Jeff Denson, Brian Blade and Romain Pilon – Finding Light
The first time that bassist Jeff Denson and guitarist Romain Pilon got together to record with drummer Brian Blade felt like a lightning strike. Like so many musicians before them, the longtime friends from their days as standout students at Berklee experienced what’s often been described as the Blade Factor, a sudden, clarifying jolt that illuminates the musical moment. Captured in the studio on the 2019 Ridgeway Records album Between Two Worlds, the trio’s debut introduced an uncommon communion that seemed destined for further adventures.
Even two years of pandemic angst hasn’t been able to dim their brilliant chemistry. If anything, the trio’s second album, Finding Light, blazes all the more brightly as an antidote to isolation, anxiety, and despair. Slated for release on Denson’s Ridgeway Records label on September 23, 2022, the project beams with the palpable pleasure the musicians take in each other’s company as they explore new music together in glorious trialogue.
Denson spent the first 18 months of the pandemic keeping the California Jazz Conservatory running online as dean of instruction. Though two years had elapsed between the trio’s last tour and regrouping to record Finding Light, they picked up where they left off, exploring a “sound that evolved because we did a lot of playing and traveling together in 2019 and 2020,” Denson said. “Each time we played together the band kept growing and our sound and direction evolved. Our connection kept intensifying.”
That intensity is evident throughout Finding Light. The trio’s new music reflects both the unbridled joy of gathering together again and the small pleasures (particularly the fur-bearing variety) that eased the surreal passage of pandemic time. The album opens with Denson’s “Daily Jubilee of Dancing Herbie D.” an odd-meter tune inspired by his miniature schnauzer, a smart little dog with a big personality. Bouncing with an irresistible groove in the vicinity of New Orleans, it’s an invitation for an outdoor romp written with Blade and Pilon in mind.
Denson’s title track is a sinuous, singing melody and an imperative. The dance between his bass and Blade’s brushes is so deft and exquisite that the tune builds tension to a delicious peak while maintaining an almost whispered dynamic. When Pilon reenters the conversation, “Finding Light” answers its own call. The light we need is embodied in the musical connection. Denson says, “With this tune, I really wanted to encapsulate a sense of hope – a sense of finding much need light amidst these dark times we’ve all been living through.”
It’s only kind of a coincidence that Pilon’s first tune is also a paean to his pooch. “This Way Cooky” is a slyly grooving number “inspired by some of the funk music I rediscovered during the pandemic,” he said, thinking particularly of Blade’s work with Joshua Redman. With its fierce determination and sinewy rhythmic feel, Cooky is clearly a handful. “On walks I’m always trying to direct him, ‘this way, Cooky,’ and he never goes the way I want,” Pilon explains.
The trio really hit a high point on their tour in February 2020 reaching a new level of interaction and connection that is clearly evident in their live concert videos from the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on Feb. 11, 2020. “That tour was like a musical dream – the trio was on another level!” Denson recalls. “And then less than a month later the world went into a surreal nightmare with the onset of COVID.” “A Moment in Time” was the first piece composed for the album and with it, Denson paints a sonic surrealist landscape of the unknown – inspired by the novelty of the imposed silence and naivety that it would only last a few weeks. “In those first three weeks of the shelter-in-place, like everyone, I was somewhat in shock, and had no idea it would last for such a long time. Sitting alone in my home studio I kept hearing Romain and Brian in my head from our tour in February and their sound mixed with the silence of the world around me and the feelings of bewilderment brought this piece clearly into focus for me.”
Denson transformed his song “Wishing Well,” which he recorded with his vocals on his 2016 album Concentric Circles, into a mysterious instrumental ballad that fits snugly into the trio’s exploratory mission. His piece “The Tipster” is a briskly swinging tune inspired by a frisky feline companion who long kept his mother company, and passed away this past fall. Swing is central to Denson’s musical identity, “and who can swing like Brian?” he says. “I could hear the melody and like ‘Finding Light,’ there’s all this intricate harmony, and all these rhythmic shifts, which kind of reflects Tippy’s personality. He was a wild, playful guy.”
Drawing on his Virginia roots, Denson improvised the bass intro to Pilon’s “Terre,” evoking a bluesy Americana melody and feeling. The tune itself, which means “Earth” in French, is a loving, sometimes ominous ode to our endangered planet inspired by the striking landscape Pilon and his family have inhabited since a pandemic-induced move from Paris to the Brittany coast. The album closes with a disparate pair of Pilon compositions. “Espoir,” which means “hope,” is a spacious anthem that evokes the search for silver linings. With its rock edge and lean beat, the track offers his distilled take on Brian Blade Fellowship, the drummer’s gospel-and-folk-music inspired band. Finding Light concludes with “Sixto,” a piece inspired by the story of Sixto Rodriguez, the musician whose astonishing story was featured in the award-winning 2012 documentary Searching For Sugarman. For a project that’s all about breaking through darkness, the tune’s stutter-stepping ascent evokes a sense of immanent, luminous possibility.
The creative sparks that kindled Finding Light first ignited back in 2017 when Denson joined a tour anchoring Joel Harrison’s Spirit House quintet, which the guitarist/composer built around Blade. “Brian and I clicked right away,” Denson says. “Immediately we were throwing the ball back and forth really quickly. As a bassist, to have a drummer I can completely react and do anything I want and he’s right there throwing ideas back, well, that’s not a given.” Something about their chemistry prompted Denson to reach out to Pilon, an old friend from Berklee he hadn’t had a chance to play with much in recent years. “He’s a bad dude,” Denson said. “A virtuoso player, but very sensitive and very musical—the same exact words I would use to describe Brian. It just seemed like a perfect fit.”
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