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Tenia Nelson Trio soothes the soul

TNT Plays the Women in Jazz lunch at Dazzle

Dazzle, Denver’s premier jazz club, will host a Friday lunch featuring Women in Jazz throughout the months of March and April. The lunches produced by Annie Booth celebrate the unique perspectives of female players and vocalists.

A few weeks back, the Tenia Nelson Trio, or TNT as they’re commonly referred to, played the lunch spot at Dazzle. Tenia Renee Nelson not only performs throughout the city both with and without her band, including a few gigs in Breckenridge and Boulder from time to time, she’s also an educator who has taught in both the public and private spheres.

Tenia Nelson performs throughout the Denver area. Photo courtesy of Tenia Nelson

Nelson recalls being told that she’s a “musician that happens to be female.” The names of women in jazz are often far less recognizable than their male contemporaries, but women have played an equal part in jazz since its manifestation. The earthy voices of Bessie Smith and Odetta gave way to the rawness of Billie Holiday and the pureness of Ella Fitzgerald. Pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams arranged for Duke Ellington and inspired Thelonious Monk.

In a half-empty room at a quarter to noon, pianist Tenia Nelson took the stage with bassist Brendan O’Donoghue and drummer Alex Tripp.  Tenia affectionately refers to the three of them as TNT. Tenia, in large gold earrings that read “100% natural,” thanked the small audience for being there and started playing. Jazz doesn’t need a crowd; it only needs a space. Players play for themselves, and audiences subsequently are treated to a musical form dependent solely on passion and devotion.

The TNT trio played several originals, standards, and interpretations. Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Called Love” and an original tune titled “Sycorax” were some of the crowd’s favorites.

Beyond playing standards and original compositions, jazz musicians often play songs that they carry a sentiment for. These songs are often recognizable, but they give performances and their player’s personality. Friday, Tenia Nelson played her version of “Pure Imagination.”

The song, written for the screen for the 1971 film Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, rates among Tenia’s favorites. She didn’t interpret the song nor add or subtract anything from the original composition. Tenia just played. A song like “Pure Imagination” needs no alternative presentation. Knowing this, Tenia and her bandmates let the song breathe in a way only great musicians know how. 

The Trio played to a small Friday morning crowd as if they were playing to friends and family. No spectacles to behold and no reasons to gasp, the band gave their audience every reason to close their eyes and simply listen. 

Nelson acknowledged that the jazz industry lacks women but also acknowledged that it’s getting better “little by little… The more the merrier.” Recently awarded the Pathways to Jazz grant for 2019, the trio is using the money to fund their second album.

Tickets for Dazzle’s Women in Jazz series will remain available throughout the next two months, and audiences are invited to come down and enjoy some of the city’s best jazz in Denver’s best jazz club. The food’s pretty good, too.

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