Renowned bassist/composer/educator/community activist Jeff Denson and a small group of colleagues have formed Ridgeway Arts, Inc. – a multi-faceted San Francisco Bay Area-based 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation. Two years in the planning, Ridgeway Arts is built upon a series of initiatives designed to enhance and fortify the Bay Area scene, and to make a strong contribution to the national landscape of jazz and the arts in general.
While Jeff Denson’s vision provides an extremely significant force, the spirit of partnership and collective effort are also major components of the organization’s direction. Ridgeway’s imperative is built upon a four-pronged plan of expression, education, presenting and documentation, all with a clear focus upon revenue production leading to self-sustenance. They include:
- Jeff Denson performance and composing activities
- Education/community outreach
- Ridgeway Presents
- Ridgeway Records
DownBeat Magazine praises Jeff Denson for his “considerable gifts as an improviser, interpreter and sonic trailblazer…” The activities of his own ensembles as well as those of his two cooperative groups, all take place under the Ridgeway umbrella. They include The Jeff Denson Trio plus, a fixed trio of Jeff on bass, pianist Dan Zemelman and drummer Alan Hall, augmented by a special guest artist. For the past year, this guest has been the legendary alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, with whom Jeff has had a decade-long relationship. In Summer 2015, the group released their debut Ridgeway Records release Jeff Denson Trio plus Lee Konitz. The band is just back from a highly successful October 2015 European tour to support the record, one of many US and international tours.
Denson’s two cooperative ensembles are also part of the Ridgeway family. Electreo is an adventurous electric group, featuring Jeff on electric bass and vocals, with Grammy-winning virtuoso bassoonist Paul Hanson, and Hall on drums. The group has been performing regularly in the Bay Area and has been developing a strong and loyal audience for its unique and genre-defying approach to modern music. The San Francisco String Trio is a collaboration with another pair of internationally renowned musicians – Grammy-winning violinist Mads Tolling and guitarist Mimi Fox. Together they have developed The Sgt. Pepper Project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of the groundbreaking Beatles album.
All of these ensembles will be represented at the 2016 Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) Conference in January as part of the UNITY Arts Alliance, of which Ridgeway and Jeff are founding members.
Denson’s composing is multi-leveled. In addition to composing for his own small ensembles and Electreo, Jeff also composes large-scale works, and has been working on a three-act chamber opera entitled WEBS.
The Educational/ Community Outreach component has been developed in conjunction with the California Jazz Conservatory (CJC) under Dr. Jeff Denson’s position at the prestigious college as Director of Outreach and full-time professor. The program has a triple purpose of 1) exposing primary and secondary students to the profound legacy of jazz; 2) providing opportunities for young musicians to learn from and perform with top professionals of both local and national renown; and 3) fortifying the Bay Area scene to make it attractive to graduating students to remain in the area to make their professional contributions to the jazz legacy.
Ridgeway Presents is the organization’s curating program that will be launched in 2016 in five separate cities in the Bay Area. Presentations will feature national artists, local musicians of varying statures, and emerging student ensembles from the CJC and high school jazz programs. Part of the program is focused upon allowing young talent to share the stage with professionals to restore “learning on the bandstand” that has been such an important, but recently too often neglected element in the development of outstanding talent throughout the history of jazz. Final arrangements are being made in the development of the partnerships with venues and institutions that will be involved with the program. Ridgeway Presents will also be working nationally on exchange programs with the curating activities of other members of the UNITY Arts Alliance.
Ridgeway Records has been conceived with an innovative plan in a partnership mode where the artists share revenue, team resources, marketing and distribution – all integrated within the overall plans of Ridgeway Arts.
The first album – the aforementioned Jeff Denson Trio plus Lee Konitz – was released in the summer of 2015. There are currently four new projects in motion. Alan Hall’s six-member Ratatet, featuring Denson and Hanson, along with trombonist John Gove, vibraphonist Dillon Vado and Greg Sankovich on keyboards – and described by Hall as “a modern-oddball-jazz sextet” – will be releasing its debut album Arctic in March 2016. Denson takes another angle on his Trio plus concept with a new permanent quartet that adds Paul Hanson to the mix, and their recording will be issued later that year. The Sgt. Pepper Project, with its fresh and innovative take on the revered album’s compositions is slated for early 2017 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original release. Other upcoming albums will include the first album by Electreo, as well as Paul Hanson’s Homecoming, a sweeping exploration of Jewish music for a sextet of bassoon, violin, guitar, cello, bass and drums
Denson, who has developed a productive ongoing relationship with the famed Fantasy Studios, serves as producer and/or executive producer on all of the label’s projects.
Management and development assistance for all of Ridgeway’s activities is provided by an experienced and accomplished team of associates working directly within Ridgeway Arts, and are also supported on a national basis by the other members of the UNITY Arts Alliance.
As extensive as the current programs may be, groundwork is being laid for additional projects including Ridgeway Publishing (educational books by Denson and other extraordinary educators); and a series of podcasts about the Bay Area scene with 27 episodes already recorded and new episodes being prepared for a national focus. With all of these initiatives, Ridgeway’s impact upon the Bay Area and national scenes will undoubtedly be a profound one.
As Denson says: “Ridgeway Arts is here to lend a voice to the remarkable creativity in our communities and to work to bring it to the people who are hungry for it.”
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