La Grassa Brings Scope, Passion To Brilliant `Bite'
By Rick Kogan, Tribune Staff Writer.
The lumping together of the words performance and art is a common habit these days, an easy if often misguided attempt to label something that does not facilely fit a conventional category. Brilliantly unconventional, Denise La Grassa's one-woman show called "BITE" is performance and art.
It is exuberantly a performance, an hour and a few minutes of versatility in the form of sketches, songs, music (David Milney on saxophone and Eric Remschneider on cello), gifted physical comedy, pointed observation and humor. It is, with but one or two minor missteps, solidly art, an ambitious and thought-provoking show that takes a witty, with-it measure of this mad, mad world.
An eager and accessible stage presence, with her lithe body, expressive face and a wild red hair, La Grassa is poet-preacher-polemicist. And her show, playing once a week since the dark days of last December at the Bop Shop, is about a lot of things. Its foundation built primarily on large blocks of feminism, politics and religion, it is a show that expresses pain and anger but one that also has moments of delightful playfulness and encouraging humanity, spirituality and hope.
Alternately outraged and incredulous, the show takes apart the postures and pretensions of politicians in such sketches as "Senator Cramp" and "Mr. Mendacity"; skewers the news media in "Paxton Park" and the song "Electric Red"; and touches tender but terrifying truths of childhood "Hopscotch" and the devastating, almost surreal "Wouldn't Wanna Be in My Shoes," about an 11-year-old girl who is the mother of two children.
La Grassa's writing is always impassioned; the show contains moments of Swiftian satire, as when a character suggests a solution to the problem of homeless people: "Shrink them down and put them on the internet--Bye, Bye."
The show can be tough on members of the male species, as in the back-to-back sketches "Bachelor" and "Lonely Bachelor," with the title character "played" by a Teddy Bear. But, with equal-opportunity elan, this combo is followed by a take on female frivolousness, exemplified by a character ravenous for the issue of her "September Vogue," because she "can't go on living and not looking right."
Seamlessly changing characters, La Grassa delivers her word-rich sketches with rapid-fire urgency. It is a virtuoso performance from a grand talent.
As with all small-room one-person-show ventures, it is easy to underestimate, or even ignore, the contributions of others. But director Alexia J. Paul has done a thoughtful job of orchestrating the actress, allowing sketches to flow intelligently; the lighting design by Patrick Hudson is dramatic. The music is perfectly polished. And it all comes together beautifully in "BITE," which can be witnessed and savored and remembered for the ridiculously paltry price of $4--the best $4 you may ever spend.
BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic
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 DIY 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.
Denise La Grassa | Self Published
By Matthew Warnock
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 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 "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.
Denise La Grassa | Self Published
By John Ziegler, Duluth News-Tribune
Denise LaGrassa is a Chicago-based singer, songwriter and keyboardist who makes her first visit, with her trio, to the Grand Marais Jazz Festival this weekend.
Her new release, “April Dreams,” showcases her sultry voice and her pithy compositional abilities. But, intriguingly, there was something in the mix — like a secret ingredient — that set her style apart from the many other jazzy song sorcerers out there, and it took me a while to put my finger on what it was.
She’s got a serendipitous pop flavor to the topics she chooses to flesh out. There’s a jazzy fragrance to her vocal phrasing, even though nothing on “April Dreams” would be considered jazz to a purist who favors Ella or Sassy (Sarah Vaughn). There’s a pungent soulfulness omnipresent … but there was just something that infects each song I couldn’t identify until it hit me: show tunes!
Denise LaGrassa’s new disc sounds like it could be the score to some impassioned new play on Broadway. I can almost visualize, in my mind’s eye, how the scenes would be blocked and lit on the musical theater stage.
“Get Home & Give Me Love” has a frothy sing-song style with prissy drums, vampy acoustic piano, snarky guitar and lyrics of fervent longing for her man who is needed … now. The theater production would be a vibrant mix of male and female dancers with arms and legs flying and bodies twirling.
“Deep Down Love” has this murky vibe that reminds me of the late bluesman John C. Campbell. There’s a veil-like shroud that the organ creates while the drums punctuate from below and the vocals flutter on top. This would feature black-clad dancers with cat-like moves gliding from side to side.
“Sweet Talk” has the rueful gypsy-rock feel of Sophie B. Hawkins complete with translucent lyrics that incisively describe the narrator’s feelings for a lover.
“Waited a Lifetime” has a devilishly angelic feel, with propulsive energy, guitar chordal punches and a quivering guitar solo that sounds as if it should be accompanied visually by a ’60s strobe light.
The vivacious “Looking for Love’s Sake” is a reminder not to take your significant other too lightly and points out the importance of loving for the correct reasons. It’s got a summery groove, wailin’ B-3 ride, tangy guitar and drums that pack a wallop.
With elegant musicianship, a batch of “love-gone-right” songs, her warm expressive pipes, butter-smooth arrangements and the feel of the theater always hovering, “April Dreams” is multidimensional.