"My voice is more mature, giving me more control"
"Just Call It Love", the fourth studio album by Dennis van Aarssen and composer-pianist Jeff Franzel, represents the musical growth of the singer who once won The Voice of Holland as a crooner. Eleven captivating tracks, lyrically more mature with greater emotional depth, while the arrangements are deliberately kept small and intimate. Dennis's warm, resonant voice sounds fuller and more colorful than ever. Dennis; "My voice is more mature, giving me more control. The songs are more fragile, so it's not about the power, but rather the nuances. It has become an intimate jazzy pop album."
For "Just Call It Love", scheduled to be released in March 2024, a different concept has been chosen compared to the previous big band albums. Most tracks are based on the combination of piano and vocals, while other songs are enriched by arrangements with guitar, drums, bass, and cello. With this approach, the singer has ventured into a crossover of refined pop and jazz. The unique collaboration with Jeff Franzel, a composer and pianist who has previously worked with legends like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Mel Tormé, and lyricist Maria Christensen, who has written lyrics for artists such as Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez, remains unchanged.
Jeff Franzel , who has written over 20 top international singles with artists such as Josh Groban, N’SYNC, Taylor Dayne (‘Don’t Rush Me’ - charting at #2) and The Temptations, remarks; "Maria and I have earned our stripes not only in jazz but also in the world of pop music. And Dennis, well, Dennis can sing virtually any genre. While his identity as a singer is anchored in jazz, he can easily transition to pop. So, how beautiful is it to work in the genre where pop and jazz meet? Especially since it allows us to appeal to a broader audience."
From their first meeting in 2019, it was clear that the young Dennis and the experienced Jeff had a musical and creative connection. The seed for a joint album as a duo may have been unintentionally planted during their initial songwriting sessions. Dennis explains; "After two big band albums and the Christmas album, we all agreed that now was the time to make that piano album. The idea had been there for a while, but the timing is just right now. I'm really ready for this change with the choice of more intimate songs. I prepared for this album even better than I always did, for example, by taking demos to my vocal coach. Listening together and discussing how things could be improved. That automatically elevates it to another level."
Adding to this, Jeff says; "In music, it's about working with young talent, especially for people of my age. Dennis blew me away with his incredible voice. He's also an artist who can connect with the audience. It felt right from the first meeting. The initiative for this album came three years ago from Dennis's management. The idea was to record an acoustic album with original songs from the both of us. I thought it was a fantastic idea right away. This album now feels like the right project at the right time for the both of us. In fact, I'm simply very proud of this album and the fact that we present it as an artistic duo."
Regarding the collaboration and songwriting process with Jeff and Maria, Dennis says; "We start with a blank sheet and first share our ideas with each other. It can be a concept or a sentence. Maria and I discuss the content, and naturally, it becomes clear what we want to focus on. Then we ask Jeff how he feels about it, and he starts playing. It clicks immediately. And if not, we adjust. A different tempo or a different chord. This slowly creates a chord progression over which I will sing. The arrangements are also done collaboratively. We listen to all the demo versions and note down what each of us envisions. Originally, we were only going to do vocals and piano, but while listening, you discover that sometimes a cello, guitar, or rhythm section is needed."
"We were going to record a piano and vocal album," adds Jeff. "But ultimately, we felt that some songs needed additional arrangements because the songs simply called for it. Of course, Dennis also had ideas about arrangements, but if there's one element I would highlight, it's his lyrics. Dennis has grown tremendously in that aspect over the years."
Spot-on in One Take
Dennis, Jeff, and Maria wrote more songs than the eleven that made it onto the album, but according to Dennis, the song selection process was relatively quick: "The puzzle fell together very quickly. The three of us had the same top six songs. Additionally, there was room for a cover. That became 'Waiting For Tonight' by Jennifer Lopez, for which Maria wrote the lyrics. I thought it was great to take a dance track and pull it into our concept. It certainly isn’t a dance track anymore, but it still has a certain vibe. Maria is by far the best lyricist I've ever been in the studio with. She comes up with sentences that, as a Dutchman, I could never think of. Of course, it's the chemistry between all three of us, but Maria is as indispensable as Jeff."
However, the album features a second cover: "She" by Charles Aznavour. Dennis explains; "My version of that song just exploded online at the end of the summer of 2023. It went viral on TikTok and Instagram. On an album with songs about love, this song fits perfectly. Since we still had studio time, we asked Jeff to do 'She' again. Jeff worked out all the music in the evening, and we recorded it the next day. Just one take. It was spot-on immediately."
The album was recorded in two and a half days at the renowned Sear Sound Studio in New York. Dennis; "Gregory Porter had just finished his recording session there before us. I immediately felt comfortable with a super-friendly and helpful crew. Jeff had prepared everything musically very well, and everything the studio musicians played was perfect."
Regarding the choice of the studio, Jeff notes, "The fact that it was recorded in just two and a half days certainly contributes to the spontaneous nature of the album. The Sear Sound Studio was the best studio to record in. Two reasons for that; the piano is simply better than in other studios, and the feeling is just right."
"What was different from the previous times we recorded is that I had more ownership," says Dennis. "We were in the studio with some top musicians and a producer, but if there was a discussion to be made, they all looked at me. I definitely had more control, and I explicitly contributed to how I wanted things. That's now also expected more from me. It's part of my process of growth. And that's crucial for a musician, to keep developing yourself."