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Starting Fresh

Paul Renz left his jazz career in Virginia and has spent the last few years creating one in Minneapolis

A few years ago, jazz guitarist Paul Renz did what every musician dreads: he pulled up stakes in a place where he had established a bustling career and moved across the country to a place where he knew no one. The strain of that move is still evident in his voice today, although his words are peppered with ambition, tenacity and passion. “It was kind of gut-wrenching to leave Virginia, which had been my home for a long time,” said Renz. “It’s incredible how much work it takes for a musician to start afresh. It’s evolutionary, not something you do instantly. It’s not something I would ever like to repeat.”

Today, in Minneapolis, Renz has established a busy career as a jazz musician. He is the director of jazz studies at the West Bank School of Music, which credits him with bringing a new focus and energy to its rapidly developing jazz program. He teaches private lessons as well as three jazz ensembles. He also teaches at MacPhail Center for the Arts.

Renz and his quartet perform several times a year at the Loring Café and Dakota Bar & Grill, and they recently released a new CD, “Dish It Up,” a lively collection of bebop by Charlie Parker, a well-loved standard by Fain & Webster and several fascinating new compositions by Renz. The group recorded the CD shortly after an East Coast tour last winter. “What I’m focusing on is touring more,” said Renz. “I’m exploring markets all over the world: Montreal, Scandinavian countries, Japan. I would like to try to tour for a month at a time. I’m caught in this place where I want to be nationally recognized so you cannot play regularly in your hometown because you don’t want to saturate the market “For me, it kind of works out the way it should by playing just a few concerts at the Dakota and the Loring. On one hand it would be great to have a regular gig, but I also teach full time and have a family and like to compose, so I have to balance it all.”

Renz’s professional journey has been an unusual one. He initially decided against college and instead focused on a performing career in the Tidewater area of Virginia. “I had a nice touch and good technique and I was a good band leader. But I was an unsophisticated player and my knowledge of theory was pitiful. I didn’t want to shake up my life so significantly, but I did when I was 29 and it was a profound thing.” The “it” was the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he began his undergraduate studies at the age of 29. He then earned a master’s degree at New England Conservatory of Music. “It changed my life,” said Renz of his college experience. “I lived like a monk. I ate, drank and slept music 16 hours a day for six years. It was what I call essential isolation. I was reclusive and I led a contemplative life where I could intensely apply myself to study.”

After earning degrees, Renz moved back to Norfolk, Virginia and established himself as a leader in the jazz scene. In 1993, when his wife was offered a job with Martin Williams Advertising in Minneapolis, the couple headed north. He exhausted himself with auditions and interviews. “It was tiring and discouraging, but I had to be tenacious,” said Renz of his first few months in town. West Bank School of Music took notice of him and hired him as a jazz instructor. “Actually, they had no jazz program, just a couple of instructors,” said Renz. “I told them what I wanted to do and they hired me. They hadn’t had somebody so industrious at that point.” It took another year to be hired by MacPhail, where he now has a bustling teaching schedule.

Along the way, Renz has distinguished himself as a gifted jazz composer. His works can be heard on the “Everlasting” CD, released in 1996, and on the “Robert Black Conducts” CD by the Silesian Philharmonic Orchestra, a world-class symphony based in Poland. “Everlasting” features all original material by Renz. For the Silesian Philharmonic CD, Renz’s former professor, William Thomas McKinley, chose him to compose a work alongside other leading contemporary U.S. composers.

While he loves composing, Renz said that often takes the backseat to teaching and performing. “I don’t have time to do everything. I have to prioritize. My hands are on my instrument six hours a day because I teach all the time and perform as much as I can. But composing is periodic. I really need quietude.”

Renz said he has found an active jazz community in the Twin Cities, but that “characteristic of all big cities, there is an abundance of great players and few places to play.” “The trend is not to go out to clubs and hear live music. People are more sedentary,” he said. “I’m combating that. My students and audiences reflect hope because people want human contact, live music. You can sense how productive and nourishing it is.”

-Kathy Graves, Southwest Journal, Arts Spotlight, June 25, 2001

Paul Renz’s jazz chops haven’t cooled off in frozen north

For jazz guitarist, composer and educator Paul Renz, the most difficult thing about departing Hampton Roads for Minneapolis was leaving close friendships and one-of-a-kind opportunities behind. Friends like the Virginia Symphony musicians who premiered his several string quartets and the leaders at the Tidewater Classical Guitar Society who commissioned his original music. Opportunities like teaching at Tidewater Community College, founding the jazz program at the Governor’s Magnet School for the Arts and performing extensively in the region for more than a decade. This weekend, Renz will have the opportunity to reunite with old friends as he brings his jazz quartet to Norfolk for a two-night stand at the Bienville Grill. Renz will also teach a master class at the Governor’s Magnet School on Friday. “It was a difficult decision to leave,” Renz said recently from his Minneapolis home, “to sever my ties in Norfolk which were and still are considerable. I was very much a part of the artistic and cultural life of Hampton Roads.”

But in 1993 Renz’s wife, a native Midwesterner, received a job offer too spectacular to turn down, so the couple started packing. It took Renz a full year “to get things rolling” for himself in Minneapolis, but he now teaches at three schools. He is the director of jazz studies at the West Bank School of Music, a jazz guitar instructor at MacPhail Center for the Arts and artist-in-residence at St. Mary’s University. He also teaches private students-young musicians who want to learn music theory and improvisation-20 hours a week. Add a regular performance schedule and Renz is busier now than when he left Hampton Roads. “I’m extremely lucky to be doing something I love,” he says.

Renz’s appearance in Norfolk is part of an East Coast tour that will find him performing in St. Louis, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and other cities. He is not touring in support of album-his first jazz CD, “Everlasting,” came out in 1995-but he will be recording after the tour is over. Renz’s jazz pieces, for all their sophistication, sport a sound most anyone can enjoy. Renz chalks it up to where he’s coming from as a composer. “I’m a romanticist, I’m very melodic, in contrast to being an avant-garde composer or someone that’s producing music that’s less accessible. The truest music that comes from me is generally accessible.”

One of Renz’s classical works, “A Symphonic Poem,” can be heard on a 1994 compilation CD of modern composers entitled “Robert Black Conducts” on MMC Records. “Poem” is performed by the Silesian Philharmonic Orchestra of Poland, a world-class European symphony. The work was commissioned by the renowned composer William Thomas McKinley, under whom Renz studied. “It was thrilling…revelatory…very moving,” Renz said of hearing his composition performed and recorded in Poland by the Silesian Philharmonic. “It’s so big. When a composer composes it’s in complete solitude. To hear that for the first time, it was truly remarkable.”

-Sue VanHecke, Virginian Pilot, November 2000

Renz Appointed Artist-In-Residence

The St. Mary’s University, Minneapolis campus, has appointed Paul Renz Artist-In-Residence. The appointment represents a serious effort to broaden the curriculum to include study of the arts and music in particular. Renz is the Director of Jazz Studies at the West Bank School of Music and also teaches at MacPhail Center for the Arts.

-Twin Cities Jazz Society, Jazz Notes, December 1999

Paul Renz appointed Director of Jazz Studies

The West Bank School of Music announces the appointment of Paul Renz to the newly created office of Director of Jazz Studies. As Director, Renz will be overseeing the rapidly developing jazz program at the school, increasing its offerings and faculty and bringing a new focus and energy to the program. While jazz has been a focus of the West Bank School of Music since its inception in 1970, Renz is committed to bringing the program to a new level, aiming to make it the best in the Twin Cities.

In his three years as an instructor at WBSM, Renz has been instrumental in the growth of the jazz program at the school. His Jazz Improvisation classes have been the entry point for many students into the realm of jazz and he has molded several student ensembles into fine performing groups, most recently seen at several gigs at Pepito’s Restaurant in Minneapolis. It is Renz’s commitment to professionalism and his exacting yet accessible teaching style which led the WBSM Board of Directors to appoint him to spearhead this important effort.

Paul Renz graduated summa cum laude from the prestigious Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, where he made the National Dean’s List and was listed in ‘Who’s Who Among Students at American Universities and Colleges 1984-1985.’ He began his teaching career as a tutor at Berklee, then became a gifted student teacher at the Governor’s Magnet School for the Arts in Virginia, the music director at Camp Encore/coda in Maine, and an instructor at Tidewater Community College in Virginia.

Renz’s compositions include both jazz and classical works from string quartets to pieces for solo jazz guitar. His recordings include: Everlasting, by The Paul Renz Quintet (1996 Walker Records); A Symphonic Poem (1992, MMC Records); and Introducing Paul Renz, Jazz Guitarist (1992). His publications include An Introduction to Sight Singing (1991) and Nine 2-Part Inventions for Piano (1987). Twin Cities jazz critic Tom Surowicz wrote, “Paul Renz’s music is a kick! It’s a fresh, breathing, surprising, tune-filled, character-to-spare personal amalgam of so much that’s so fine about modern mainstream jazz.”

In addition to his duties as Director of Jazz Studies, Renz teaches classes in Jazz Theory, Jazz Improvisation, and The Joy of Sight Singing, as well as private lessons in jazz guitar and bass, and leads his three student jazz ensembles.

For information on West Bank School of Music, please call 612-333-6651.

-Twin Cities Jazz Society, Jazz Notes, 1996

Paul Renz Quintet

The debut gig of a curious and promising new band. Leader Renz has successfully straddled the classical and jazz worlds for the last couple decades. His melodic and beguiling 1992 Symphonic Poem was recorded by the Silesian Philharmonic Orchestra (of Poland) on MMC Records of Massachusetts. Ten years earlier, Renz starred on Introducing Paul Renz, Jazz Guitarist. These days, he’s concentrating on bass, and preparing for the release of an all-original CD of well-scripted 90’s bop jazz. Tonight’s lineup includes a host of capable local improvisers: Gary Berg (sax), Skatet and Size Six member Jon Pemberton (trumpet), David Singley (guitar), Renz (bass) and Ronald Edgar (drums). 8 p.m., Dakota Bar & Grill, Bandana Square, 1021 E. Bandana Blvd., St. Paul.

-City Pages, Tom Surowicz, July 1995

Work those bows

He’s firmed up your abs, so why not go hear his string quartet? Composer Paul Renz, whose new String Quartet, will be premiered March 12 at the Unitarian Church fund-raiser, is perhaps better known as one of Hampton Roads’ favorite aerobics instructors. Twenty hours a week he holds forth at the Norfolk YMCA, helping trendy downtown yups sweat themselves to a disco beat.

But Renz, a member of Granby High’s Class of ’70, is also a graduate of the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, and now teaches a variety of subjects at the Governor’s Magnet School for the Arts. He has composed a set of two-part inventions, and is thinking about a symphony. But for the time being, the string quartet is challenge enough.

“I love the instruments, I love the intimacy,” he says. “I feel like I could be contented with the string quartet for years.” Renz said he has been influenced by many masters of the form – Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Debussy – but his style is not allied with any particular fad or fashion. “I wouldn’t call it modern. There are definite aspects of romanticism and also a lot of classical underpinnings,” he says, adding that there are also contemporary aspects such as frequent meter and mood changes. And he sometimes uses the blues.

The quartet will be played by members of the Virginia Symphony, on a program that also includes standards by the Paul Renz Trio (with Renz on guitar). The concert begins at 8pm. A donation will be taken.

-Mark Mobley, Virginian Pilot, March 5, 1989

Musician shows a new side

Fresh from earning his master’s degree in composition at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, jazz guitarist Paul Renz will demonstrate his newfound skill in a concert Monday at the Unitarian Church of Norfolk.

This skill, however, may surprise a few long-term Renz watchers. No longer can the Norfolk musician be considered strictly a jazz musician with a reputation for quiet, introspective music that relaxes and draws his audience in. Instead, Renz has expanded his musical talents by tackling the world of classical composition.

Renz is no stranger to local jazz aficionados. The 35-year-old Granby High School graduate has been a highly visible force in the area jazz scene for more than a decade, even though his performing in Hampton Roads has been limited to special holiday concerts for the last five years.

During that time, he has been “eating, drinking and sleeping” music as a student, first at the Berklee College of Music and then at the New England Conservatory. The result of those rigorous studies, however, is Renz’s first major classical composition, String Quartet Opus 1, which will be performed at the concert Monday by members of the Virginia Symphony. Renz’s recently published inventions for piano will also be performed.

But Renz’s jazz fans are not to be disappointed in this annual New Year’s concert. The guitarist will also perform his latest jazz compositions, thereby demonstrating the performance skills he has developed since leaving Norfolk. “The premiering of works though, is new for me,” Renz said. “It took me about two years to write these pieces…but I’m always working on sundry other projects at the same time. What’s interesting is that I play a little classical guitar, but I’m really a jazz guitar player. But now I can compose both types of music.

Now that he’s out of school and “in the real world,” making a living by composing, or performing both types of music, Renz admitted, will be an uphill struggle. “The market is really poor,” he said. “You almost have to be internationally recognized to get a major recording contract, and there’s a lot of luck involved. And there are literally hundreds of people out there, who are quite good, throughout the country. It’s just incredible, the competition.”

But Renz contends he doesn’t have a burning desire to obtain a major recording contract. Because he plays the less popular main-stream jazz of swing and bebop instead of rock influenced fusion, Renz said he plans to independently produce his own recordings se he can retain control and be sure it appeals to a more specialized market. His first LP, titled Introducing Paul Renz, Jazz Guitarist, was released in 1982 and received favorable reviews from local critics.

“I have an abundance of material; I could easily do another album,” Renz said. And within the next 10 years, I probably will. But for now, I want to get back into the performing scene. I’m going to take a respite from writing.”

He will also continue to teach privately as well as conduct classes at the Governor’s Magnet School for the Arts. Teaching, Renz said, is definitely in his plans. “As a musician, it’s essential that you do a variety of things to make a living.”

But on Monday, thoughts of earning a living will be far from Renz’s mind, when he gets his chance to showcase his musical creations to a hometown crowd. “The Unitarian Church is really a wonderful setting. It’s one of my favorite places to perform,” he said. “There’s really a very special creative ambiance there. For the last four years, I’ve played a New Year’s concert there whenever I’ve come home for the holidays. But this year should be a little something different. It should be an exciting evening.”

-Joan Stanus, The Compass, January 10, 1988

No frilly jazz, just quiet pizzazz

Jazz Guitarist (PFR-1000)

To anyone with even a passing interest in the local jazz scene, Paul Renz needs no introduction. He’s been a highly visible moving force behind Tidewater’s recent jazz renaissance, and there is hardly a club around that has not at one time or another called upon Renz’ talents.

For his album debut, the 29 year old guitarist has wisely chosen not to stray too far from the familiar territory he’s staked out during the past four years of live performances. With Renz that means mostly quiet, introspective jazz that’s incessantly swinging and totally devoid of fancy frills.

Like his obvious stylistic mentors, Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery, Renz most frequently plies his trade using the compositions of others as the improvisational vehicle. But here Renz has included two of his own tunes, and they provide the album’s most interesting moments.

On both the originals, “Swing” and “You,” Renz augments the basic guitar; bass drums format with a three-piece horn section. With the almost funky “swing,” Renz’ horn arrangements give the tune a punchy Brecker Brothers feel, while on the more tranquil “You,” the horns achieve a more airy ambiance, effectively blending with the earthy swing of Renz’ guitar.

The balance of the album finds Renz in the company of his regular rhythm section, bassist Jimmy Masters and drummer Dave Lemay. There’s an almost instantly discernable rapport among the trio as they work their way through the five jazz and pop standards that round out the LP. They give a lively, upbeat reading to “I’ll Remember April,” and combine just the right amount of rhythm and sensitivity on “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

In live performance, Renz, who will be leaving the area in September to attend Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, makes no attempt to overwhelm or startle his audience. He prefers instead to relax you and draw you in. The same approach is evident on record. The attentive listener will not come away unrewarded.

-Jack Frieden, Virginian Pilot, July 18, 1982