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Denny Zeitlin: Columbia Sessions

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Up until now, listening to pianist Denny Zeitlin has been for me like wandering around inside a giant acrylic crystal. No transparent surface in there travels in a straight line, so it's easy to slip off the wall and onto your back, unsure if you're looking up or down. For many years I avoided Zeitlin's recordings, either because the commitment needed to find cohesion was too great or because I just assumed that much of what I heard from one album to the next was just variations on the same giant helix.

Then a few months ago, Mosaic Records issued Denny Zeitlin: The Columbia Studio Trio Sessions, which were recorded in the early 1960s. Before giving the three-CD set a listen, I asked a friend about the importance of the recordings, not having ever owned them. “There aren't many jazz albums where you can hear the heart and brain playing duets," he said. Now, after weeks listening to the Mosaic set upward of two dozen times, I'm pleased to say that this work is as magnificent as it is fascinating.

For those unfamiliar with Zeitlin's early 1960s work, be aware that it doesn't fit neatly in any one category. There are influences here and there, but ultimately these influences are more like sprinkles than streaks. If I were constructing an algebraic formula to give you a sense of the style, it probably would go something like this: (Bill Evans x George Russell + Don Friedman) x Andrew Hill. But even this silly equation is unfair, for Zeitlin in the early 1960s truly created his own genre, which is blazingly apparent on this Mosaic set.

What I love most about these CDs is that each disc is like being taken on a different journey through a dense, magical forest. Rather than tug away from Zeitlin's hand or have a tantrum over structure, it's far more fun to get lost with him, emerging in glades or by streams or at heights where there's a breathtaking view. There's a rational enthusiasm and artistic risk-taking here that's intoxicating.

Zeitlin began medical school at Johns Hopkins in 1960. Already a strong pianist, he played locally with saxophonist Gary Bartz, whose father owned a Baltimore jazz club. Fortunately for Zeitlin, his dorm had a 7-foot Steinway grand, enabling him to practice in between studies.

In 1963, Zeitlin accepted a 10-week psychiatry fellowship at New York's Columbia University. Zeitlin quickly befriended composer George Russell, a relationship that changed his musical outlook, and saxophonist Paul Winter, who introduced him to Columbia Records' producer John Hammond. After hearing Zeitlin play, Hammond signed him to a record deal, teaming Zeitlin with Jeremy Steig on Flute Fever.

In February 1964, Zeitlin recorded Cathexis, his first leadership date, with Cecil McBee on bass and Freddie Waits on drums. The word cathexis is from the Greek and means a concentration of emotional energy on a person, object or idea, which perfectly defines Zeitlin's approach. The album is comprised of a restless quilting of originals and standards that constantly surge and seduce. So Soon, Nica's Dream and 'Round Midnight, for example, bristle with rush-hour chord densities and scrambling melodies that capture the songs' frames and spirit rather than an exact likeness.

Unlike many modal artists of the period who relied on pounding percussive bass-clef attacks, Zeitlin prefers to hang out high in the treble zone. His fidgety, headlong technique holds you fast. The high point on this first disc is Blue Phoenix, Parts 1, 2 and 3. The chord structures and moods created are wonderful.

Writes Zeitlin in his liner notes for the new Mosaic box:

“I remember bringing the finished LP over to Bill Evans' apartment for his critique. I felt emboldened to call him, since he had mentioned my 'great' playing on Flute Fever in a Down Beat Blindfold Test. He loved the trio album, and encouraged me to 'keep doing my own thing.' In this early phase of my recording career, the encouragement of people like Billy Taylor, George Russell and Bill Evans was tremendously inspiring."

But after Cathexis was released, touring was out, since Zeitlin had to move to the West Coast for his internship at San Francisco General Hospital. Soon after relocating, he began gigging with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jerry Granelli. The trio recorded Carnival for Columbia in October 1964 in Los Angeles. The album has a slightly more sensitive sound than Cathexis, with Zeitlin surging and reflecting. Standards like The Boy Next Door and All the Things You Are become Zeitlinized, as they're taken apart and reassembled with almost cinematic drama.

Zeitgeist was the third studio album. Part of the date was recorded in April 1966 with the same musicians from Carnival. The balance was recorded almost a year later, with Joe Halpin on bass and Oliver Johnson on drums. The studio recording was interrupted by a series of gigs and a live album (Shining Hour) as well as Zeitlin's ever-demanding and ongoing medical residency.

Zeitgeist is perhaps the most Evansian of the three Columbia albums. You can hear the influence of Bill Evans most distinctly on Put Your Little Right Foot Out and Here's that Rainy Day. But since Zeitlin was first to record the latter song in 1967 (Evans took it on as a solo piece in 1968), you wonder how much of an influence Zeitlin had on Evans at this point. Also interesting is Zeitlin's beard, a look Evans would assume years later.

There are revelations on these Columbia dates. During my intensive listening sessions, it dawned on me that the pianist was less interested in a song's melody and much more focused on exposing its personality. This really is quite extraordinary. Most pianists of the period, including Evans, took a standard and deconstructed the melody, drawing on harmonies, swing and chord changes to express improvisation. Or like Andrew Hill, they chose to make a fabulously percussive and deeply political statement.

Zeitlin, by contrast, treats each song like a patient--probing and evaluating the traits that make the composition tick. Eventually he fully exposes its natural behavior. On these Columbia sessions, Zeitlin either consciously or unconsciously put songs on the couch. What you hear are a song's disorders, pleasure principals and rage. Through Zeitlin, we learn that a song's id is a beautiful thing.

JazzWax tracks: Denny Zeitlin: The Columbia Studio Trio Sessions is a three-disc set available as part of the Mosaic Select series. You'll find it here. The set is extraordinary both for Zeitlin's musicianship and technique, and for the powerful influence he had on so many pianists who followed in the 1960s and 1970s.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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