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By Tom Murphy
At an age where most students of music were adopting a methodical paint-by-numbers approach to learning, singer/composer/audio engineer/multi-instrumentalist Amy Denio was already coloring outside of the lines. "I made this, I guess, quasi-philosophical decision not to take lessons," she says. "I decided when I was twelve that I already knew enough about music. And I already liked improvising and just making up my own stuff. I didn't like any repertoire that was presented to me. That's why I nearly failed flute in fourth grade."
Those familiar with Denio's body of work will no doubt agree that her early insubordination to the conventional rules of music theory has yielded happy returns. It has, among other things, resulted in nineteen solo and group recordings that range from lush rock tapestries with supernal voicings to multilingual ethnic raveups, to texturally clamorous meanderings, to free-thinking jazz compositions and everything in between. The largely self-taught Seattleite may not actually use the kitchen sink, but dishwashers and hubcaps often join the instrumental mix as easily as kid-friendly bass grooves. And Denio's voice tends to assume a different persona on each tune, changing from vulnerable, angelic muse to growling, jovial Louis Armstrong. Conceptually, Denio's methodology has also led to the development of "spoot," which serves as the name of her publishing company and tiny record label as well.
To spoot is "to encourage empathy and active listening in all walks of life," according to the liner notes for Denio's Greatest Hits, a recent CD on Seattle's Unit Circle Rekkids that includes selections from now-out-of-print recordings. "Everyone's going to hear something in a unique way," she elaborates. "Whether they like it or not, that's completely up to the individual. But people come into situations saying, 'Oh, this is going to be difficult music; I know I'm not going to like it.' I think it's really necessary to approach whatever you find out there -- outside of that little husk of yourself -- with an open mind."
It's this unorthodox yet open-minded approach to music that has informed the 38-year-old Denio -- and made her the epitome of a creative musician. It's also made her something of a seasoned traveler: During the process of producing her tidbits of radical aural culture, Denio has taken her alto sax, accordion, bass, guitar and four-octave vocal range around the world. Her projects have taken her to Italy, India, Hungary, Estonia, Japan, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. She's collaborated with and studied under revered teachers, including a master kora player and a North Indian thumrisinger.
"I find the greatest musical growth and inspiration happens from playing with people from very different backgrounds," Denio says. "That's how I learn -- by collaborating, sharing ideas and getting pushed in ways that I wouldn't expect. For me, it's a more dynamic way of growth than this kind of static 'I am the teacher and you will follow my rules.' I really relish that."
If certain elements of classical-musical prodigiousness are sometimes attributed to the Mozart Effect, then one might credit Denio's tuneful intelligence to the Charles Mingus or Paul Chambers Effect. Certainly, as the daughter of two jazz bassists, the Detroit native had a prenatal familiarity with jazz and musical improvisation. "I've been singing my whole life," she says. "I'm sure I was hearing bass tones long before I was born, in my pre-formative years." Denio traces a later musical milestone to Colorado Springs in the early Eighties, when she enrolled at Colorado College to study under composer Stephen Scott, known for his alluring prepared-piano explorations. When Scott left the college on a leave of absence, Denio turned to the campus radio station, the electronic music lab and an all-girl rock band. Variously known as the Glad Bags, Friends of Sheep and Random Sheep, the group covered tunes by the likes of Snakefinger and the Clash.
More important, however, was Denio's meeting of dance-music composer Bob Tudor at about the time she took up the saxophone. "He's the one who introduced me to completely free, improvised music," she recalls. In fact, Tudor's nearby log cabin is the birthplace of spoot.
Throughout her musical career, Denio has had to encounter -- and counter -- the attitudes of those wary of music that is, admittedly, difficult to pinpoint. Yet the music itself is anything but difficult. Sure, "Bus Horn Concerto," with the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet and three city buses, is unusual. (The piece was commissioned by the Seattle transit authority to encourage the use of public transportation.) And the odd instrumentation of "Funeral Music," which she recorded with Japanese cohorts FloMoJo, is irreverent instead of somber. But whereas difficult music tends to erect barriers, Denio's exuberance is enticing and inviting.
Tongues, a 1993 CD release on Indiana's Ponk label, is a case in point. "When it came out, I discovered that all these children just loved it," Denio says. "I have an infant friend -- he's now seven, but when it came out, he insisted on hearing that CD, and only that CD, for six months, seven or eight times a day. His poor mother! And then I heard that this room full of fourteen-year-olds in Chicago thought it was the coolest record they'd ever heard."