KJ Denhert makes her own music, her own way
August 1, 2008
ASPEN ” When KJ Denhert began playing guitar as a teenager in the Bronx, it cemented the idea that Denhert was different. For one thing, unlike all the other aspiring musicians who could spend endless hours in their rooms with their six-strings, Denhert wasn’t a male. For another, probably related to her gender, Denhert didn’t care to play the simple, iconic Rolling Stones riff that everyone else perfected.
“It seemed they were all playing ‘Jumping Jack Flash,'” said Denhert from her home in Ossining, just north of New York City. “It left me on my own. Instead of hanging out with other kids, I was working on the music that interested me. I was the nerd.”
Denhert’s interest was in something softer, and more sophisticated, than Keith Richards’ quintessential piece of rock ‘n’ roll. She liked Brazilian music, the songwriting craft of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, the jazzy touch Steely Dan lent to rock.
But eventually, after a short stint at Cornell University, and a year with a “show” band that featured three dancers seemingly pulled off the set of “Solid Gold,” Denhert found a use for guitar-oriented, testosterone-inspired rock. Denhert spent the first half of the ’80s as lead guitarist for Fire, an all-female band that played AC/DC, the Stones and the like. That music had its effect on the studious loner.
“We were doing it, playing real rock. It was an eye-opener for me,” said the 50-year-old Denhert, who makes her Aspen debut Monday, Aug. 4 at Belly Up, in a concert that benefits the Nature Conservancy. “I discovered some of the appeal of rock ‘n’ roll was the release, playing loud, with gusto. I didn’t play that as a kid, but some of my stage persona comes from emulating Angus Young, jumping around the stage. It opened my ears and eyes to the world.”
That period ” which she refers to as “my seven years in Spandex” ” didn’t exactly inspire Denhert to join the boys club of Jimi, Eddie, Keith and Stevie Ray. But in playing aggressive music to rowdy crowds, she did find release. And in Denhert, it took the form of a determination to play original music, her music, rather than trotting out familiar covers, or being the sideman in someone else’s group. It took another seven years, and devoting much of her attention to her day job, in the business offices of the Dannon Yogurt company.
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But at the age of 35, Denhert emerged with her own label, Mother Cyclone, and released “Songs From the Casa del Wacko.” She has since released six more albums and quit the day job. On her most recent album, last year’s “Lucky 7,” there are hints of Joan Armatrading and Steely Dan-style fusion, and of jazz singer Cassandra Wilson on the album’s one cover tune, a version of “Over the Rainbow.” But the mix of Brazilian accents, soft guitar grooves, and the blending of pop and jazz, Denhert finds to be a sound of her own.
“I started to understand how reality is formed,” said Denhert, “that the world is really what you make it. And for me, I wound up back at the music that had influenced me, my love of Sergio Mendes, Brazil ’66. ‘What’s My Name'” ” a three-part suite that is the centerpiece of “Lucky 7″ ” “that’s my version of what Brazilian music can sound like.”
Denhert has hardly abandoned her rock years. Another upcoming release, “Dal Vio a Umbria Jazz,” recorded live at an Italian jazz festival, features a 10-minute version of the Police’s “Message in a Bottle,” and she also covers the Beatles, Van Morrison and Bill Withers. Moreover, she doesn’t want to occupy the background in the way some jazz singers do.
“I don’t want to just play quiet jazz standards,” she said. “I want to run through the gamut of emotions that I’ve experienced through my career.” Of her ability to play the rock-guitar goddess, she says, “Just singing and songwriting weren’t enough.”
As a younger woman, Denhert learned to read music charts and transpose keys ” highfalutin skills that often embarrassed her. But those years of blasting arena-rock riffs lifted Denhert out of nerdiness, and taught her a less cerebral way of thinking about music.
“I knew that as a girl, and as a bright girl ” was valedictorian of my class in elementary school and middle school ” I wanted to be the best female guitar player in the world,” she said. “At this point, it’s not important to be the best at anything. It’s just important to express myself. And I wound up with something that’s very definitely my own.
“What do people really want to hear? I found I could play fantastic guitar or lousy guitar, and people didn’t care. They just want to hear what you’re saying or singing.”
Several other guitar gods of the more typical variety ” male, focused almost exclusively on their instrumental skills, probably interested in being the best guitarist in the world ” also make their way to the valley in the weeks ahead.
Robben Ford returns to the valley with an appearance on Aug. 14 in the Snowmass Free Concert Series on Fanny Hill. Ford, who moves between an instrumental jazz-fusion style and electric blues, will be in his blues form, arriving on the heels of the 2007 album, “Truth.”
Bluesman Kenny Wayne Shepherd performs Aug. 18 at Belly Up. Shepherd emerged 12 years ago as a teenage phenom with “Ledbetter Heights,” an album that earned him a Guitar World magazine ranking of No. 3, behind only B.B. King and Eric Clapton. Shepherd, now 31, paid tribute to his guitar heroes with last year’s “10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroad,” a CD/DVD project which had him traveling the South, finding old Delta bluesmen to jam with.
The next generation of blues players is represented by David Jacobs-Strain, a 24-year-old Oregon product who sticks to the Delta traditions of slide and finger-style guitar. Jacobs-Strain makes his local debut Aug. 20 at Belly Up, opening for soul singer Boz Scaggs.
Colorado power trio Rose Hill Drive, led by guitar-slinger Daniel Sproul, returns to Belly Up on Aug. 28. The group’s new album, “Moon Is the New Earth,” is a step away from the ’70s-era rock they began with ” but not too big a step.
And Warren Haynes, of Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band, takes off the guitar hero outfit to play two stripped-down, solo shows, Sept. 1-2, at Belly Up that will focus on the songs and his singing. Most likely, the fans will know not to expect any 10-minute solos.