During her brief trio set at Philadelphia’s inaugural OutBeat Jazz Festival in September, Dena DeRose performed a moving rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that seemed to resonate strongly with the small but enthusiastic crowd. The song’s message of peace and acceptance may have been particularly relevant on this occasion (billed as “America’s First Queer Jazz Festival”), but the audience’s emotional response was typical of DeRose’s performances, according to her longtime drummer Matt Wilson.
“Dena has a really special way of connecting to people,” Wilson said a few hours earlier. “She’s real. Honesty and clarity is what we want, and she offers that with so much grace and so much love.”
On her latest CD, We Won’t Forget You… (HighNote), DeRose directs that love toward her friend and inspiration Shirley Horn. The album is subtitled An Homage to Shirley Horn, which DeRose explains was intended to distinguish it from a “tribute” project. “I tried to bring my own take on some of these tunes, but tried to show the influence of Shirley’s swing,” she says. “Most people know her as a straight balladeer who sang some of the slowest stuff ever, but for me, in the ’60s and ’70s she was really swinging. Her swing was very deep, and most people know that I love to swing.”
DeRose, 48, became familiar with Horn by way of her acclaimed series of recordings on Verve in the 1990s, which helped to introduce the singer and pianist to a new generation of listeners. Having recorded many of Horn’s signature tunes on earlier, unrelated albums, DeRose opted to populate her new project largely with more obscure selections. On some-the breezy swing of “Sunday in New York” or the finger-snapping cool of “Don’t Be on the Outside”-she sticks close to Horn’s original arrangements; on others she takes a more radical approach-most notably on Johnny Mandel’s “A Time for Love,” which she transforms from a poignant ballad into a beaming, uptempo samba.
Horn is best known for her languorous approach to ballads, a style one might not immediately connect with DeRose’s more engaging approach. But DeRose insists that those achingly slow pieces have made an impact on her. “Her use of space and silence, and the patience she takes to tell the story, is something that has influenced me since I first heard her,” DeRose says. “Those are things that I think about all the time, whether I’m making a tribute record to her or anything else. She was just herself, very authentic. She didn’t really sound like anybody else. Maybe in the piano you can hear some Ahmad Jamal and Debussy influence, and I have similar influences.”
There is also the influence of Horn’s dual role as both singer and pianist, which DeRose connects to very directly as a player and vocalist herself. “When she’s singing a line and she goes to play something, it’s coming out of the whole orchestration. It’s all one thing, one musical entity, one musical instrument in a way, just coming out in two ways.”