“Denner is a super strong pianist, and her arrangements are full of rhythmic order; when she’s improvising she brings a ton of harmony and time to her blowing. The whole thing’s a study in time and all its shadings. Peter Watrous – Descarga.com
Nicki Denner has performed with noted jazz and Latin artists in the United States and Europe including Sheila E. and Doc Severinsen as well as performing at the Apollo Theater and the Kennedy Center, she has been a pianist for Lincoln Center’s “Meet the Artist” program, Chicago City Limits (a New York City-based improv comedy group) and “Broadway Underground” (an Off-Broadway production featuring New York’s finest tap and hip-hop dancers).
She is the Assistant Musical Director of the New Jersey Tap Ensemble and is also the Musical Director of Cocomama, a nine-piece all-female Latin jazz orchestra, which has performed at the United Nations, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Central Park.
Since 2001, she has led her trio which features Jennifer Vincent on bass and Willie Martinez on drums. In 2006, the trio released their debut recording, “Moliendo Café”, which was named one of the “Top Ten Picks of 2006” in Latin Beat Magazine. Ms. Denner has released two other Latin jazz CD’s as a leader, “Don’t Just Stand There” and “El
Médico de Coquí” featuring Julian Llanos, former singer with Latin music legend Arsenio Rodriguez. “El Médico de Coquí” spent six months in Latin Beat magazine’s Top 20 Hit Parade. In 2007, it was re-released on Consilience Productions, a new record label promoting “progressive music for the socially curious”.
Her most recent recording is “Daydream,” which she describes as “impressionistic solo piano explorations into the mysterious side of American song”.
Tomas Peña: Congratulations on the release of the album, Quiero and Cocomama’s upcoming performance at Joe’s Pub on May 7th.
Nicki Denner: Thank you.
But first, a little bit about you. Where did you grow up?
I was born in New Jersey, but I grew up in Wisconsin. My family moved to the Midwest when I was two.
Did you grow up in a musical environment?
My Aunt Sue is a professional singer; my father is an amateur guitar player, and my mother loves to dance. My grandparents were also great music lovers. I inherited my grandmother’s record collection, which consists of mostly Frank Sinatra with a little Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and a lot of Arabic music with great titles like “Music for an Arabian Night” and “Oriental Delight”.
I read that your father introduced you to R&B.
Yeah, specifically Little Richard!
And your aunt Sue introduced you to show tunes and the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
She is a classically trained singer and has a passion for musical theater and is active in the local musical theater scene. I grew up seeing Guys and Dolls; Annie Get Your Gun and The Sound of Music, Etc.
What drew you to the piano?
My first piano lesson was February 1, 1979. I started “officially” playing the piano at seven. Before that, when my family would visit my aunt, who lived in Michigan where my mother grew up, I would just sit at her piano and pretend I was playing. Finally, my aunt told my parents, “You need to get her a piano and some lessons.” When I was in second grade one of my Christmas presents was a piano. That’s where it all started.
Do you play any other instruments?
Throughout junior high school, high school and college I played the clarinet. Once I was in college, all I wanted to do was play jazz but I wasn’t interested in getting a Jazz Studies degree, so I majored in Music Education. The clarinet was my “major” instrument in college because, to get an instrumental Music Ed degree, you had to play an orchestral instrument. I am also an amateur flute player and tap dancer.
Where did you study music?
I studied at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
How did you get into jazz?
When I was a sophomore in college I went to a jazz concert and heard pianist Jimmy Hamilton, who is the nephew of clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton from the Duke Ellington Big Band, he was the real deal. He played with Ray Charles for many years and when he got off the road, settled in Minneapolis and taught music to Prince, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis when they were coming up. Once I heard him, I said to myself, “I need to figure out how to do that even if it takes the rest of my life.” I’m still figuring it out.
You wear a lot of hats. You’re an educator, you lead your own trio, and you’re the Musical Director for the all-female group, Cocomama.
I’ve had the trio since 2001, I also worked with the Stanford University Jazz Workshop, the New Jersey Tap Festival and Jazz House Kids but mostly I teach privately.
Where does Cocomama come in?
The group dates to 2005 when we got a call to perform at a fundraiser for then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The success of the performance led to other gigs and from this Cocomama was born. The band was never anybody’s idea, it just happened. In 2006, we all decided it was something we wanted to pursue. There was no Musical Director and the rehearsals were leaderless. In one moment when the rehearsal was chaotic someone said, “We need a Musical Director.” I had done most charts, so I got elected. Before Cocomama, I was involved with small groups, so it has been a great learning experience.
Who came up with the name? What’s the significance?
Cocomama is the Incan goddess of good health. We thought this was a good name because it has such a positive connotation, and the sound of it was “exotic” but easy to pronounce regardless of whatever language you speak. Me, bassist Jennifer Vincent, vocalist Sofia Tosello and percussionist Mayra Casales.
The group started as a dance band.
When we started, we tried to fit into a specific style of music but now it’s a musical portrait of everyone in the group. Everyone brings their influences, which includes dance music but also includes classical music, Afro-Caribbean music, Brazilian music, Latin American music, jazz, soul, R&B and beyond.
Today, the repertoire is more diverse, sophisticated.
Yes, the group consists of nine women with wide-ranging musical experiences. Most lead their bands, so it’s a collective effort. Everyone is so accomplished; we get along well, and everyone is open to new ideas and suggestions.
How about sampling the tracks?
Quiero: If you listen closely to the chorus you’ll hear the chord changes from The Sunny Side of the Street, which is a very positive song. I told Mayra Casales I wanted to write a song over these changes with an uplifting message, kind of like a gospel song for people of any religion- and she came to my house and composed the lyrics in fifteen minutes. This is also the title track of the CD and is available as a single on iTunes right now.
Another cool song is Faut Me Jurer De M’Aimer sung by Christelle Durandy, who is French. It’s composed by a well-known French songwriter, Boris Vian, but it’s her and pianist Vashti Sivell’s arrangement. Christelle plays the bata drums on the track, so it sounds like Latin Jazz and Cuban folkloric music on top of a French song.
Is it Love? The arrangers are Mayra Casales and her nephew Raymond, a great musician from Miami. Mayra originally wrote it as a jazz ballad. In our version, it reflects many musical influences from Latin jazz, to funk to Cuban timba. Sofia Tosello added the coro (chorus), and I did a little re-harmonization. One singer, Ariacne Trujillo, is an incredible pianist. She adds her piano tumbao at the end of the song to make it groove hard.
Todo was composed by Christelle Durandy, one of our lead singers. She told me “Enthusiasm and openness should always be a part of the equation when it comes to sharing musical experiences.” This song captures that sentiment. It’s one of my favorite songs on the CD because of its positive feeling and because Christelle’s writing and arranging of the song are so crafted. There have been many nights after playing this song I could not get the chorus out of my head!
How’s your Spanish?
I don’t speak it and I would like to, but I understand it. When I got into Latin music, I spoke no Spanish. I took Spanish in high school and studied on my own. I love the language and how it’s accessible yet sophisticated.
The music and lyrics are joyful, uplifting. Is that a conscious decision or did it just happen?
Yes, that was our intention.
How has the group been received?
The response has been very positive, especially among women. It surprises me when women come up and are so amazed.
Would you use the word, “empowered?”
It is empowering for them but for us too. Since women are such a minority in this music, it’s great to be a part of a band with such strong musicians that be all women.
The music speaks volumes!
I look forward to catching Cocomama at Joe’s Pub on May 7th.
COCOMAMA (TRUTH REVOLUTION RECORDS)
PERSONNEL: Nicki Denner – Musical Director, Piano, Keyboards, Vocals, Melodica, Mayra Casales – Congas, Bongos, miscellaneous percussion, Vocals, Sofia Tosello – Vocals, Reut Regev – Trombone, Ariacne Trujillo – Vocals, Piano, Jennifer Vincent – Acoustic and Baby Bass, Cello, Vocals, Christelle Durandy- Vocals, Bata Drums, Body Percussion, Yanet Montero – Timbales, Congas, Karina Colis – Drumset, Special Guest: Camille Thurman – Tenor and Soprano Saxophones.
TRACKS: 1 – Quiero, 2 – Se Feliz, 3 – Amor En Diciembre, 4 – Il Faut Me Jurer De M’aimer, 5 – Sivuca, 6 – A Mi Medida, 7 – Is it Love?, 8 – Sin Piel, 9 – Mi La Re Sol, 10 – Paisajes Cubanos, 11 – Todo.
Catch Cocomama at Joe’s Pub at The Public, 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place), New York, NY on May 7th. Taub Box Office: 212.967.7555