Pasadena Church Jazzes Itself Up

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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.”

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.

“It was my idea to bring everyone up onto the chancel,” says Cunliffe, who directs the jazz band at Cal State Fullerton. “That way the audience is right there with the musicians. Part of what makes it great is that it’s a conversation: both among the musicians and with the audience. It’s like the most intimate jazz club experience but without the drinks.”

Honchell grew up in Cleveland, the daughter of a jazz fan. “My father and I couldn’t talk about religion, politics or current events,” she explains, “but we could talk about jazz. So when I hear a meditative piano piece, it allows me to commune with my father.”

Though she’s “not a fan of religion,” Donatelli was raised a Catholic. “Every time I sing, it touches my spiritual life,” she maintains. She lost her son Jason in 2008 and still feels his presence. “Everything I do is a musical prayer to my son. He’s my guardian angel and the good things that happen to me, like the Grammy nomination, come from him. He promised to take care of me.”