Saddleback alumnus Joe DeRenzo returns to play a jazzy Beatles tribute for Superbug awareness

Sean Irwin

Last Saturday, professional jazz drummer Joe DeRenzo, a Saddleback College alumnus, returned along with his jazz band to play a Beatles tribute concert for “superbug” awareness at Saddleback’s McKinney Theater. Carol Moss organized the concert in conjunction with the Saddleback music department as a musical backdrop to Moss’s ultimate purpose, to spread knowledge about hospital-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the “Superbug” that her 15-year-old son Nile died of two years ago.

The second group to perform had recorded the Nile’s Project CD, another source for spreading MRSA awareness, and was made up of several personal friends of Nile Moss and his family, according to Rod McNeill, the band leader. Band members range from Nile’s own father Ty Moss on bongos and auxiliary percussion to his music teacher Carlos De La Paz on lead guitar to Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez of Oingo Boingo fame on drums. This group appeared as the night’s final act, following a short seminar from Carol Moss about MRSA and her fight to bring MRSA prevention legislation to California. This final set included a pair of show stoppers, a Rhythm and Blues version of The Beatles’ “Let it Be” and a more traditional version of Carlos Santana’s ecstatic 1971 hit single “Everybody’s Everything”, which Ty Moss co-wrote, McNeill said. Everybody on stage took an instrumental solo during this last song except Joe DeRenzo, who had joined the group for its finale. This demonstrates the same modesty and restraint that made his earlier Beatles tributes wonderful.

Joe DeRenzo, who Moss called “a great friend” of the family, provided the real treat of the night with his Beatles tribute jazz band. DeRenzo’s winding career has taken him from music to acting to photography back to music again, and the title of his latest album, “Core Beliefs,” reflects DeRenzo’s philosophy that he’s returned to a profession that means a lot to him. DeRenzo said that the The Beatles were an influential group for him from a young age. Jazz is another of his oldest loves, and DeRenzo said his experiences in Bill Kirk’s Night Band in 1976 here at Saddleback have had some of the greatest impact on his personal musical style.

Though the vast majority of the Beatles’ catalog bears dual writing credit from both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, many of Saturday evening’s pieces are adaptations of Beatles songs written primarily by McCartney, according to DeRenzo.

“Paul was heavily influenced by Broadway,” DeRenzo said, and this sort of musical background “translates well to jazz.” He arranged his Beatles tributes along with the band’s pianist, Tom Zink, who originally met DeRenzo here at Saddleback. If it was easy to write better music than the Beatles, DeRenzo said, he might be doing that instead. “We’re not trying to impress anybody,” he said. Apparently, DeRenzo and his band simply can’t help it.

The band opened with Beatles standard “Blackbird” followed by “Because,” both Lennon/McCartney pieces, firmly establishing the mellow tone of the evening. The band consisted of Tom Zink at the keyboard, Ron Stout on trumpet, Penny Watson on saxophone, Ernie Nunez on the upright bass, Brian Hughes on guitar, and Joe DeRenzo himself on drums. The music thus far had been very good. The band meshed well and DeRenzo was true to his word about the atmospheric presence of the rhythm section set against the instrumental melodies, always supporting the rest of the band without isolating themselves.

But most instrumental jazz bands can play a decent Beatles arrangement: the true test of the band was how it functioned once the vocalist, Anne Walsh, entered the mix. She joined the band for “Fool on the Hill,” and it was at this point that I convinced of the band’s true excellence. Walsh sang well, with an ornamental jazz style that remained accessible, never degenerating into the lounge style that has killed so many Beatles tributes in the past. More importantly, she never disturbed my inner Beatles snob, but rather connected well with my inner jazz snob.

DeRenzo’s group played some of the most beloved Beatles tunes, and they played them well. In “Norwegian Wood,” guitarist Hughes honored George Harrison and his obsession with all things India with a solo played on what sounded like an electric sitar. DeRenzo translated McCartney’s orchestral masterpiece “Eleanor Rigby” into a darkly satisfying, percussion-heavy number.

Many have attempted to cover th Beatles in the past. Entertainment media such as Rolling Stone and VH1 frequently refer to McCartney’s “Yesterday” as the number one most recorded pop song, and I’m happy to say that DeRenzo’s group managed the piece quite effectively. It was their penultimate piece, and Tom Zink, excellent all evening, used this song to show off a greater breadth of piano chops in an extensive and complicated solo. Zink made it look easy even as it sounded quite difficult. The jazz fans in the audience particularly appreciated his efforts, and I’m certain I heard an enthusiastic “OH YEAH” from somewhere in the rows behind me. I half expected a chorus of beatnik finger-snap clapping. It wouldn’t have felt out of place.

It’s fair to say that Beatles fans are some of the more notorious for criticizing other bands’ tribute and cover attempts, but there was little or nothing I heard in Saturday night’s set that would embarrass or annoy any open-minded Beatlemaniac.

And coming from a huge Beatles fan, this is high praise. DeRenzo rounded off his set with a Latin Jazz rendition of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” possibly a shout-out to Ringo, who originally sang this, but also to solidify the night’s message of friendship and love for Nile Moss, and of spreading information about MRSA to help prevent it in the future.

Jazz is a vast term, and its definitions range from its simpler blues and ragtime origins to the breakneck speed and complexity of bebop from the 50s and 60s, and DeRenzo’s set had a little of everything. The songs were arranged to be “mellow” and “atmospheric,” words that probably came as comfort to anyone in the audience who don’t consider themselves jazz aficionados, or those who simply prefer the gentler, classier jazz than the frenetic and experimental. Instead, DeRenzo and his band have clearly treated their source material with the respect and reverence Beatles fans demand, and this appears to be a great formula for a great Beatles tribute.