LIVE in the Age of COVID: KJ Denhert & the New York Unit @ Live at the Falcon, Marlboro, 8/14/20

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As someone who’s dedicated most of his life to turning folks on to what’s good and cool, this is a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true: The primary process for people finding out about artists & musicians is STILL one friend telling another friend, “Dude! You HAVE to hear (Insert Artist or Band Name here)!” Oh, well. In the words of someone who plays a statesman on TV, “It is what it is.”

In the case of singer / songwriter KJ Denhert, my hook-up was James Ketterer, drummer for the Arch Stanton Quartet: Ketterer was a cultural attaché for the US embassy in Egypt when he booked KJ and her band to play both the embassy and the Cairo Jazz Festival in 2013, and he had been a fervent fan ever since. Every time I went down to NYC, James urged me to check out Denhert’s regular slot at 55 Bar in the West Village – an opportunity I kept missing for one reason or another. A few years (and one pandemic) later, Denhert was added to the schedule for Live @ the Falcon’s outdoor concert series, and there was no way I was missing it.

Like so many other musicians, COVID has kept Denhert on the shelf for far too long: This show was the first time KJ and her crew had taken the stage since their last appearance at 55 back in March. With a resplendent hairdo and a team of black Martin electric/acoustic guitars by her side, Denhert didn’t make it easy on herself, opening her first set with “What’s My Name”, a song with three movements that detailed the changes she’d been through; as Denhert put it in her introduction, “I’ve been Peter Pan for too long, and now I’m growing up!”

The piece started pensive but picked up fast, and the set got to bouncing with the same earthy mash-up of jazz and folk Kenny Rankin made a career out of. Like Rankin, Denhert has got more than a few hot licks in her bag, and she spread a few of them through the song as Etienne Stadwyjk acted as a sharp foil and sizzling second soloist. Stadwyjk processed his background vocals through the laptop to the left of his keyboards, but he only did it once, so I didn’t hold it against him. He’d show off his own array of licks when the band jammed out during the second set, but at this point in the proceedings, it was all about Denhert’s personal, evocative lyrics and an overall vibe that evoked Joni Mitchell and Phoebe Snow back in the day: Denhert even closed the set with a short medley of Mitchell classics.

Denhert has a voice that’s as big as all outdoors, but she uses that voice like a surgeon wields a scalpel. She vocalized beautifully over Stadwyck’s rideout on “Name”, and then took us all right into the heart of the beast that hunts us all on “We Were Diamonds.” (“This is about being afraid in high school, and still going on!”) KJ made us feel the fear and frustration, but we also felt nostalgia for the people she knew and the people she lost. “Diamonds” is a new song that hasn’t been recorded yet, “But it will,” Denhert assured us. The reggae anthem “Choose Your Weapon” did appear on her Motema release Album No. 9, and KJ had our fists up and clenched when she quoted Bob Marley’s own anthem “Get Up, Stand Up” towards the end of the piece.

In addition to being a crackerjack lyricist that happily opens a window into her past, Denhert is also a killer interpreter of jazz and rock. She did a lovely solo-guitar take on the Great American Songbook classic “I Remember You”, which then led into a jammed-up version of “Happy Birthday to You” made especially for WVKR 91.3 announcer Rita Ryan. Lennon and McCartney’s “Help” was morphed from a howling cry to a whispered plea, and Van Morrison’s “Moondance” had more funk then even Van the Man could have handled. KJ dedicated the latter tune to a regular at her 55 Bar residency that came up to Marlboro for the show. “He always says, ‘It sounds different every time you play it,’” Denhert said, adding slyly, “That’s ‘cause we’re professionals, Mike!”

Most of this group has been together since 1997, so the vibe and the chemistry goes way beyond “professional” and dives deep into “family.” Denhert and Stadwyjk are the musical version of an old married couple, finishing each other’s sentences and providing what the other needs without being asked. Mamadou Ba’s bass lines were so phat and tasty, Tony DeFalco might put them on the Falcon’s menu, and drummer Ray Levier has the same kind of touch with the drums that Denhert has with her voice, finessing what needed to be finessed and banging what needed to be banged. On the other end of the chronological scale, guitarist Mark McIntyre was 2 years old when this band got together. (“I was waiting for him to mature,” Denhert laughed, “and boy, has he!”) Even so, his own razor-sharp chops opened up the music and let KJ add hot rhythm guitar to Ba and Levier’s adamantine foundation.

Prior to this evening, what little I knew of Denhert stretched to her two-song cameo on pianist Lynne Arriale’s Challenge Records release Chimes of Freedom. After this night, KJ Denhert is firmly associated with that well-known tortured cry, “Where has this been all my life?” Hey, it serves me right. I should have listened to my friends a little harder.

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