Adding a touch of jazz

Renee Rosnes to perform at the BMA

November 08, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Renee Rosnes wants to get one thing straight: Jazz is not, by any means, a dying art. Granted, the music hasn't been in the forefront of pop for decades. And the genre, over the years, has been relegated to the halls of academia and treated as if it were a dusty artifact in a museum. But this stylish, hard bop-influenced pianist still believes in the viability of the music.

"I wish there were more gigs available for jazz musicians," says Rosnes, who performs at the Baltimore Museum of Art Nov. 16.

"The music is very much alive," Rosnes says in a phone interview from her New Jersey home. " It's still in its infancy. Jazz affords another level of personalizing the music, of expressing yourself."

The Canadian artist, whose latest album for the storied Blue Note label is Renee Rosnes and the Danish Radio Big Band, is one of those under-the-radar players who hasn't broken into the mainstream yet - though her sound is thoroughly accessible. Rosnes' homegirl, Canadian jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall, owns Grammys and platinum plaques. It also doesn't hurt that Krall is a blonde whose sultry features smolder in pictures. And Verve, her record label, makes sure to use plenty of sexy but tasteful shots in Krall's marketing campaigns.

Rosnes, whose first name is pronounced RE-KNEE, is widely respected in the field - a composer, arranger and stylist of remarkable skill and shimmering fluidity.

She was born March 24, 1962, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. In high school, a passionate music teacher introduced her to jazz and the recordings of Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and fellow Canadian jazz pianist, the legendary Oscar Peterson.

"It was a very natural thing for me to get into jazz," says the 41-year-old pianist. "The art of improvisation is very interesting, and I enjoy having musical conversations with other musicians."

After graduation, she polished her skills in clubs around Vancouver, developing a natural ear for complex harmonic structures. In 1986, when she was 24, Rosnes won a grant from the Canada Council of the Arts to study her craft in New York City. To quote Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, Rosnes' ascent on the do-or-die scene was "no crystal stair." She haunted jam sessions around the Lower East Side and the Village. Being a woman in a testosterone-soaked field, it was a given that she would encounter resistance. The artist didn't pour herself into tight dresses and croon at the piano, so male players (despite the impressive history of such female jazz pianists as Mary Lou Williams, Dorothy Donegan and Patrice Rushen) didn't pay Rosnes much attention. Until she played. She jammed on the keys with a tender force, spinning intelligent lines that danced around the melody.

But there was still much to learn.

"It takes a great passion and determination and love for what you do," Rosnes says. "The years in New York weren't easy. There was a lot of homework involved, but that's with anything you want to do."

Terri Lynne Carrington, the respected female drummer, helped Rosnes secure a prime spot in Joe Henderson's band. That gig lead to dates with Wayne Shorter, James Moody and J.J. Johnson. In 1988, Rosnes put out her self-titled debut, which featured mostly standards from such legends as Cole Porter and Thelonious Monk. Eight other titles, including the critically lauded Without Words (1992) and the blues-suffused Art & Soul (1999), followed. And Rosnes found frequent work on the international jazz club and festival circuit.

Her latest effort, an 8-cut session with the Grammy-winning, 39-year-old Danish Radio Big Band, hit the streets in July.

Rosnes says, "I was invited by the orchestra to come and do some gigs with them a year prior to when the CD was recorded. And it was so much fun. I was invited back, and we did this album."

The result is a strong set teeming with the pianist's liquid lines, the band's serpentine brass charts and in-the-pocket grooves.

"It's a little more challenging with a big band," the pianist says. "But Danish Radio Big Band has been together for many years. They're used to playing with different artists."

Next week at the BMA, Rosnes' trio will include her husband, drummer Billy Drummond. The two married in 1990 and have a son, Dylan, now 5 years old. When she's not on the road or in the studio, Rosnes teaches in Juilliard's jazz program, a stint she began last year.

"There are a great many wonderful musicians out here," Rosnes says. "A lot of the passing-on is not just on the bandstand; it's oral. I'm glad for the opportunity to work with younger artists. I'm glad this music will be in good hands."

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