Denise La Grassa's talent for writing lyrics and music was evident from an early age. "I was 5, maybe 6 years old and I was writing songs like mad. Once I had a fistful ready to go, I would head out and knock on my neighbors doors and sing the songs right there on their doorstep! I was hoping they'd like the songs enough to buy them. I thought if I sold enough songs, I could buy birthday & Christmas presents for my family. I tell you, I was on my way, but once my family phone started ringing with those, ahh, entertained neighbors, my Mom, politely asked me to stop. But I did get a few dollars in my pocket, and more importantly, I got confidence at an early age as a songwriter."

Her song-selling may have been stopped prematurely, but Denise continued writing. "In third grade, I decided to tackle playwriting. My teacher, Mrs. Collins, read my stories, thought I was pretty good and arranged a meeting with the elementary school principal. She allowed me and my group of third grade thespians the chance to perform a Christmas play for the school. We rehearsed in the library after school, we got parents involved typing __scripts, finding props and designing costumes. The play was a huge success and I was on my way to fame and fortune. But then, 4th grade blindsided me. My new teacher was, how should I say this, a wee bit underwhelmed by my endless creativity. I did write a few plays and songs, but my grades suffered, and I was "diagnosed" as a hyper-creative child. Back then I was misunderstood. I still wrote songs and plays, but when I was done, I tucked them inside my piano bench. I was really bummed."

On break one summer from college, Denise traveled to a place called The Second City in Chicago and discovered a school for performers and writers. "I couldn't believe what I found. A SCHOOL for people LIKE ME!!!! I left college and soaked up improv writing and acting. Within a year I was traveling with The Second City Touring Company and having the time of my life. One of my favorite improv techniques was called "Make-A-Song." The audience would shout out topics and ideas and I had to make up songs on the spot. I had a blast writing and singing melodies & parodies under pressure. My only regret is that I don't have recordings of those performances ... then again, maybe that's a good thing!"

Following her stint at The Second City, Denise continued to work in professional theater, performing in plays and musicals. She also wrote and produced two musical One-Person shows. In between musical theater, she landed small parts in a couple of made for HBO movies, including Hometown Boy Makes Good with Anthony Edwards (She's the funny secretary). And you can still occasionally catch her portrayals of real life people on the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. Despite her busy acting schedule, Denise made time for her music. She performed with her band at nearly every Chicago music venue, including The Jazz Showcase, Katerina's, Andy's, The Velvet Lounge, and The Bop Shop. She also produced two CD's of original music. The Tracks was released in 1999 and Pieces of Peace three years later. "My old Professor and mentor Bill Russo, who was a big band arranger - he arranged for Stan Kenton among others - kept telling me that I was a talented songwriter and that I should keep writing songs. So I produced those CD's by myself and shopped them around to a few labels. But I was so busy acting and performing my One-Person musical shows that I wasn't able to give it the big push that it needed."

With her move downstate a couple years ago, Denise began focusing on her music. "I wasn't going to get acting offers living in Central Illinois, so I really dug into my songwriting. And I don't know what it was, maybe the wide open spaces, but I found that lyrically I was writing more and more about some of the painful events of my life. And it's funny that when my April Dreams CD came out, people around me were saying I should be singing blues. I guess they heard Sweet Talk and Deep Down Love and thought my big voice would sound great singing my songs as blues songs. People like "Delta" Frank Black, the legendary blues DJ on WGLT in Bloomington/Normal, and the late Eric Tapley, the founder and promoter of the Nothin' But The Blues Festival here in Bloomington. Early this year, I finally took the leap, and it's been a great decision. Eric even gave me the opening slot at his festival this year, and I'm so sad that he wasn't able to be there to see me. I'm loving the transformation, cause even though my foundation is firmly rooted in jazz, I'm still able to express myself freely singing blues ... the lyrics are just more concrete. And I think it's an interesting mix, cause I've retained my jazz sensibility in that I'm "connecting in the moment" with creative melody and lyric ideas, but now these ideas are jam packed with feeling, emotions and a soul sensibility."

Sweet Talk

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Deep Down Love

Jazz Rock
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10/14/2009 2:43:01 AM
Hi Denise
Just had a listen to 'Best Day' it's a lovely song, and you have a gorgeous voice! All the best, Cathy x



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DENISE LA GRASSA: Pieces of Peace

REVIEW: April Dreams
By Jim DeRogatis, Pop Critic, Chicago Sun-Times
October 29, 2009

A veteran of the Second City Touring Company, suburban Chicago native Denise La Grassa made her mark in that talented troupe with a bit called "Make-A-Song," writing and performing tunes on the spot based on any topic the audience shouted out. That loose, carefree and immediate vibe still permeates her third album, the recent D.I.Y. release "April Dreams," but don't let it fool you into thinking the music is tossed-off.

With an impressive but never showy range and a self-assured, conversational delivery that brings to mind a jazzier Aimee Mann, La Grassa offers uniquely personal and melodically powerful takes on romance in standout originals such as "Yesterday's Replay" and "Best Day," while local producer Matt Thompson (the Mighty Blue Kings, Frisbee) captures the spare but perfect accompaniment of a four-piece backing band.

REVIEW: April Dreams
By Matthew Warnock, Jazz Critic, All About Jazz Magazine
June 29, 2009

April Dreams is a sultry album of original pop/jazz vocal compositions by Illinois-based singer Denise La Grassa. Featuring the solid rhythm-section work of guitarist Scott Tipping, bassist Matt Thompson, drummer Gerald Dowd and pianist Ben Lewis, the album is both tasteful and emotionally engaging. With catchy melodies, a strong ensemble performance and well-written lyrics, April Dreams weaves its way through the entire spectrum of modern pop/jazz in a highly entertaining fashion.

All of its songs, with the exception of one, were written by the multi-talented La Grassa and arranged by Matt Thompson, the ensemble's bassist. La Grassa's writing style is a direct reflection of the multitude of influences and inspirations that she draws upon as a performer. There are Beatles-esque numbers such as "Get Home & Give Me Love," deep-grooving bluesy numbers that would make Leonard Cohen proud such as "Deep Down Love," and emotional ballads including Matt Kanelos'"String of a Kite," which features a softly spoken groove in five that accentuates La Grassa's smooth vocal line. Thompson's arrangements are firmly based in the American pop tradition with just enough jazz, blues and soul to keep things from becoming monotonous. His use of strings on "April Dreams" and the seldom-used baritone guitar on "Best Day" add just the right timbre, highlighting La Grassa's vocal ability without getting in the way or burying the melody line in a mountain of sound.

La Grassa's melodic interpretations bring an emotional connection to each lyric and melody line, while her ability to make large melodic leaps with ease—with spot-on intonation—provide for some very interesting melody lines, often more reminiscent of a saxophone or guitar than a vocalist. One reason why the album avoids any stagnation is La Grassa's constantly changing vocal tone and timbre: she moves between dark and sultry to light and breathy, and everything in between, with the greatest of ease and without sounding disjointed or unrelated.

April Dreams is entertaining on emotional and musical levels. The lyrics are masterfully crafted, the melodies sticky and the band tight. While the album is not going to fall into the modern or traditional jazz categories, the mixture of jazz, pop, blues and folk is a catalyst for highly creative and emotionally charged playing.

Wide Angle
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Denise La Grassa