The Jazz.com Blog
March 22, 2009 · 1 comment
In the early 1980s, Gene Lees surveyed more than 60 jazz pianists to find out which keyboardists they most admired. He asked them to pick the "best," the "most influential" and their "personal favorites" from the entire history of jazz, including both living and deceased artists. The results were dominated by the expected names: Art Tatum topped the list of the "best" and "most influential"; Bill Evans was most often cited as the "personal favorite." Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock and the other "usual suspects" also appeared on the list.
Yet Dr. Denny Zeitlin's name figured prominently on the various ballots, with especially high markings when these elite pianists were asked to pick their personal favorites—a result all the more surprising since Zeitlin had spent his entire career as a part time musician.
Early on, he had decided on a calling in medicine, and had relegated jazz to a "sideline." His dual career brings new meaning to the term "multitasking." I have been around many brilliant, achievement-oriented people in my life, but Denny makes my short list of the most impressive individuals I have encountered. By the way, I once sat next to a medical expert on a plane, who knew Denny only as a doctor. She was amazed to learn from me that he had done so much in the jazz world, given how well he is respected in the medical field. And jazz fans may not know about Zeitlin's formidable reputation as a wine connoisseur. The more you learn about him, the more you will wonder: "When does he find time to practice?"
When I wrote my book The History of Jazz a few years back, I called attention to Zeitlin's work, and made a case for his importance in the evolution of the jazz keyboard and modern piano trio. I saw that he had been applying techniques back in the 1960s that strikingly foreshadowed cutting edge jazz piano approaches of later decades. If you wanted, you could even come up with some colorful angle, and call Dr. Zeitlin the "Brad Mehldau of 1964" or the "forerunner of the ECM sound" or concoct some other generalization, touching on this futuristic element in his playing. Yet with Denny, all labels of this sort are merely vague approximations, and the best way to understand what his music represents is to listen to it carefully.
Nonetheless I knew that the readers of my book would have few chances to appreciate his artistry. It wasn't just because Zeitlin seldom performs (and very rarely in the New York clubs where the opinion leaders of the jazz world congregate), but even more due to the scandalous state of his recorded legacy.
(1) The obvious place to start in listening to Zeitlin was his debut as a sideman on Jeremy Steig's recording Flute Fever. When this album was released, Bill Evans praised it lavishly in a Blindfold Test in Downbeat. But these days you won't find it easy to hear this music—Steig's album has been out of print for ages.
(2) The next place to go would be Zeitlin's piano trio recordings for Columbia, made under the direction of John Hammond. These are the albums that established Denny's reputation in jazz circles, and serve as the cornerstone of his oeuvre. Good luck finding them. Columbia / Sony never released these sessions on CD, and they were taken off the market in LP format shortly after they were issued.
(3) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Zeitlin plunged into new waters, mixing electronic and acoustic currents, odd time meters, tight and loose improvisational structures—the whole nine yards, so to speak. His indie label 1973 release Expansion earned a glowing five star review in Downbeat, which proclaimed it "a masterpiece." By any measure, this was one of the most exciting jazz albums of the era. But this LP soon became even harder to find than the Columbia releases. It is still out of print.
(4) Zeitlin's follow-up Syzygy from 1977 showed his keyboard conception continuing to evolve in exciting new directions. But don't even try to find a copy of this release. You will have a better chance of getting a 1955 double-die penny in your change at McDonald's.
(5) Columbia recorded Zeitlin in a two-piano format with Herbie Hancock in 1982 at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. Only one track was ever issued, and it soon disappeared from the market. There is at least one more track that was never released. I was at the concert and can attest to the importance of this music, but I have given up any hopes of seeing it issued on CD.
(6) The next year, Zeitlin participated in a double-album tribute to Bill Evans, produced by Herb Wong, and featuring what is probably the most impressive list of jazz keyboardists to ever collaborate on a single project. In addition to Denny, the performers included Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John Lewis, George Shearing, McCoy Tyner, Teddy Wilson, etc. This LP quickly went out of print and is unavailable on compact disk.
To sum up: Zeitlin put together a stunning body of work as a young man, but almost no one has heard it. Fans haven't heard it in decades and even many critics don't know about it . . . and they could hardly even find this music if they wanted to check it out. It almost seemed as if some perverse deity was determined on erasing Denny Zeitlin's contributions to jazz during the key early decades of his career.
This turn of events disappoints me as a jazz writer, but even more as a fan. These Zeitlin recordings are the kind of music I put on the CD player for my own personal enjoyment. But, for the most part, they haven't been made available on CD, and my LPs now have more snaps, crackles and pops than a cauldron of Rice Krispies during a milk storm.
Yet finally the cruel fates have relented, and in a wonderful turn of events, Mosaic has started reissuing the Zeitlin trio sides from the 1960s—and not only the previously released material, but also top notch outtakes that even Denny had forgotten about. The recent Mosaic three CD set includes music recorded for Cathexis, Carnival and Zeitgeist, and represents the complete studio sessions from the period 1964-67. I was sad to see the fine Shining Hour: Live at the Trident tracks omitted from the compilation. But this disappointment was more than compensated by Mosaic's promise to issue these at a later date, along with an "abundance of unreleased material" from this 1964 live album.
So I still have more than a few tracks on my wish list for future release. But for the time being I am celebrating. Finally, the Zeitlin studio trio sessions from the 1960s are available to the jazz world. . . .
This is the end of part one of Ted Gioia's article on Denny Zeitlin. For part two of this article, click here.