THE DOZENS: DENNY ZEITLIN by Bill Kirchner

Denny Zeitlin

2009 has been a banner year for pianist-composer Denny Zeitlin (b. 1938). With the release by Mosaic Select of Denny Zeitlin: The Columbia Studio Trio Sessions, most of Zeitlin’s vitally important 1964-1967 recordings are again available after a lapse of four decades. This music (including an abundance of previously unissued material) is the bedrock of his reputation as a jazz musician, notwithstanding the fact that he has continued to play in public and record on a high level up until the present.

Zeitlin has been a practicing psychiatrist virtually the entire time that he has been a recording jazz musician. That double life inevitably has affected the amount of time he has been able to devote to music, and perhaps has prevented certain listeners from taking him as seriously as he deserves. But it should be apparent to anyone with educated ears that Zeitlin is not only an exceptional musician, but an innovative one as well. From the beginning of his recording career in 1963, he has had his own voice as both a pianist and composer. In particular, his Columbia recordings as a leader entitle him to be in the jazz piano-trio pantheon.

Whether Denny Zeitlin’s music is new to you or not, I hope that these twelve tracks will be a revelation. (For further information, go to Zeitlin’s website.)


Jeremy Steig (with Denny Zeitlin): So What

Track

So What

Artist

Jeremy Steig (flute)

CD

Flute Fever (Columbia [LP] CS 8936)

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Musicians:

Jeremy Steig (flute), Denny Zeitlin (piano), Ben Tucker (bass), Ben Riley (drums).

Composed by Miles Davis

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Recorded: New York, October 24, 1963

Jeremy_steig--flute_fever_1

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

This was the debut recording of two precocious talents, Jeremy Steig (then 21) and Denny Zeitlin (then 25 and on the verge of completing Johns Hopkins Medical School). Producer John Hammond paired them with the seasoned Ben Tucker (b. 1930) and Ben Riley (b. 1933).

Flute Fever is an inspired ”blowing session” with a repertoire of standards and 1950s jazz classics. Steig’s personal spin on the Roland Kirk/Yusef Lateef school of jazz flute probably will not appeal to those who relish a pristine “classical” approach to the instrument, but on his own terms Steig is a more-than-convincing player. Zeitlin does ear-catching things on every selection, but his most forward-looking solo is on “So What”. The highlight of this track is a piano/drums duet perhaps inspired by John Coltrane and Elvin Jones—Coltrane was already one of Zeitlin’s varied influences.

Though briefly reissued on CD, Flute Fever is hard-to-find and a collector’s item. Here’s hoping that some label will make it available once again.

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


Denny Zeitlin: 'Round Midnight

Track

'Round Midnight

Artist

Denny Zeitlin (piano)

CD

The Columbia Studio Trio Sessions (Mosaic Select 34)

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Musicians:

Denny Zeitlin (piano), Cecil McBee (bass), Freddie Waits (drums).

Composed by Thelonious Monk, Bernie Hanighen and Cootie Williams

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Recorded: New York, February 19, 1964

Albumcoverdennyzeitlinmosaicselectag200

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

For Cathexis, his first of four albums for Columbia, Denny Zeitlin chose the rhythm team of Cecil McBee (b. 1935) and Freddie Waits (1943-1989), two young Detroiters then working with saxophonist Paul Winter. The pair worked well with Zeitlin and conceptually were capable of going in all of the directions the pianist wanted to explore.

This version of Thelonious Monk’s best-known composition ranks among the best interpretations of it. Zeitlin’s already-distinctive voicings and flair for reharmonization serve Monk’s moody piece well, and McBee’s brief solo further enhances it. The gifted pianist Marc Copland alerted me to this recording three decades ago, and it’s lost none of its allure since then.

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


Denny Zeitlin: Stonehenge

Track

Stonehenge

Artist

Denny Zeitlin (piano)

CD

The Columbia Studio Trio Sessions (Mosaic Select 34)

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Musicians:

Denny Zeitlin (piano), Cecil McBee (bass), Freddie Waits (drums).

Composed by Denny Zeitlin

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Recorded: New York, March 6, 1964

Albumcoverdennyzeitlinmosaicselectag200

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

This modal burner deserves to be more widely performed. One reason it isn’t probably has to do with a complex polyrhythmic interlude that requires an authoritative lead sheet to be executed properly. Since Denny Zeitlin’s own lead sheet isn’t commercially available (I have a copy, and trust me, it’s not music you’d want to transcribe), that leaves the piece in limbo.

From a listener’s standpoint, though, this is a compelling performance, and one of Zeitlin’s earliest indications of his gifts as a composer. It has McCoy Tyner-esque sturm und drang, but Zeitlin’s vocabulary is quite different and gives his improvisation a character of its own. The climax is Freddie Waits’ solo over a roaring vamp by Zeitlin and Cecil McBee.

The title refers to the well-known Bronze Age burial ground in Wiltshire, England. As Zeitlin was quoted in Nat Hentoff’s liner notes: I had seen pictures of these tremendous rocks elevated by some unknown means, and the impression led to a certain ritual quality in the piece—including the rise and fall of frenzy.

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


Denny Zeitlin: All The Things You Are

Track

All The Things You Are

Artist

Denny Zeitlin (piano)

CD

The Columbia Studio Trio Sessions (Mosaic Select 34)

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Musicians:

Denny Zeitlin (piano), Charlie Haden (bass), Jerry Granelli (drums).

Composed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II

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Recorded: Los Angeles, October 28, 1964

Albumcoverdennyzeitlinmosaicselectag200

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

After Denny Zeitlin moved to San Francisco in 1964, he formed a working trio with Charlie Haden (b. 1937) and Jerry Granelli (b. 1940) that lasted for two years. Their first album was Carnival, and as remarkable as Zeitlin’s freshman Cathexis album was, his second was a definite step forward. Among its numerous high points was this unique treatment of an oft-performed standard. The “hook” of Zeitlin’s arrangement is the song’s bridge, or middle section—it’s played in waltz time, except for the final two measures, and repeated over and over to build tension before returning to the final A section.

The trio’s execution of this—at times delicate, at other times soaring—is sublime; this is one of the quintessential jazz recordings of “All the Things You Are”. Zeitlin rerecorded his arrangement in the late 1980s with bassist Joel DiBartolo and drummer Peter Donald (Denny Zeitlin Trio Windham Hill Jazz 112), but this slower version is definitive.

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


Denny Zeitlin: Quiet Now

Track

Quiet Now

Artist

Denny Zeitlin (piano)

CD

Shining Hour: Live At the Trident (Sony Japan SICP 972)

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Musicians:

Denny Zeitlin (piano), Charlie Haden (bass), Jerry Granelli (drums).

Composed by Denny Zeitlin

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Recorded: The Trident, Sausalito, CA, March 22-24, 1965

Albumcoverdennyzeitlin-liveatthetrident

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

In Herb Wong's original liner notes for Shining Hour, Charlie Haden was quoted as saying that "Quiet Now" was one of the most beautiful ballads he had ever heard. It's Denny Zeitlin's best-known and most-covered composition; pianist Bill Evans alone recorded it at least nine times. Zeitlin has recorded it four times - never better than here.

This nine-minute rendition is only three choruses long; it's slow and meditative. Zeitlin begins alone, joined gently by Haden and then Granelli. The second chorus belongs entirely to Zeitlin, and in the third Haden and Granelli return to build with Zeitlin to a moving climax. Those who treasure the "vibe" of Bill Evans' immortal Sunday at the Village Vanguard album will especially appreciate this one.

The Mosaic Select reissue of Zeitlin's Columbia recordings doesn't include this album (his third for that label), so for the moment it's available only as a Japanese import. Mosaic promises to rectify this situation - here's hoping they do it soon.

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


Denny Zeitlin: Mirage

Track

Mirage

Artist

Denny Zeitlin (piano)

CD

The Columbia Studio Trio Sessions (Mosaic Select 34)

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Musicians:

Denny Zeitlin (piano), Charlie Haden (bass), Jerry Granelli (drums).

Composed by Denny Zeitlin

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Recorded: Los Angeles, April 16, 1966

Albumcoverdennyzeitlinmosaicselectag200

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

If proof be needed that Denny Zeitlin is a significant jazz composer, look no further than this seventeen-minute epic. It’s the centerpiece of Zeitgeist, the pianist’s fourth and last album for Columbia. Zeitlin’s studies with composer George Russell no doubt influenced him, though “Mirage” sounds nothing like Russell and everything like Zeitlin.

As befits the title, “Mirage” is subtle and atmospheric; it contains two themes, the first of which is complex and polymetric. As demanding as the piece is on the trio’s skills as ensemble players, it’s also a showcase for each as soloists: there are free sections that in turn spotlight the gifts of each player. The best jazz composers (e.g., Ellington, Mingus, Russell) have written for the strengths of their musicians, and Zeitlin follows brilliantly in that tradition.

One wishes that Zeitlin would resurrect and further explore “Mirage,” though it’s difficult to imagine a better performance than this recording.

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


Denny Zeitlin: Dormammu

Track

Dormammu

Artist

Denny Zeitlin (piano)

CD

The Columbia Studio Trio Sessions (Mosaic Select 34)

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Musicians:

Denny Zeitlin (piano),

Joe Halpin (bass), Oliver Johnson (drums)

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Composed by Denny Zeitlin

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Recorded: Los Angeles, March 18, 1967

Albumcoverdennyzeitlinmosaicselectag200

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Denny Zeitlin’s 1964-1966 trio with Charlie Haden and Jerry Granelli was followed by one of similar duration with Joe Halpin and Oliver Johnson (1944-2002). Though relatively obscure, Halpin and Johnson were no less capable than their predecessors, and this trio (documented on half of Zeitlin’s Zeitgeist album, as well as on previously unreleased selections in the Mosaic Select set) produced some memorable music.

As described in Phil Elwood’s original Zeitgeist liner notes, The title refers to a legendary ruler of other dimensions, a man of great mysterious powers in a comic book series. Such exoticism is reflected in Zeitlin’s composition, an up-tempo, stop-and-start piece that evolves into a churning free improvisation. (Johnson’s ability to play both structured and free music served him well after he moved to Europe and became soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s long-time drummer. The little-known Halpin died in the late 1960s.)

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


Denny Zeitlin and Charlie Haden: Ellen David

Track

Ellen David

Artist

Denny Zeitlin (piano) and Charlie Haden (bass)

CD

Time Remembers One Time Once (ECM 1239)

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Musicians:

Denny Zeitlin (piano), Charlie Haden (bass).

Composed by Charlie Haden

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Recorded: Keystone Korner, San Francisco, July 1981

Denny_zeitlin-charlie_haden

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

If Denny Zeitlin and Charlie Haden had played at Bradley’s, the well-remembered Greenwich Village haven for piano/bass duos, this is how they would have sounded. As is, this album memorably documents a reunion of Zeitlin and Haden for a week at San Francisco’s likewise well-remembered Keystone Korner.

“Ellen David” is Haden’s simple sixteen-bar ballad (with a coda at the end), a sort of latter-day “My Ideal”. The duo’s performance is appropriately spare, but it’s so well grounded that every beat has meaning. As the late bassist Red Mitchell aptly put it, “Simple isn’t easy.”

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


Denny Zeitlin: Broadway Blues

Track

Broadway Blues

Artist

Denny Zeitlin (piano)

CD

In The Moment (Windham Hill Jazz 121)

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Musicians:

Denny Zeitlin (piano),

David Friesen (bass)

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Composed by Ornette Coleman

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Recorded: Procito’s, Tacoma, WA, November 20, 1988

Denny_zeitlin--in_the_moment

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Denny Zeitlin has long had an affinity for the music of Ornette Coleman, and he is one of several pianists (others including Paul Bley, Walter Norris, Keith Jarrett, Joachim Kuhn, and Geri Allen) who have best assimilated Coleman’s musical language. He has recorded several Coleman works, including “Lonely Woman,” “Bird Food,” and “Turnaround”.

Zeitlin and bassist David Friesen (b. 1942) collaborated productively for over a decade, and this blistering version of Coleman’s “Broadway Blues” shows the duo at their best. The piece is a blues in intent rather than conventional twelve-bar form (in Coleman’s typically idiosyncratic fashion). Zeitlin and Friesen take the theme apart and explore it from a variety of angles— in effect, deconstructing Coleman’s deconstruction.

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


Denny Zeitlin: They Can't Take That Away From Me

Track

They Can't Take That Away From Me

Artist

Denny Zeitlin (piano)

CD

As Long As There's Music (32 Jazz 32218)

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Musicians:

Denny Zeitlin (piano), Buster Williams (bass), Al Foster (drums).

Composed by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: New York, December 1997

Denny_zeitlin--as_long_as_there_s_music

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

This album marks Denny Zeitlin's first time playing with Buster Williams (b. 1942) and Al Foster (b. 1944). The results were so fruitful that Williams in particular has continued to work with Zeitlin for more than a decade.

Zeitlin's approach to standards typically involves reharmonization, and such is the case here. His interpretation of this Gershwin evergreen, though, goes beyond that. After playing the theme with Zeitlin, Williams and Foster lay out while the pianist plays a chorus that makes fleeting references to both stride and Art Tatum. The tempo then doubles, and the three leap into a double-time improvisation worthy of Bud Powell at his best.

All of this is done without a trace of pastiche. Zeitlin has always been an eclectic, and that quality has been borne out most of all in his approach to repertoire. Here he gives us a welcome insight into his pianistic roots.

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


Denny Zeitlin: Solo Voyage (Suite)

Track

Solo Voyage (Suite)

Artist

Denny Zeitlin (piano, synthesizer)

CD

Solo Voyage (MaxJazz 213)

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Musicians:

Denny Zeitlin (piano, synthesizer).

“In Your Own Sweet Way” composed by Dave Brubeck; “I Should Care” composed by Sammy Cahn, Axel Stordahl and Paul Weston; “Lament” composed by J.J. Johnson; all other compositions in this suite by Denny Zeitlin

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Recorded: Kentfield, CA, April 2003

Denny_zeitlin--solo_voyage

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

For a decade (1968-1978), pianist Denny Zeitlin extensively explored the world of synthesizers and electric keyboards. This resulted in two ambitious "fusion" albums (Expansion and Syzygy for the 1750 Arch label) and culminated in his electric/acoustic/orchestral score for the remake of the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. After 1978, he refocused his concentration on the piano.

In this suite, originally put together to comfort a dying friend, Zeitlin combined original material, free improvisations, and three standards ("In Your Own Sweet Way," "I Should Care," and "Lament"). "Solo Voyage"--played on both piano and synthesizer--is an effective and affecting work that makes a strong case for creative eclecticism. At least, when it's executed with the taste and sensitivity exhibited here.

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


Denny Zeitlin: The Night Has 1000/10,000 Eyes

Track

The Night Has 1000/10,000 Eyes

Artist

Denny Zeitlin (piano)

CD

In Concert (Sunnyside 1206)

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Musicians:

Denny Zeitlin (piano), Buster Williams (bass), Matt Wilson (drums).

“The Night Has 1000 Eyes” composed by Jerome Brainin and Buddy Bernier; “The Night Has 10,000 Eyes” composed by Denny Zeitlin

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Recorded: Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque, NM, December 2004

Denny_zeitlin_in_concert

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

This recording by Denny Zeitlin’s current trio has “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” at its core. However, Zeitlin has extensively augmented the structure with open vamps (including one in 7/4 time) and an entended section of free improvisation. As Zeitlin explains: [It] typifies the way this trio can function as a single organism, patiently and collaboratively developing and working with brand new material in a compositional way. The result is as musical and inventive as one would expect of musicians of this caliber. ’Nuff said.

Reviewer: Bill Kirchner


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