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Pasadena church jazzes itself up

All Saints welcomes musicians to express themselves.

June 22, 2013
  • Jazz singer Denise Donatelli, at home in Studio City on Thursday, June 20, 2013. Donatelli, a Grammy-nominated artist, will perform at All Saints Church Jazz Vespers in Pasadena on Sunday June 23.
Jazz singer Denise Donatelli, at home in Studio City on… (Raul Roa/Staff…)

Jazz singer Denise Donatelli is an intimate performer. Her love songs, by virtue of her almost confessional medium dynamic and warm alto voice, have a rare intimacy. Emotion is something she deals out slowly, like cards in a poker game; each one puts the previous one in a different light.

Musicians and other peers have championed Donatelli's work: her recent "Soul Shadows" album (Savant) was a Grammy nominee for Best Album. And she'll shift gears this Sunday when she performs at the monthly jazz vespers service at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

Donatelli's last three albums have been made with the help of pianist-arranger Geoff Keezer (his chart on the song "Don't Explain" on "Soul Shadows" also garnered a Grammy nomination). A Wisconsin native who had a New York career, Keezer relocated and now teaches at San Diego State University. Donatelli had long admired his "Turn Up the Quiet" album (Sony, 1998). "I couldn't believe what I was hearing on that," she says with awe. "When I found Geoff was on this side of the country, I had to work with him."

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Keezer brings her arrangements, often of material that she's never heard before, like an Afro-Peruvian treatment of "All or Nothing at All," or songwriter Jonatha Brooke's "No Better."

"Denise is a real natural musician," says Keezer. "She's got great ears. Some of the things she comes up with in the studio just stop you cold."

Donatelli is proud of her trio: pianist Max Haymer, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Walter Rodriguez. "You can't just walk in off the street and play Geoff's charts," she says. "There are too many surprises — twists and turns. Musicians have to woodshed his tunes."

Christina Honchell is Parish Administrator at All Saints, which she describes as "a progressive Christian church: everyone is welcome to the table." The church's jazz vespers series is 15 years old.

"The idea began in New York," she says, from her office in the church. "It's been successful for us. We don't stick to a rigid format, with a lot of prayer and 'churchiness.' We usually have about six-to-eight minutes of meditation rather than a sermon."

All Saints has a number of musicians as members, including pianist-composers Russ Ferrante and Bill Cunliffe. Cunliffe, who won a Grammy for best instrumental arrangement of a "West Side Story" medley in 2010, is All Saints' Composer-in-Residence. He's been attending since 1998 and he writes a couple of classical pieces a year for the church.

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