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Jeff Denson & Joshua White: I’ll Fly Away

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Bassist-composer Jeff Denson has earned a stalwart reputation as a rhythm section standout during his tenure with Lee Konitz’s quartet as well as with the trio Minsarah and his own four-piece ensemble. He takes on the role of co-contributor on his latest two discs, a pair of vastly different but equally compelling duet sessions. The first features stunning renditions of vintage gospel tunes, while the second is a completely improvised date recorded over a two-year period without any overdubs or tweaks.

I’ll Fly Away was initially inspired by performances of gospel tunes Denson delivered at funeral services for his father and maternal grandmother. It pairs him with knockout pianist Joshua White, the second-place finisher at the 2011 Thelonious Monk competition. White’s embellishments, phrasing and harmonic choices are delightful, and elicit masterful complementary responses from Denson. The opening version of the title track (one of three renditions) mixes White’s soaring piano lines and Denson’s steady accompaniment. There’s a gorgeous Denson arco performance of “Amazing Grace” and a wondrous intro to “Down at the Cross” that’s enhanced by White’s contribution. They marvelously retool “When the Saints Go Marching In” and deliver a poignant, sentimental version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Two is the more conceptually ambitious work, 12 pieces recorded without prior collaboration or discussion. The chord changes come spontaneously as the pieces unfold, and the settings range from furious to introspective, though the duo is so attuned to each other that the music never becomes chaotic or unfocused.

Claudio Puntin’s clarinet and bass clarinet work can be beautiful or jarring, but it’s never detached or generic. Some tunes, like “Un Sueño Distante,” “First Take-Scanning Souls” or “Ghosts in the Walls” (all three-and-a-half minutes or less) leave a slighter impression than the longer works like “Harbor of Fog,” “Frozen Oscillations” or “Variation on a Point of View,” where the compositions’ development and the dialogues between Puntin and Denson are given more room to resonate.

Both discs are fine releases, though I’ll Fly Away appeals mostly to those who love melodic interpretation and flamboyance, while Two will hook fans of experimental, edgy material. But as a unit, they’re most emblematic of Jeff Denson’s formidable abilities and idiomatic flexibility.

Originally Published