There is a lot of New Jersey in Kansas right now. New Jersey, as in the state, and Kansas, as in the band.
Two current members of the progressive-rock group — best known for ’70s hits such as “Dust in the Wind,” “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Point of Know Return” — are New Jerseyans: violinist Joe Deninzon, who joined this year, and keyboardist Tom Brislin, a member since 2018. Brislin also has played with the Jersey band Spiraling and internationally known acts Meat Loaf, Yes and Renaissance; Deninzon also leads his own progressive-rock band Stratospheerius, and his many other projects have included playing violin for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford in 2016.
Stratospheerius’ most recent album, Behind the Curtain, was recorded live at appearances at the ProgStock progressive-rock festival at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway in 2019 and 2021, and features guest appearances by guitarist Alex Skolnick (of Testament) and keyboardist and flutist Rachel Flowers.
Stratospheerius — which also features guitarist Michelangelo Quirinale, bassist Paul Ranieri and drummer Jason Gianni — will perform at the Debonair Music Hall in Teaneck, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. This year’s ProgStock will take place at the Williams Center in Rutherford, Oct. 5-8, with Deninzon planning to perform with the Dave Kerzner Band. Kansas’ only currently scheduled New Jersey show is April 26 at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.
I talked to Deninzon, who lives in Dumont, recently, by phone from San Francisco, where he was on tour with Kansas.
Q: Was it through Tom Brislin that you become a member of Kansas?
A: It was. I’ve known Tom for at least five or six years and we’ve seen each other’s bands play at, like, New Jersey Proghouse and ProgStock. He was aware of my work. (We’ve both performed on the prog-rock tour) Cruise to the Edge. So when (former Kansas member) David Ragsdale had some health issues and they were looking for someone to stand in, in case he couldn’t do the tour, Tom recommended me. He reached out to me back in February and I started learning the music. I wasn’t sure if I’d be doing the gig but they wanted me to be ready and there was a lot of back and forth. So that’s kind of how it happened. It’s been quite an adventure.
Q: But you’re a full band member now? It’s not like a fill-in type thing?
A: Yes, I’m a full-time band member.
Q: Was Kansas a big band for you when you were growing up?
A: Yeah. I’ve been listening to Kansas since I was like 8 years old. I wasn’t like a deep, deep hardcore fan, like some people are. But I always admired them and knew their music. Especially being a violinist in the rock ‘n’ roll world, the first thing people compare you to is Kansas. When I started Stratospheerius, there were some Kansas comparisons even though … there’s similarities, but we sound different. But that tells me that Kansas created the template for violin in rock ‘n’ roll. Anytime there’s a violin in a rock ‘n’ roll band, people will always compare it to Kansas. And that speaks volumes. I guess if people compare my music to Kansas, I can’t really say anything. (laughs) I can’t really complain.
It’s a huge honor, really. And they’re great guys, a great organization and the fans have been amazing, just beyond my expectations. They’ve welcomed me with open arms. So I’m very grateful and humbled.
Q: Do they have any recording plans?
A: They do. We’ve had some conversations about the next recording, about writing. I don’t know when that’s going to happen because now they’ve extended the tour into the end of next year. But they are talking about doing a new record at some point.
There’s no money in doing records now. (laughs) Touring is a big revenue source. But they do want to keep making albums and staying vital as a band. (Drummer and original band member) Phil (Ehart) … sees the band existing beyond even his and Rich’s (guitarist and original band member Rich Williams) tenure. They want to keep playing as long as they can but they see it as something bigger than any one or two members. So we’ll see what happens. I’m enjoying every moment.
Q: The band could keep evolving, even with the original members no longer in it. There are other bands who have done things like that.
A: If people keep buying tickets and wanting to come to concerts and hear that music played live, there’s no reason for them to stop. That’s what it comes down to. And, you know, preserving it for new generations. I do see a lot of young people … maybe their parents turned them on to Kansas music … I see them in the audience singing along with every song, which is great.
But also there’s a difference between a tribute band and a legacy band. A legacy band is, you know, some of the original members were there and passed on the music to new members rather than a bunch of people just got together who loved the music of Kansas or Yes or Led Zeppelin and formed a tribute band.
I think we’re entering the age of rock ‘n’ roll where a lot of bands are getting older. Many members are retiring and it’s turning into like an orchestra (in classical music). The New York Phil was founded in the 1840s; I don’t think any original numbers are left, but it’s still the New York Philharmonic.
Q: There’s still a Glenn Miller Orchestra out there, playing that repertoire.
A: Count Basie, Duke Ellington … they call them ghost bands, I guess. I think a lot of rock fans have trouble wrapping their heads around that concept. It has to be all the original guys or it’s not the real thing. And this is a difference of opinion. I respect that. People are entitled to whatever they want to believe. But I think in the case of Kansas … first of all, (original guitarist and songwriter) Kerry Livgren retired 40 years ago. He came back for a while, but he also had some health issues and he can’t physically play a full show. Steve Walsh retired in 2014 because he, just physically, couldn’t hit those high notes anymore. And, you know, Ronnie (Platt) is a great singer and the music sounds great and we try to honor it as well as we can and that’s what it comes down to. And people have been packing the concerts. It’s all good and, hopefully, it’ll continue for a long time.
Q: The band, of course, had huge hits, but it also has a huge repertoire of albums. Do you guys go back and find some more obscure songs and work them into the show or is the setlist pretty set with certain songs that everyone knows?
A: Well, you know, there’s the standard songs that they’re always gonna play. But on this tour, they brought back “The Pinnacle,” “Glimpse of Home” — stuff that fans have been requesting that, I guess, they hadn’t played live in 40 years. I think to honor the 50th anniversary, they’ve dug deep in the catalog and mixed it up. It’s a nice long set. A lot of deep cuts and, you know, the standard fan favorites.
Q: Is it difficult to balance that work with the Stratospheerius stuff? Is it frustrating that you can’t devote as much time as you might want to, to Stratospheerius, or is it a good mix?
A: It’s a good mix. Obviously, Kansas is my priority now. It pays the bills. It’s a great gig and a great musical experience. But I still have Stratospheerius. Sept. 28, we’re playing at Debonair Music Hall in Teaneck with We Came From Space, which is Bill Hubauer’s band. He’s our keyboardist and the keyboardist from the Neal Morse Band. And we’re playing with them again at Kennett Flash at Kennett Square, Philadelphia, on Sept. 30. And we’re opening for The Levin Brothers at (The Sellersville Theater in) Sellersville (Pennsylvania) on Dec. 15. When I have time off from Kansas, I plan to book more Stratospheerius shows. We just finished a new studio album we hope to put out next year. We’re still rocking and I just love making music with those guys, and I want it to continue.
Also, a lot of the Kansas fans have picked up on it who weren’t aware of that band before. Obviously, we’re not going to be able to do long tours and major stuff like that, but we’ll still play shows regionally and, you know, whatever we’re able to do, we’ll do. I don’t want it to stop being an entity.
Q: This year’s ProgStock is coming up soon. What are you planning to do at that?
A: We have that week off from Kansas, and I’m playing two shows with the Dave Kerzner Band. I’ve worked with Dave for a few years now. I’m on his last three records and we played two Cruise to the Edges and I love the collection of musicians he puts together. So that’s gonna be fun. We’re playing on Oct. 5 and 7.
Q: I assume you’ve played most of the ProgStock events in past?
A: I played at every ProgStock except for Year One: I was on the road with my string quartet at that time. But Stratospheerius has done four, and then I’m usually invited to play with other bands, if it’s not a Stratospheerius situation. Like last year, I sat in with four different bands at ProgStock. So I’m kind of the house violinist, which is funny.
Q: You played with Alex Skolnick and Rachel Flowers on the (Stratospheerius) live album. (see video below) Was that something that came up at the spur of the moment?
A: Very much so. That was nuts. They had asked us to play the late-night set, and then John Goodsall (of Brand X) fell ill. And a week or a couple of daysd in advance, (organizer) Tom (Palmieri) asked us to step in and headline, Saturday night main stage. And he goes, “You know, Rachel Flowers is playing solo set right before you and Alex Skolnik is playing guitar with Percy Jones. I know you guys all have a history. Why don’t you do something together?” ProgStock is known for all these spontaneous collaborations between artists
So we emailed each other. “What song do we know that we could put together fast?” And everyone knew Chick Corea’s “Spain,” and I wanted to do some intimate thing with the three of us, without the big rhythm section, and Alex had no time to rehearse and I had no time to rehearse. So he and Rachel, I think, just met onstage and we just went into it and it was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle kind of moments, and we got it recorded and on video and it’s on our new live album. We just clicked and it was such a beautiful moment. And the audience had a great reaction.
But every ProgStock has a moment like that. At least one … that usually involves Rachel Flowers!
That was a really, really cool spontaneous thing. No rehearsal, nothing. It just happened. The thing I love about jazz is you can walk into any room with good musicians and just make things happen without any preparation, even if you don’t speak the same language. Everybody knows a lot of the same repertoire.
Q: I last interviewed you when you played with Springsteen at the Metlife Stadium. What stands out for you as a memory from that experience?
A: I think the greatest memory was backstage. Springsteen is very spontaneous, a very different approach than Kansas. Kansas rehearses a setlist and sticks with that setlist for the whole tour, because the music is very complicated. Springsteen thinks like a jazz musician. Very spur of the moment. He’ll change a song’s arrangement. He’ll change half the set every night. You could see multiple shows on a tour as a fan and hear different music.
So two hours before we go onstage in front of 50,000 people, we get called to his dressing room and he’s like, “I want to add strings to another song besides ‘New York City Serenade.’ ” He has an acoustic guitar. He’s sitting on his couch, and it’s the New York Giants’ dressing room. He’s in the back of that huge dressing room behind a curtain and he’s got his little closet with all his clothes hanging and his daughter’s hanging out on the phone and he’s sitting on the couch strumming his guitar. And we crowd in there and he plays us “Jack of All Trades” from his Wrecking Ball album. And it’s eight violinists. And he’s like, “What can you guys come up with?” This is just on the fly. Nothing written down. Two hours before showtime. That’s how he operates.
So we come up with harmonies and backgrounds and he brings in the whole E street Band and goes, “Hey, guys, check this out. What do you think?” And I’m thinking to myself, I’ve been listening to this guy’s music since I was 8 years old and he’s standing right in front of me playing guitar, and we’re jamming with him, and there’s the whole E Street Band. That’s like my childhood soundtrack. It was really, really trippy and definitely a pinch-me moment. And then getting onstage in front of 50,000 people was insane.
So yeah, definitely a dream come true. You can’t really tell by the music I write but I’m a huge lifelong Springsteen fan. He was one of my biggest musical heroes.
Q: He does use violin, to some extent.
A: He does. Soozie Tyrell is a great player and my good friend Sam Bardfeld recorded and toured with him for the Seeger Sessions. He hires great players and has a great musical sensibility. His music is very visceral and honest, and he empties the tank every time. When you see him perform … he doesn’t have to play three- or four-hour shows. He can get away with two-hour shows and just coast. But he goes all out, which I totally respect.
Q: One of his signature songs, “Jungleland,” has a violin part in it that’s really important.
A: That’s probably my favorite Springsteen song. It’s kind of the proggiest song he ever wrote. Very epic.
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