Denis (or Denny, as we all call him) originally hails from Mauritius but has lived here in South Africa for most of his life. Denny is one of SA’s first call bassists and is one of the busiest low-end session men in the country. I was privileged to play some duets with Denny at a South African Bass Collective recital evening in November 2007 and was astounded by his articulation, precision, speed and execution. This man plays every note as though it’s the last he’ll ever play. Although he makes no mention of it in this interview, Denny’s secret is his HUGE ears – he’s the fastest listener this side of the Equator.
[Martin] How long have you been playing Denny?
[Denny] I’ve been playing Bass for about 36 years.
[Martin] You played drums before you played bass. Was there anything you tried your hand at before the drums?
[Denny] I’m the 2nd to last in a family of 6 (2 girls and 4 boys – in that order) and my oldest brother Gerard was into the shadows, Beatles, Cliff Richard and he played Guitar and Bass so I started playing guitar at the age of 8.
[Martin] What other instruments do you play?
[Denny] Apart from guitar and drums, I love percussion and although I never did a gig on perc, I used to drive my family and teachers mad by constantly tapping out rhythms on anything I could lay my hands on.
[Martin] Do you come from a musical family?
[Denny] Yes, my whole family played something or sang at one point. My father was a judge of the Supreme Court but he played the Banjo as a youngster and the Piano later.
[Martin] How did you make the transition from drums to bass?
[Denny] When I was 16, a guy at school came to me and said: “You play drums, right?’ I said yes. He said: “Good. We need a bass player; will you come and play with us?” I said: “I told you I play drums”. He said: “If you can play drums, you can play bass, so will you come and play?” I thought about it for a few seconds and said “Ok.” I have never looked back since…
[Martin] Have you taken formal musical training?
[Denny] I was born and raised in the island of Mauritius and I absorbed an incredible amount of rhythm from growing up there – our local music there is called the “Sega” which has a kind of 6/8 feel. I absolutely love 6/8’s, be it the Yellowjackets’ type or the African or Latin type. I feel very grateful for whatever I have absorbed as a musician that even the local musicians here have said, “if I close my eyes, I would swear that I was listening to a black bass player”…
I never had any formal training whatsoever. I learned everything I know by listening to and copying/transcribing whatever music I loved at the time. In my early 20’s I felt the urge to do studio work and thought to myself “I’d better learn how to read, then!” and proceeded to learn and practice reading on my own. I’ve been doing session work ever since…
At the age of 20 or so I was “discovered” by a Brazilian pianist called Izzio Gross who took me under his wing when he found I had a certain affinity for Latin music. I played with him for 3 years and I’m ever grateful to him for influencing me, teaching me and pointing me in the right direction as far as Latin music is concerned. Because he was a personal friend of his since their early days in Brazil, I had the privilege of meeting and recording with the great Drummer/Percussionist Airto Morreira and sax player Gary Meek. It is also because my “apprenticeship” under him that much later on, when I was called to play with Steel Pan virtuoso Andy Narell, I was able to handle the gig in such a way that Andy insisted on having me play with him on all his subsequent visits to South Africa. What an honor!!! We even recorded a live double album here entitled “Andy Narell – Live in South Africa”. That album was reviewed by “Bass Player” magazine and they gave me a really favorable review, which was very validating for me.
[Martin] It’s quite incredible that you’ve taught yourself. A friend of mine that came to you for some lessons was totally amazed one day, at the way you flew through the modes with your left hand while writing out his homework with the other hand – he felt like giving up there and then.
[Denny] It’s not at all what it sounds like – I can explain… No, really, it must have looked more impressive than it actually was – I was probably just going through the notes with my left hand to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake with what I was writing down…
[Martin] Who are the musicians that have influenced your career?
[Denny] The Beatles, Shadows, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Genesis, Stan Getz, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock (Paul Jackson), Anthony Jackson (BIG TIME!), Izzio Gross, Clare Fischer, Yellowjackets, Michal Urbaniak (Polish fusion violinist), Slipknot, System of a Down (yes, you read right…)
[Martin] What instruments have you owned over the years?
[Denny] Chronologically (The ones in bold I still have): Hofner Beatle Bass, Fender Mustang Bass, Fender Jazz, Fender Precision, Musicman 4 String Stingray, Double Bass (no-name…), Yamaha, Roland GR77, Warwick 6 String Thumb Bass, Yamaha John Patitucci signature, Yamaha TRB1005F 5 String Fretless, NS 5 String Upright electric, Yamaha JM2 (John Myung).
[Martin] What are you playing currently?
[Denny] Mainly the Yamaha JM2 and the NS. Sometimes the Warwick and the Yamaha fretless. I use the Jazz Bass on some rock or punk sessions. I have a small Ampeg combo (B3), I also have an Ampeg SVT 3 Pro head two EBS speakers – one 10″ and one 12″. And I use the EBS Micro Bass II DI box.
[Martin] Are you an endorser of these products?
[Denny] I endorse YAMAHA products and AMPEG amplifiers.
[Martin] Any chance of us seeing a Yamaha DL signature bass in the near future?
[Denny] I honestly don’t know – I would be very humbled and feel very proud if that had to happen but if you ask my colleagues or the person who helps me set up my instruments, you’ll find out that I am not very fussy. I probably would be able to design a Bass I really like though if I were to be given the opportunity. I guess that would be really nice, now that you mention it!
[Martin] What projects have you been involved in over the last five years?
[Denny] Hundreds of studio recordings including albums, radio and TV commercials, live DVD recordings; I’ve also been involved in many live shows where I’m part of the “house” band backing many different artists as well as corporate functions and some Jazz/Latin gigs.
I’ve played at the North Sea Jazz festival at The Hague with Paul Hanmer as well as the Cully Jazz festival near Lausanne in Switzerland. I also play at many of the local festivals around the country here (SA) such as KKNK, Inniebos, Aardklop, Cultivaria etc
I’ve been part of the Idols TV show band since its inception in SA as well as “Skouspel” (the biggest Afrikaans yearly extravaganza) for the past 8 years or so, which is also televised, recorded for CD and DVD. I’m also on some other Afrikaans TV show series such as “Sweepslag” (current and past) and “My Storie” (showing early next year (Jan 2009).
Some of the more noteworthy projects I’ve been part of have been:
* Andy Narell (recording and live)
* Dan Siegel (live)
* Miriam Makeba – Reflecting (2003 studio recording)
* Louis Mhlanga – Shamwari (studio recording)
* Hugh Masekela (studio recording, TV show and a few live jams here and there)
* Zamajobe – MTV video award winner (studio and live)
[Martin] What are your goals – long term and short term?
[Denny] I intend carrying on doing whatever I’ve been doing all along. I intend expanding my horizons by doing more work online – I already do this for various clients/studios locally. I’d love to market myself globally for that sort of thing whereby a client would send me tracks with certain instructions and I would lay down the bass here at my studio and send the bass tracks back to them. I know that I have plenty of experience and passion and that I could possibly give a different feel (where necessary and in that way contribute a fresh approach to the music. I am busy creating a website for that very purpose.
I have so many ideas stashed away on my computer that I’m hoping to use to create an album/project.
I love playing and don’t intend stopping any time soon – I’m so grateful to have been able to support my family for what is actually a lifetime in spite of never having had a proper job…
[Martin] Your daughter is currently carving a solo career for herself and this is one of your main focuses at the moment – could you tell us a little bit about it?
[Denny] I’ll try and be as succinct as I can about this:
Véronique has been a source of inspiration to me since she was 14 or so. She showed a keen musical ear since much earlier (4 yrs old) but at 14 she said she’d like to check out the Jazz thing. So, when I was in Singapore on a gig, a friend of mine suggested I buy a Rachel Ferrell CD. When I returned home I suggested she learn Rachel’s version of “Blackbird”. 15 minutes later or so she comes to me and says, “Ok, I got it”. So I skeptically follow her to her room and there she sings along with the CD to the whole thing – including ALL the scatting – note for note, this song she had never heard before. That’s when I realized that she had an incredible ear. She went on from there to be a respected artist in her own right, did the Idols thing for exposure, recorded her debut album “As I Am” and is still climbing the musical “corporate ladder”. Producers love working with her because she’s so quick and I love working with her because I always learn from the way she approaches music.
[Martin] What advice would you give to a youngster starting out on a music career?
[Denny] You don’t choose music – music chooses you. It has to be that way for me. Once you have established that you really want to make music your life, I would give you these following tips (from my own experience and from observing others):
* Keep up to date with whatever is going on around you in your chosen field.
* Never become complacent – you never stop learning.
* No one is indispensable.
* Be ethical
* Be punctual. Always.
* Be reliable – don’t suddenly drop a gig and take on another because the pay is better. You can always discuss the matter with the first client, but if he/she insists, you should honor your commitment.
* Having a positive attitude, being amiable and communicative is just as important, if not more important, than being excellent on your instrument.
I would like, if I may, just express my views about reading, writing and theory of music in general:
* This may not appeal to all but it is what I feel personally: Just like a child first learns to understand language and eventually starts to speak and converse, so can it be with music. The child only starts to learn to read and write once he/she can already speak – why should it be any different for music?
* You will have decided on an instrument you would like to play. Start learning how to play from someone who can play it already. Learn lots of tunes by ear and from friends who can help you along. Develop your ear by working out tunes you like on your own. By now you will have learned to “talk and converse” musically.
* You are now free to learn to read and write and further your education any way you wish…
* I have observed that this way, a person is far more likely to develop a good ear, and so can “jam and busk” easier and be more musical in general than coming from a “first read and write – play later” background.
[Martin] It’s quite amazing how your attitude is so positive all the time. There’s another top professional bassist that lives on the other side of Johannesburg that would rather be off doing a spot of fishing with his buddy than playing his bass – he regards his career more like one would look at a routine 9-5 kind of job. What kind of advice would you give to someone with that approach?
[Denny] Hey, each to his own! If he can be a top professional bassist and still have that attitude then good luck to him! All I know is that producers will eventually feel if you are genuinely passionate about giving them what they want or if you’re pretending. Maybe he’s a very good actor…
[Martin] Thanks for your time Denny
[Denny] Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences with you…