Louise Denson - Pianist/composer/educator
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Louise Denson is an award-winning pianist, composer and educator based in Hobart, Australia. She grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where she was able to make music a large part of her early life. She completed her undergraduate studies in jazz at St. Francis Xavier University and a Masters of Music at New England Conservatory in Boston, and then made a living playing jazz and latin dance music in Montreal before emigrating to Australia to take up a position at the Queensland Conservatorium, Brisbane. She completed a Doctor of Musical Arts in 2014 and has recently left her position of Senior Lecturer in Jazz Studies.
The family legend is that Louise asked for piano lessons for her fourth birthday. She studied piano, harmony and ear training with Mabel Sanda, Saskatoon’s best (and most feared) music teacher. Four years of studying clarinet came to an end when she had to get braces on both top and bottom teeth. She played cello (and piano) through high school, participating in the Saskatoon Junior Symphony and attending the Fort Qu’Appelle Summer School of the Arts orchestra camp. Her formal music education was reinforced at home by parents who loved music and took her to orchestra and chamber concerts, and a neighbour across the back who spent hours playing piano duets with her, and extolling the virtues of Verdi, Strauss, Wagner, Beethoven, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Glinka, Scriabin…..
A somewhat reluctant performer, Louise had decided by the end of Grade 12 that a career as a concert pianist was definitely not in the cards. She elected to study modern European languages rather than music at the University of Saskatchewan. This provided an opportunity for her knowledge of music other-than-classical to greatly expand. Newfound friends were listening to the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, Brian Eno, Talking Heads, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, John Cale, Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, Ellen Macilwaine, James Cotton, Clifton Chenier, Laurie Anderson, Bonnie Raitt …
Towards the end of her university studies, Louise met some people who were deeply into the old-time folk music tradition and spent many a happy evening sitting around a table playing guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and singing. They were a counter-cultural lot, living on subsistence farms and opting out of the mainstream. Much to her parents’ distress, Louise took up the banjo and started hanging out. But while she was attracted to the communal aspect of this kind of music-making (a world away from solo piano!), and the modality and rawness of the songs, she decided that her commitment did not extend to giving up bathing and central heating to go and live in a wattle hut on the Canadian prairie.
After graduating, she spent a year in France as an English conversation tutor at the Université de Nantes where she was able to continue her banjo studies with a local teacher who was well versed in the folk music of the American east coast. Upon her return to Regina, Saskatchewan where she worked as a bilingual clerk for the federal government, she joined a folk trio called the Stoned Wheat Thins playing banjo, cello, recorders, and singing. The Thins rehearsed a lot and did only a few gigs, but it was a tremendous learning experience, because Louise had never played in a group - other than a symphony orchestra - before.
After a few years of clerking and entertaining the idea of a career in the federal civil service, Louise became aware that it was possible to study jazz in a university degree program. She bought an old upright piano, started listening, transcribing and practicing, and decided to become a professional musician. When she was granted a place in the jazz program at St. Francis Xavier University, she packed up her 1967 Ford Falcon 2-door sedan with the red leatherette interior and drove 4000 kms to her new temporary home in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Bruce Dudley (piano), Andy Weinzler (sax) Terry O’Mahoney (drums), Gene Smith (trombone), Skip Beckwith (bass) and Sandra Dudley (voice) were her excellent and inspirational guides for the next three years, taking her from not being too sure of the chords in an ‘F’ blues, to negotiating (with at least a degree of success) the changes in Richie Beirach’s Veils and Wayne Shorter’s E.S.P.
After completing her B.A. (Music), Louise moved to Montreal, renowned as the jazz capital of Canada. She was disappointed to discover that there were in fact very few jazz gigs outside festival season, and there was no chance that a person could make a living from playing jazz alone. Determined to gain professional experience, she soon found work in the thriving live music scene in the Latin discotheques. She worked variously as pianist, transcribe/arranger and musical director for Joey Armando y su Latin Fire, Ramón Tambora, Pambiche, Sainagua and Banda Caova. Eventually her activities included playing Island music with Jab-Jab, Haitian music with Roro d’Haiti, Eval Manigat and Joe Trujillo, Brazilian music with Marcelo Nascimento and Vovo, as well as running her own Latin jazz combo, ¡A Comer! which was described as “Montreal’s best latin jazz group” in the local press! And of course, as many jazz gigs as possible with Louise Denson Group.
She continued studying, taking a jazz composition course with Andrew Homzy and Joe Sullivan at Concordia University. It is not an exaggeration to say that it changed her life: Louise has been writing ever since, authoring well over 100 compositions and countless arrangements. She also completed a Masters of Music at New England Conservatory in Boston where she studied with Paul Bley, Bevan Manson, George Russell and Joe Maneri, all of whom were deeply influential in her development as a player and composer.
Upon migrating to Australia in 1999, Louise lectured in jazz at the Queensland Conservatorium, Brisbane, acting as area head 2001-2013 and retiring in 2020. Her areas of teaching specialisation were aural studies and composition, although she also taught theory, arranging, a bit of jazz history and of course jazz piano and improvisation. She also acted as co-ordinator of the masters and doctoral research programs 2015-2020.
Louise has released seven CDs under her own name containing many original compositions and arrangements. Nova Nova (2021) received 4 stars in a review in the Weekend Australian (Eric Meyers), while the title track of Dark Sky (Denson Baartz Quartet, 2019) won the North Coast Entertainment Industry Dolphin Award for best jazz composition. "Frangipani" from the same CD was highly commended in the 2021 Queensland Music Awards. Wild Silk Strings Project (2018) is a collaboration with Sunnie Award-winning vocalist Ingrid James, featuring a 9-piece ensemble: rhythm section and vocals, trumpet, saxophone and string trio. The repertoire and arrangements combine elements of jazz, classical, folk and world music.
Louise’s first CD, On the Level (1996), featured four prominent Montreal musicians and the New York-based drummer Gary Fieldman. Clean Start won the 2003 Queensland Sunnie Award for Best Jazz Recording, and featured celebrated Australian horn players Tony Hobbs, John Hoffman and Phil Noy. This was followed by Portrait (2007), her first collaboration with Ingrid James. It included the song Time to Be (Denson/James) which won the QSong Pinnacles Award for best jazz composition (2007). Flame Tree (2010) is a set of ten original Afro-Cuban and Brazilian-themed compositions, featuring Ingrid James and multi-instrumentalist John Stefulj.
Louise’s compositions span across the jazz and classical genres. Her most recent project is the Cooktown Cantata, a 50-minute cross-genre work for soprano, baritone and tenor voices and 6-piece ensemble. It was commissioned by the Vera Scarth-Johnson Association as a signature work for the Cooktown 2020 Discovery Festival commemoration of the landing of Captain Cook and HMB Endeavour. Delayed due to Covid, it was eventually premiered in Brisbane and Cooktown in 2021 to great acclaim.
Louise's work demonstrates a commitment to melody as a primary concern, as well as her love of the rich, harmonic language of the Romantic era and the French school. She was deeply affected by her extended association with Afro-Cuban and Brazilian dance music, and much of her work fuses the rhythmic language of these musical cultures with a western European harmonic sensibility and jazz-based improvisation. Several of her compositions have been recorded by other groups, notably Two Boleros (Muses Trio); Lost my Heart (San Gabriel 7 featuring Ingrid James and Downbeat poll-winning trombonist, Bill Watrous); All I Know (Elly Hoyt; Qld Conservatorium Con Artists); Pondside (Barega Saxophone Quartet); Out of My Way! and Wild December Wind (Qld Conservatorium Saxophone Orchestra). She has completed commissions for the Brisbane International Jazz Festival (2014, 2018), Collusion chamber group (2014), Southern Cross Soloists (2008) and the St. Paul’s Anglican School Senior Big Band (2009). Several of her jazz compositions have been Highly Commended in the jazz and latin categories of the QSong Awards and the Queensland Music Awards. They are published at the Australian Jazz Realbook site, while her scored compositions are published by Wirripang. She is an Associate Member of the Australian Music Centre.
As a performer, Louise has appeared at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, Wangaratta Jazz Festival, Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival, Valley Jazz Festival, Manly Jazz Festival, Noosa Jazz Festival, Brisbane Festival, Broadbeach Jazz Festival and many others. She has collaborated with musicians of national and international renown such as Downbeat poll-winning trombonist Bill Watrous, vocalist Ingrid James, saxophonists Sandy Evans, Julien Wilson, John Mackey, Martin Kay, James Sandon, Frank Lozano and Adrian Cunningham, trumpeters Miro Bukowsky, Aron Doyle, Bob Schultz and Paul Armstrong, pianist Steve Newcomb, bassists Michel Donato, Mike Milligan, Ben Robertson, Helen Russell, Andrew Shaw, drummers Todd Harrison, Paul Hudson, Gary Fieldman, Ronny Ferella, Tony Floyd, Cameron Reid and Paul Leger.