The Face of the Bass: Denson, Zilber and Friends

Jeff Denson

Bass player Jeff Denson plays Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s Jazzschool with saxophonist Mike Zilber

Good bass players are rarely in want of work, but since arriving in the Bay Area two years ago to teach at the Jazzschool Institute, Jeff Denson has been keeping a fairly low profile. Over the past two years he’s generally been too busy teaching or performing internationally with the cooperative trio Minsarah or the octogenarian alto sax legend Lee Konitz to forge ties with Bay Area players, but Sunday afternoon’s Jazzschool gig with saxophonist Mike Zilber offers an opportunity to witness some promising musical relationships taking shape.

One of the most incisive post-Coltrane tenor saxophonists on the West Coast, Zilber is also a dedicated educator who teaches at the Jazzschool Institute and runs the jazz studies program at Los Medanos College. His proximity to Denson led to some informal sessions last year, and when Jazzschool founder Susan Muscarella happened to hear one “she said I want you guys to do something together,” Zilber recalls.

Sunday’s performance features a quartet with the consistently inspired drummer Jeff Marrs and Spanish pianist Alex Conde, a flamenco-steeped player who settled in the Bay Area about two years ago. Zilber and Denson are both bringing in original compositions, promising an afternoon of highly personal, interactive instrumental music.

“Jeff’s got a really powerful vision and focus of what he wants to do,” says Zilber, a long time Albany resident. “He’s got a different flavor.”

Melodically charged and a practitioner of deep listening, Denson has collaborated with an array of revered masters and brilliant contemporaries. Minsarah, his cooperative trio with German pianist Florian Weber (and formerly Israeli drummer Ziv Ravitz), honed such a fluid and quietly volatile approach to group improvisation that Konitz hired them en mass about eight years ago, launching the Lee Konitz New Quartet. The band has recorded several acclaimed albums, including 2010’s “Live at the Village Vanguard” (Enja).

“There’s a lot of risk in the way we play,” Denson says. “We push each other to play different things. It can fail. Lee, his whole career has been like that. He comes in and starts to improvise based on whatever is around him, building these stories note to note. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s an approach to improvising where we don’t know whether it’s going to work out, but it usually does.”

Not surprisingly, word is starting to get out that Denson is in the Bay Area and available for interesting gigs. He’s got several out of town performances accompanying Ethiopian-American singer/songwriter Meklit Hadero next month, and plays a tribute to Thelonious Monk with Berkeley saxophonist Howard Wiley at the Jazzschool on Feb. 17. You can’t keep a good bassist under wraps for long.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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  • Bass4man

    Proofread alert: Paragraph seven sentence two starts with ‘He’s performing got several…’

  • Andrew Gilbert

    Thanks Bass4man, fixed it.

  • shirley kirsten

    I’m a big fan of Lenny Popkin, saxophonist…since you mentioned Konitz.. old flick docu on Lenny Tristano.. and his combo with Konitz….