The view from the top ranks of the New York jazz scene can make any other city look like Palookaville. For bassist Jeff Denson, a regular at the iconic Village Vanguard with alto sax legend Lee Konitz, the prospect of giving up his Gotham credentials in 2011 for a professorship at Berkeley's California Jazz Conservatory (then known as the Jazzschool) induced some serious misgivings.
"There was an anxiety coming from New York, because there are so many musicians there, you never worry about anything. For whatever you need, there's always somebody great," says Denson, 37, who presents his band Secret World at Berkeley's Hillside Club on July 5 and Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society in Half Moon Bay on July 6.
With a full-time teaching gig and international performance obligations, Denson kept a low profile his first few years in the Bay Area. But he's proving the adage that a good bassist is rarely in want of a gig. He's found such an abundance of talent that he now leads three very different ensembles, and instead of anxiety, the emotion inspired by the Bay Area is better described as elation.
"With the quality of life, the great teaching situation, and amazing creative musicians," Denson says, "we've got this thriving scene with many different styles. And killer food, beautiful weather, the redwoods. I've been so happy since moving to the Bay Area."
Nothing better illustrates his comfort level than the West Coast incarnation of his quartet Secret World. He introduced the ensemble in 2012 with a critically acclaimed album featuring trumpeter Ralph Alessi, the extraordinary drummer Dan Weiss and German pianist Florian Weber, Denson's collaborator in the collective trio Minsarah. As those musicians are based in New York or Germany, he needed to create a West Coast edition to play the Secret World repertoire, a demanding body of music encompassing intricately notated passages and sections of open-ended improvisation.
Denson had heard about pianist Dahveed Behroozi from a mutual friend when they were both in New York, but never got a chance to play with him. When Behroozi moved back to San Jose last year, Denson quickly enlisted him in Secret World. He met Berkeley drummer Jon Arkin, a highly sought-after accompanist, on the local scene, and was duly impressed.
"Jon Arkin is really sensitive dynamically," Denson says. "He uses polyrhythms in a fantastic way and orchestrates his playing beautifully. He's so good at sensing when you need density and when you need space. And Dahveed is an amazing improviser with classical training who deals really well with written music. I need special kinds of players who are flexible with written and improvised parts."
For the trumpet chair, he reached out to Seattle and the brilliant Vietnamese-born Cuong Vu, who made his reputation on New York's wild and woolly Downtown scene. Vu has collaborated extensively with pianist/composer Myra Melford, saxophonist Chris Speed and performance artist Laurie Anderson, but he's best known for his work with the Pat Metheny Group, contributing trumpet and vocals on the 2002 album "Speaking of Now" and 2005's "The Way Up" (both of which earned Grammy Awards for best contemporary jazz album).
"I need someone to play that's really open, really flexible in and out of forms, flexible with the written material, with really strong control of timbre and tone," Denson says. "Cuong's an amazing improviser and trumpeter with a beautiful sound and great artistic conception."
This weekend's gigs mark the debut of the band's latest incarnation (the great Berkeley trumpeter Erik Jekabson also played in Secret World) and serves as a warm-up for its European tour in the fall. But the band is just one facet of Denson's music. It's difficult to overstate his musical range, but two recent duo albums are a good place to start.
"Two" is a melodically rich free improv session with the Swiss clarinet virtuoso Claudio Puntin, while "I'll Fly Away" is an emotionally charged project devoted to hymns and spirituals with the powerhouse San Diego pianist Joshua White. He celebrates the release of the latter CD at the Sound Room in Oakland on July 24 with White and drummer Arkin.
The acoustic trio is his second working band (Electreo is the third, a collective trio with bassoon explorer Paul Hanson and drummer Alan Hall that performs Sept. 5 at Lungomare in Oakland). Denson and White both grew up playing in church, and they treat the sacred songs with reverence, while trusting that they're strong enough for jazz exploration.
"In the trio we use a lot of music from 'I'll Fly Away' mixed with standards and originals," Denson says. "There's a lot of swinging really hard in that group. It's less about through composed music and more jazz improvising in a 'traditional' sense."
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.