The Jazz.com Blog
March 30, 2009 · 0 comments
Below is the second installment of my two-part article on pianist Denny Zeitlin. For part one, click here. T.G.
John Hammond, the great talent scout for Columbia, was always on the lookout for artists who broke the rules—he championed Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman in the 1930s and launched the careers of Dylan and Springsteen half a lifetime later. But it would be hard to imagine a less typical auditioning artist than the one who sat on the piano bench in Columbia Record's New York studios that day in 1963.
Denny Zeitlin was in his mid-20s and still hadn't made his first album. While others of his generation had been taking sideman gigs with name jazz bands or scuffling for work in New York, Zeitlin was in Baltimore, studying medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. (In case you don't follow healthcare pedagogy, let me note that this is considered by many as the premier—and most demanding—medical school in the nation.) Zeitlin had traveled to New York not for a gig, or even an audition with Mr. Hammond. He had come to New York for Columbia the University (where he was participating in a ten-week fellowship) not Columbia the record label.
Jack Reilly recently shared an anecdote about auditioning for Columbia the previous day, and having the session quickly come to an end because he wanted to play his original compositions and not standards. Now Zeitlin was in the hot seat, and Hammond must have been impressed. Dr. Zeitlin soon found himself in the strange position of being signed by the label and groomed for jazz stardom, while finishing his medical degree and preparing for his internship at San Francisco General Hospital.
It was inevitable that Columbia and Zeitlin would eventually part ways. The challenges of a dual career prevented Zeitlin from pursuing the round-the-year touring and full time commitment to jazz that studio execs expect from artists on the company's roster. But the music Zeitlin made during this brief interlude ranks among the finest jazz piano work of the era. On his studio projects Cathexis, Carnival and Zeitgeist—long out of print but finally made available on a Mosaic reissue a few weeks ago—and the still hard-to-find Live at the Trident, Zeitlin was redefining the jazz keyboard vocabulary and establishing a conception of the piano trio that strikingly anticipated the later evolution of the music.
I remember talking to Denny some years back about his Columbia recordings, and probing him about the existence of unreleased gems in the tapes. He dismissed the idea, claiming that the there was little of interest beyond the material that had shown up on the albums. And this remained his attitude until Mosaic sent him 17 outtakes from these mid-1960s sessions, of which he approved 15 for inclusion on the new box set. These are not just alternate versions of the master takes, but include original compositions and other new material. By any measure, this Mosaic release (available in a limited edition of 5,000 copies) is now the place to begin in coming to grips with this important pianist.
And why is Denny Zeitlin important? There is the obvious matter of his formidable technical command of the instrument. His touch, his dynamics, his clarity of execution are exemplary. But even more to the point, Zeitlin came to grips with virtually all of the pressing issues facing the jazz keyboardists of his generation. These were matters that most of his contemporaries addressed partially or with varying degrees of success, or (in some instances) tried to ignore. But Zeitlin's penetrating intellect and vision allowed him to find solutions where others merely encountered problems.
These were the looming issues in jazz pianism during the mid-1960s:
(1) How to balance the trade-off between the quest for "freedom" (a pervasive issue of the day) with the value of structure. Zeitlin juggled these two opposed goals with such fluency that he even managed to create a viable rapprochement between them. Someone once tagged him as the "Dave Brubeck of Free Jazz"—and that odd sobriquet is not entirely inappropriate.
(2) How to incorporate longer structural forms into jazz composition while retaining (and enhancing) the vitality of traditional song forms. I can't think of a pianist of this period who did a better job of pushing into longer forms that still were taut and supple—listen to Zeitlin's exceptional recordings of "Blue Phoenix" or "Carnival" or "Mirage" for some very striking examples of this.
(3) How to deal with odd meters in a way that was fluid, idiomatic and not contrived: Zeitlin's work on "Mirage" is especially fascinating. At one point in this piece he follow a structure notated as 3 / 3 / 5 / 5 / 2 / 13 / 4 / 4 / 3 / 3 / 3 / 13. Yet the overall effect is almost of a type of metered jazz without barlines. Once again, it is hard to think of another jazz pianist of this period whose structural thinking was at such a high level.
(4) How to bring orchestral textures into a jazz piano vocabulary that had become thinned out and pared down since the 1940s. The old stride piano players had often derided the bebop keyboardists for being "one-hand" musicians, who could play fast lines with their right hand, but often did little else. In the 1970s, jazz piano would start to reverse directions and bring in a wider range of two-handed techniques. But Denny Zeitlin was already moving in this direction in the early 1960s. Pianists often talk about their chord "voicings"—but this term does not do justice to the full range of textures and sound tapestries that Zeitlin delivers at the keyboard on these Columbia sessions.
In each of these instances, Zeitlin faced the issue head-on, and came up with a robust solution. And, just as important, did so in an integrated, holistic way. Everything he plays has his own personal stamp on it. Nothing comes across as tenuous or forced or merely experimental. Listening to these old tracks, which sound so fresh today, I am reminded of the adage that the experimenting should take place during the musician's practice and preparation, and when the band shows up on stage, the time for experimentation is over. Certainly these Columbia trio recordings reveal a poised artist in complete control of his material, and with a clear idea of where he wants to take it.
A few years later, when synthesizers and electric keyboards captured the attention of the jazz world, Zeitlin was again at the forefront. That music is not included on this set—and who knows when this musician's recordings for the Arch Street label will ever see light of day. But trust me on this: Denny Zeitlin was equally adept at managing the trade-offs between electric and acoustic, the conflict between commercial and artistic considerations, that came to the fore during the 1970s.
Denny Zeitlin has enjoyed a remarkable life by any measure, yet his contributions to jazz have too long been obscured by the fickle decisions of record company execs who have kept the music from the first twenty years of his career out of print. The release of the Mosaic reissue, and a fine new trio CD on Sunnyside, give us a good opportunity to reexamine this artist, and savor anew his contributions to the art form.
This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.