- Classical gas: Joe Deninzon mates Stravinsky with the Stones.
Quick: Name three rock violinists. If you're a '60s person, you might remember Jerry Goodman of the Flock, and Jean-Luc Ponty is an obvious choice (though he's more jazz than rock). But who else is there? Mark O'Connor is primarily country; Nigel Kennedy mainly classical, despite his taste for Hendrix. Scarlet Rivera? Great, but since working with Dylan in the '70s, she's largely been a niche player. As for locals, the closest thing to a jazz violin dynamo is Michael Dreyfus, recently of Cletus Black, way back of McKendree Spring.
Maybe it's time for another rock violin hero. Ready, willing, eager -- and able --to fill the bill is Joe Deninzon, Russia-born, Cleveland-bred and -schooled, New York resident and aficionado for the last five years. "I've gotten to a place where I'm creating honest music, where I'm not chasing a trend, not trying to be Joe Rockstar," he says. "I've finally found what I want to do. Trends come and go, but there is an audience for what I do, and it's growing. Anyone can find their audience if they stay true to themselves."
The way Deninzon stays true to himself is through Stratospheerius, his name for his violin, his project, his group -- and, somewhat amplified, his new CD, The Adventures of Stratospheerius. Independently released on D Zone Entertainment, The Adventures is a long, passionate work packed with jazz strains, rock energy, and aptitude for the sweet pop ballad (in "Sun Goes Down"), as well as Deninzon's earnest, raspy vocals and his soaring, witty violin. It's largely Deninzon originals, and they're all over the map, spanning the complicated "Pleasurepain," the appropriately jumpy instrumental "Ants in the Pants," and "Storytime," a twisted tale with appropriate roller-coaster fiddle.
Deninzon and his group also bite into Stevie Wonder's "Contusion" and Vince Guaraldi's appealing "Peppermint Patty," and they roast Wayne Shorter's challenging "Nefertiti" to a hip-hop-inflected turn. They summarize their passions and influences on "Chunga Changa," a funky romp by one Vladimir Shainsky. They're all over the map, and they come in various configurations.
"I'm a musical whore," says Deninzon. "I play with anyone and everyone. Anyone who pays me." He is busy indeed: Not only does he play Cleveland frequently; he works Detroit, New York City (and other New York municipalities), even Indianapolis, where he just performed in that city's International Violin Competition, along with country violin authority Mark O'Connor and Natalie MacMaster, a hot Celtic fiddler.
Primarily, however, Deninzon is involved in his own group. The touring version includes Alex Skolnick, a guitarist who used to work in the thrash metal band Testament and occasionally graces the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, drummer Luciana Padmore, and bassist Ron Baron.
Born 27 years ago in St. Petersburg, Deninzon and his two sisters moved to the U.S. when he was four. His father, Vladimir, is a violinist with the Cleveland Orchestra. His mother, Luba, is a pianist who, he says, is heavily involved in Cleveland's classical music community. "When we came to America and I started watching MTV and listening to the radio, I fell in love with rock and roll," Deninzon says. "I always loved to sing, and I started teaching myself guitar and electric bass, and writing pop songs." At Brush High School, he formed several bands in the vein of Zeppelin, Kiss, and the Who -- not to mention the Beatles.
Deninzon also played bass in the high school jazz band, where he began to appreciate the likes of Pat Metheny and John Coltrane. Seeing Miles Davis on the trumpeter's last tour in 1990 "was one of the life-changing experiences," he says. By the end of high school, Deninzon's head was filled up with music -- music that sometimes conflicted. By the time he got into Indiana University, he didn't know what kind of musician to be.
"I couldn't make up my mind which I wanted to do more, when it was time to leave the house and go out into the real world," he says. "I knew I wanted to be a musician. At one point, the worlds crisscrossed. Michael Stanley asked me to play violin in his band. I was 17. I had never improvised on the violin until that point." When Deninzon soloed during a Stanley concert at the late, lamented Front Row Theater in Highland Heights in 1991, he knew what he should do: pursue nonclassical violin. "I should apply the violin to jazz and rock, which I love so much" is what he learned. "Not that many people can do that on the violin, and it makes me stand out."
So at Indiana University, he majored in both jazz and classical violin. "My problem was, I was a misfit: too rocky for the jazz people, too jazzy for the rock people, and for the classical people, I was from outer space," he says. "I'm myself. With this group, I've combined all the different types of music I'm into in one hybrid. I feel like I've created my own style, in a sense, taking the elements of all my favorite music, from Stravinsky to [the] Mahavishnu [Orchestra]."
Not only is Deninzon's music generating a gang of gigs; it's being broadcast all over the world. It's even getting airplay in Russia, where Deninzon last traveled in 1989. "I'm getting airplay in Siberia and St. Petersburg off this new record," he says. "It's really amazing, because people are finding me on the Internet [www.joedeninzon.com]. I've had DJs e-mail me from Armenia, from Croatia, from Siberia, from Turkey. The Internet's an amazing thing. There's no way some tiny radio station in Armenia could have discovered me otherwise."
The reach fits nicely with Deninzon's diversity. Besides Stratospheerius, he's working with a world music group and with Sevenwiser, a rock group from Long Island that evokes Nickelback and Creed. He's even starting to play music with his wife, Yulia, a classical violinist he met at Indiana. Yulia Deninzon works in the New York Philharmonic.
"She kicks my ass all the time, makes me practice and work harder," says Deninzon. "Good to have around."
We feel the same about Joe.