By David Templeton | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
The 1977 hit song “Dust in the Wind,” from the legendary progressive rock band Kansas, has no doubt inspired numerous young people to pick up the violin and imagine a life in rock ’n’ roll. The iconic violin solo that comes at the 1:30 mark in the song, played on the original recording by the late Robby Steinhardt, is considered one of the greatest violin interludes in rock ’n’ roll history. Joe Deninzon, a founding member of the American prog rock band Stratospheerius, was one of those young players who dreamed of standing onstage playing alongside the members of Kansas.
As of June of 2023, that dream has come true.
After the departure of Kansas’ David Ragsdale—who joined the band in 1991, left for a while in 1997 (making room for Steinhardt to briefly return), and then rejoined from 2006 to 2023—Deninzon officially became a member of Kansas, helping to kick off the band’s 50th anniversary tour.
With a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from Indiana University and a master’s in jazz violin from the Manhattan School of Music, Deninzon has played with the Who, Bruce Springsteen, 50 Cent, Sheryl Crow, Smokey Robinson, and Les Paul. As a soloist, he’s played with Jazz at Lincoln Center and the New York City Ballet. Also a composer, he’s written for violinist Rachel Barton Pine and premiered his original composition, Electric Violin Concerto, with the Muncie Symphony Orchestra in 2015.
This year, meanwhile, is turning out to be a big one for Deninzon, who also just saw the release of Stratospheerius’ new double album Behind the Curtain: Live at ProgStock, recorded in 2019 and 2021 at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, New Jersey. In between concerts with Kansas, Deninzon found a moment to speak with me from his home studio in New York City.
You are a very busy guy, it seems. Are you enjoying that?
I really am. I’m having the time of my life and loving every minute of it. What I love about the Kansas schedule is that half of the week you are home with your family. You are not on the road consistently. A typical week is that you fly out on Thursday, do two concerts somewhere close to each other on Friday and Saturday, and then you fly home on Sunday. It’s brilliant. I’m surprised more bands don’t do it like this.
Let’s talk about the new Stratospheerius album, then a little more about Kansas. This was recorded in 2019 and 2021?
Yes, at the ProgStock Festival. Because of Covid, there was no live 2020 festival, but we did livestream a performance that year. We were regulars there for about four years straight.
Listening to this recording, I noticed the audience seems to be very attentive, unlike what you hear in live recordings of other rock ’n’ roll shows.
Progressive rock audiences are like that. They are listeners. They like to sit there and take everything in. They like to quietly analyze everything they are seeing and hearing and then react at the end. In the ’70s, prog rock was more mainstream, so its audiences were probably a bit rowdy at Jethro Tull concerts and that kind of thing, but today, people approach it more like classical music or jazz.
How did this come together?
We were invited to perform at the main stage at ProgStock, which started in 2017 and is now the premiere progressive rock festival in the northeastern United States. Every concert there is multi-track recorded, so we had every intention of recording a live album/video, because it was a rare opportunity to play in a beautiful venue like that with everything taken care of for you. Originally, we were just going to release that show, but then the pandemic happened, and it took a while to put everything together. Then we were asked to headline in 2021, and we ended up with more footage and more recordings and this great, spontaneous performance from [multi-instrumentalist] Rachel Flowers. In 2019, I stepped on a cable and disconnected myself during my solo of the finale, “One Foot in the Next World,” so we got to record it again in 2021, and it came out really well.
We noticed that the 2021 performances of some other songs were better than the 2019 recordings, so we thought, “Wow! We have twice as much work to do.” We took another year and edited it all together, using the highlights from each show, and put it together as one project.
The Rachel Flowers moment—when she and guitarist Alex Skolnick of Testament join in on the Chick Corea tune “Spain”—was pretty amazing.
She’s a genius, one of the most talented people I’ve ever met in my life. That was not rehearsed at all, just completely spontaneous. She and Alex had never met before he stepped onto that stage. She was playing the set before us, and he was playing the set after us, and that was the only song we all knew, so it just happened that way.
Stratospheerius has a new studio album coming out next year, right?
Yes. Working title is Imposter. We just finished tracking the last songs, and we’ll be mixing it and putting the packaging together in time for it to be released in early 2024.
Meanwhile, you have Kansas to be thinking about.
Yes! Kansas! I will be booking shows with Stratospheerius in between shows with Kansas, but Kansas is the priority and will take up most of my time right now.
So, how did it happen that you ended up joining such a legendary band?
Well, I’d been a fan of theirs for a long time, of course. And I’d become friends with their keyboardist/musical director Tom Brislin, and there is actually quite a sold progressive rock community in the Northeast, so we’d bump into each other at events, and he was aware of my work. When David Ragsdale had some personal issues and wasn’t sure he could continue with the band, they were thinking ahead and looking for someone who could replace him if necessary. And Tom recommended me. The fact that I also play the guitar and sing was a plus.
Was there an audition?
Not really. Tom reached out and told me to start preparing, but there was no music written out, so I had to transcribe everything from the recordings to learn it. I spent a couple of months working really hard—learning and memorizing two and a half hours of pretty hard music—getting myself prepared. And when the call came, I flew down to Macon, Georgia, where they rehearse. I met the band, and we hit it off on a personal and musical level, and everything went really smoothly. We rehearsed everything, and then I flew home for two days to do the Stratospheerius record release party—and the next day I flew to Pittsburgh to do my first show with Kansas. My head has been spinning ever since, with a lot of notes flying around in it. I pinch myself all the time.
Kansas is currently doing its 50th anniversary tour, and here you are as the rookie of the band.
My biggest concern, stepping in after two legendary violinists had been there before me, was that the audience—Kansas fans are called Wheatheads, by the way—I was worried that they would hate the new guy. But everyone has welcomed me with open arms. As soon as I was announced as the new member of the band, all of the fans went to my YouTube videos to check me out, and suddenly Stratospheerius got a big bump in sales as Kansas fans discovered my other band. I get so many super-positive messages from fans. I’m incredibly humbled by it—and grateful.