerius prog fusion piece, heavily influenced by Steve Vai, Zappa, Mahavishnu, rather than coming from a classical aesthetic. I still hope to record it, release it, and get it performed with more orchestras once things get back to normal.
On this track in addition to your violin you also play guitar. How often do you get a chance to do that?
I had a love affair with the guitar all through high school and college, studying jazz and classical, and playing in numerous bands. I like to joke that I’m a guitarist in a violinist’s body. It was a love triangle between guitar and the violin, but the violin won. I think I came to a crossroads where I had to choose to really focus on one instrument. I have recently done a few gigs on guitar and over the years have contributed rhythm guitar tracks to some Stratospheerius recordings. I also do a great deal of my writing on that instrument.
You also have flute, piano, cello, electric guitars, bass and drums. Tell us about the recording process and Rave Tesar.
This was a true quarantine project. Michael lives in St. Louis. Fernando, and Rachel are in LA. Everyone sent in their tracks and video footage and we put it together.
One of the characteristics of the piece was a left hand fast ostinato part that the piano plays, indicating the storm approaching. I gave that part to the cello, which is the thread that ties that song together. I met Ruti Celli when she and I played with Dave Kerzner’s “In Continuum” on Cruise to the Edge 2019. She plays with so much soul and passion that I couldn’t imagine any other cellist playing on this song!
I’m a huge fan of Fernando Perdomo, especially his “Out to Sea” albums, and his “Zebra Crossing,” which was recorded at Abbey Road Studios. He and I traded guest appearances on each other’s albums, and he knows how to create a soaring out-of-this-world guitar solo!
I met Rachel Flowers at Progstock 2018. When I bought her CD “Going Somewhere,” my first instinct was to see who the musicians were on the album because it sounded so damned good… only to find out it was ALL her! She plays at least a dozen instruments and records and mixes her albums…and she’s been blind since birth! We’ve never had a flute on any of our tracks so I asked her to record her beautiful flute and piano part.
Lastly, Michael Sadler was performing at Progstock 2018 and caught our after-hrs set that night. He really dug the band and was very encouraging and complimentary after our set. This meant so much to us since we are huge Saga fans! Since then, he has given us shout outs at interviews and we had stayed in touch and performed together on Cruise the Edge. I always imagined his soaring vocals on this song, which is a departure for us since I sing most of the leads. It all came together in a very cool way. Michael and his wife are some of the nicest, most gracious people I’ve ever worked with.
As for Rave Tesar, he has engineered and mixed most of my albums going back to 2004. He is an old friend and we work really well together. Rave is also partially blind and has incredible ears that pick up details that I miss, so I know he’s got my back. Rave is the keyboardist/musical director of Renaissance. Since 2017, thanks to my connection with Rave, I had the pleasure to be the concertmaster for numerous Renaissance shows and appear on their last two live DVD’s with my string quartet, Sweet Plantain.
There is a good amount of instrumental work in the performance. How much was composed vs improvised?
I had the structure of “Storm Surge” crystalized in my head, based on the Burgmüller piece. Within that, all the solos were improvised over the form. Everything else was written out. It was important that the cello and the bass matched up, since that part is very specific in the original piece and ties everything together.
Do you envision more work with this group?
I would love to work with all of these beautiful artists again! We shall see... We have many more songs coming out with the core members of Stratospheerius and other surprise guests as well.
Getting back to the inspiration for Storm Surge, while the piece itself is not overtly political, how comfortable do you feel in speaking out on social issues? A lot of musicians fear backlash. Were any issues discussed before recording?
I think every artist wrestles about whether or not they want to be political in their music. It’s a personal choice and there is no right or wrong approach. Some feel that taking a political side will alienate half of their audience. What bothers me is when people judge an artist for expressing a point of view. In some people’s view, you’re supposed to just “shut up and play yer guitar.” Music and art is the most exciting for me when it comes from an honest place is not afraid to piss some people off. In this song, we made a conscious decision to reference the times we live in but in a more metaphorical way. I always knew the lyrics would be about anxiety dreams which I have had about stormy seas, and when the pandemic hit, and later all the racial tension and protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the uncertainty and polarization in our political climate, the wildfires in California, lord knows there’s a LOT to be anxious about these days, so the words just fell into place.
Storm Surge rocks with some wicked sections but it does resolve with an uplifting hopeful sound. Was that intentional?
Thank you! The original piece that inspired it is in a minor key, but ends in a major key, symbolizing that the storm is over and the sun is coming out. I wanted to stay true to that because it’s beautiful epilogue. Also, I am an eternal optimist and believe that we will come out of this dark time and see the sun again! I’m glad that listeners seem to be interpreting it that way so the message I intended came across successfully.
‘Storm Surge’ by Joe Deninzon